By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
The anemic macaroni and cheese, crusted with its clever little bread crumbs, ruins the whole thing. What were they thinking? It was such a great start: meat loaf, sliced thick and served with stewed tomato sauce, a hot and hearty entrée for a cold winter night. The plate was adroitly classed up with a neat woodpile of haricots verts (a.k.a. skinny French green beans). But then, instead of the rich and gooey pile of macaroni and cheese that the menu seemed to promise, somebody substituted these pathetic naked elbows.
They sit there in their milky apartness, unconnected to one another. What happened to the cheesy blanket of gratin? The bread crumbs are trying to pose as a chewy crust, but they're doing a terrible job. To add further insult, the bland noodles are barely lukewarm. I send my plate back to the kitchen for a warm-up. But I doubt they'll add any more cheese.
Meanwhile, I'm eyeing my dining partner's big, juicy, medium-rare Black Angus strip steak. Crisscrossed with perfect diamond pattern grill marks, the steak is leaning on a haystack of hot fried shoestring potatoes; a disk of chef's butter, flavored with red pepper and cilantro, lies beside it. My eyes go large and plaintive. I sigh a little. If I don't actually let out a low hound-dog sort of whine, then I do so telepathically. Eventually, he gets the message and passes me his bread plate with a big piece of steak and some fries on it. I set in with glee.
3412 W. Lamar
Houston, TX 77019
Region: River Oaks
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Meat loaf: $13.50
Chicken potpie: $12
Pork chop: $14.75
Black Angus strip steak: $17.50
Caesar salad: $6.50
Why did I feel compelled to order the meat loaf? Probably because it's the Tuesday "Meat and Potato Night" special, and that seems like the sort of thing that made the Daily Review Cafe famous.
There was a lot of buzz about the Daily Review Cafe when I first started writing about restaurants in Houston in the summer of 2000. Claire Smith, the founder of that much-beloved institution, left town about the same time I arrived. She sold the restaurant to its general manager, Janice Beeson, in July of that year, setting off a lot of speculation about the fate of the place. Beeson vowed to stick with the status quo, according to an article in the Houston Business Journal, but regulars wondered if things would ever really be the same without the charismatic founding chef.
The Daily Review, as I understand it, managed to be both fashionable in its New American sensibility and down-home in its unpretentious ingredients. Smith's little cinderblock cafe was quite a sensation, receiving accolades in the local and national press. I am sorry I never got to sample the cooking while she was there. But I have remained curious about the place ever since.
And so, at this time of the year when we tie up loose ends, I decided to pay a visit and see how things are going. Obviously, I make a poor judge of how well the Daily Review Cafe has succeeded at staying the same. So on my first visit, I called in a long-standing regular of the joint, former Houston Press columnist and editor Lisa Gray, to testify as an expert witness. Lisa thought that a few framed awards that used to hang on the wall were missing. Other than that, things looked pretty much the same, she said.
At her suggestion, we sampled two of the Daily Review's signature dishes for lunch. They both tasted exactly as Lisa remembered them, and they were both terrific. "DRC Chicken Pot Pie with Fennel, Carrot and Celery in Rich Cream Sauce" was served in a deep dish with a spoon, so I resisted the temptation to eat it the way I usually eat chicken potpie, which is to turn the whole thing over on the plate. The buttery crust was wonderful pushed down into the gravy, and the mild creamy flavors coated my whole mouth. I shoved my nose in to see if it was really "redolent of fennel, carrots and celery in rich cream sauce," a description repeated in every review of DRC I've ever read. It smelled more like creamy chicken soup to me.
The other Daily Review classic was a "Grilled Pork Chop with Potato, Yam and Leek Gratin and Housemade Apple Sauce." The apple sauce was more like a pile of warm cooked apple chunks on top of the thick bone-in chop. The pork was rosy pink and incredibly juicy -- by far the best pork chop I've eaten in several years. The gratin, like the macaroni and cheese, was short on cheese, but the soft root vegetables blended pleasantly anyway. These two simple dishes were so good that I instantly understood the Daily Review's appeal. Comfort food, after all, was one of the most popular culinary trends of the last decade, and here the genre's nostalgic meat and potatoes were twisted and tweaked into something excitingly modern.
"There's a place -- a small place -- for insipid old favorites, just as there is for beach novels and syrupy pop songs," writes William Grimes, the New York Times restaurant critic in an article titled "Into the Mouths of Babes," his rant against comfort food. "Worst of all is the name itself, a damp, sticky, therapy-derived, feel-good term that should be resisted, like elevator music and television evangelists and holidays created by greeting-card companies." Grimes credits the comfort food trend to the 1950s nostalgia of baby boomers who had kids. The menu is a list of "profoundly regressive" dishes that recall "the tastes and textures of infancy." It's baby food, he says. "Macaroni and cheese, no matter how well it's prepared, ranks very low on the food chain." And the best meat loaf you can imagine still isn't very good.