Best Of :: Food & Drink
by Nishta J. Mehra
When Chris Shepherd first took the helm at Washington Avenue's Catalan, he kept his menu closely aligned with the region for which the restaurant was named, Spain's Catalonia. "I felt I needed to focus on doing Spanish-influenced items," he says. The decision earned him a lukewarm response from diners and critics. Sure, the dining room was lovely, the wine list from sommelier Antonio Gianola was outstanding and the food was good — Shepherd, formerly of Brennan's, certainly can cook — but things at Catalan just didn't click.
"After a certain point, it didn't make sense," says Shepherd. "I realized that what it really should be is a look into our city." And so Shepherd began to play around with the idea of what a distinctly Houston restaurant might look like.
That vision can now be seen rather clearly on the "Street Food" section of Catalan's menu, with its clear shout-outs to the ethnic groups that populate Houston: Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean, as well as hat tips to the restaurant's beginnings and geographic location, with Spanish street food and I-10 East street food, respectively. Oxtail spring rolls, sweetbread tacos — these aren't necessarily an easy sell, but Shepherd insists that pushing his diners out of the box is precisely the fun and challenge of his job.
"You keep pushing and pushing, and they'll go for it, they like it! Ten years ago, when I was at Brennan's, to put foie gras on something was hard — now look at things." The evolution of the Houston dining palate and vocabulary is reflected in one of the many quirks on Catalan's menu, the line item that reads, "add seared foie gras (to anything and we do mean anything)."
Shepherd has taken his knowledge of dishes commonly found far outside the Beltway and presents his interpretations of them to a crowd that may not often head out to taco trucks on Long Point or dim sum dives on Bellaire. "Maybe it gets them to go there," Shepherd muses. "Part of what I want to do is educate somebody — you have this in your own backyard, you can go find these things."
Catalan's transformation into a distinctly Houston restaurant has also meant a shift towards local farmers, growers and fishermen. "You have to look at what's available and go from there," Shepherd insists. He conceptualizes his menu from the ground up, with only 20 percent of what he offers going the other way. "It's not the easiest thing to do," he admits, "but as chefs, I think it's our responsibility to do it...I can give you food that was in the field yesterday, this morning, even."
When available, the restaurant's "Sandbox Tasting," at $80 a person, is a showcase of Houston-area meat, produce and seafood. On a spring visit, Gulf oysters, deep-fried snapper, Asian-style vegetables and various cuts of a heritage pig raised nearby did indeed make dinner feel like a playground.
And so does Catalan's new happy hour, with an irreverent menu that changes weekly — fried bologna sandwiches? Hand-battered hot dogs? A $5 bone marrow service with Galveston salt? "It's called happy hour, you know? I thought it should be fun."
If you ask Shepherd, he'll tell you that, from his view, the Houston dining scene is "going to blow up." With chefs like him, it seems that Houston is well on its way to becoming its own food city, with diverse influences, a laid-back vibe and an eager dining constituent, thrilled to be eating here and not New York, L.A. or Chicago.
One of a host of recent "gastropubs" to pop up around Houston, BRC is the only one that truly hits the nail on the head of this culinary trend. BRC — which, yes, stands for Big Red Cock — serves up not only a small but stunning menu of "pub" food (if a traditional pub were located in the Deep South) but has a rotating menu of craft and micro brews that often can't be found anywhere else in the city. With 28 taps and frequently tapped casks, you won't always find the same beer here twice, but you'll most definitely fall in love over and over again with the finds that Lance Fegen discovers and wags back to the bar. Grab a floppy, dog-eared copy of the leather-bound beer list and peruse the clever descriptions ("biscuity nose") if you aren't quite sure what you want. And don't be afraid to experiment: Most draft beers are only $6 or $7 and you can even get a highly affordable beer flight if you just can't settle on one.
Beware: Not all Alma Latina restaurants are created equal. But if you make it to the correct one — the location on Telephone Road in the Second Ward — your journey will be richly rewarded. Stay away from the breakfast tacos and instead focus on dishes like the hot, vividly flavored menudo or the hearty huevos rancheros. Both will either fuel you for a long day ahead or take the edge off that raging hangover and allow you to salvage what's left of your day, even if you didn't get up until noon. That's right: Alma Latina serves breakfast all day, although they charge a little extra after 10:30 a.m. But the free chips and queso you get with your breakfast more than make up for any convenience charges.
Marco Wiles's latest Italian eatery is linger-worthy. The darkened dining room and menu of small plates feel perfectly authentic, despite the fact that Westheimer in all of its local color is whizzing by outside. Poscol does many things right, but its risottos are the best of all, creamy and decadent without being heavy, simple to look at but complex at first bite. Both the valpolicella (made with red wine) and butternut squash (topped with fried chicken livers) will make you consider licking the plate.
After a lovely meal featuring some of Houston's best seafood, go ahead and indulge that aching sweet tooth with REEF's "No Minors" milk shake.This is not your grandfather's milk shake, nor is it fit for the children. Here, the age-old milk shake gets a kick in the pants, adding brandy and Kahlúa to its delicious ice cream base. Yowzah! It's basically the milk shake version of a Brandy Alexander: creamy and smooth — yet not so rich as to be considered sinful. Portions are large and hearty; we like to add an extra straw and share it 1950s-style.
One thing should be perfectly clear when ordering a dish of ceviche at Ocean's, the new restaurant that has taken over the old Bistro Vino space with panache: This is not the ceviche to which you are probably accustomed. The plates that come out at Ocean's are immense platters, artfully decorated with a few spare pieces of raw fish. The effect is more like sashimi than ceviche, but the taste is wholly Latin-influenced. The rasurado plate hums with the intensity of Serrano peppers mixed with chipotle sauce, the fiery flavors balanced by a creamy slice of avocado on top of each velvety piece of yellowtail tuna (which is the fish that Ocean's recommends with the platter). On an entirely different note, the Oriental plate — recommended with salmon — is elegantly seasoned with ginger, orange juice, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil. When's the last time you ate ceviche that comes with soy sauce?