Food of the God
There are two culinary-school lessons I will never forget: 1) Cold roux, hot liquid; hot roux, cold liquid; and 2) Robert Del Grande is God. My chef instructor emphasized the second point so often, in fact, that rumors were widespread. "I heard Del Grande saved his life in the war" went one. But countless doting reviews and critics' fawnings over the years have shown that my instructor wasn't alone in his belief.
Del Grande is certainly a Houston culinary legend. As the city's first bona fide celebrity chef, he almost single-handedly put us on the foodie map. Along with Stephan Pyles and Mark Miller, Del Grande started the Southwest-cuisine revolution that rocked the nation years ago. He dared to serve chiles, moles, cilantro and cumin to the white-tablecloth crowd. Sauced plates and squeeze bottles? Yeah, that's Del Grande.
One person without preconceived notions about Del Grande is my mother. She's never read an article about the man, and no one's tried to indoctrinate her, either. The only thing she's ever heard about his heralded restaurant, Cafe Annie, is what her fellow schoolteachers say: "It's very expensive." She loves Subway sandwiches, microwave meals and packaged salads. When I e-mail her the link to Cafe Annie's menu and suggest she try the roast suckling pig with braised cabbage and candied oranges, she replies, "Gross. A lot of this menu sounds too exotic."
We sit down to dinner on a Monday night, and the dining room is bustling. The staff is attentive. I'm having a Shiner, she's having white wine. Mom wants to order the Caesar salad with chicken and the New York strip. I ask her to please consider something less pedestrian, and we work out a deal. She can get her second choice, the cocoa-roasted chicken, if she'll try an out-there (for her) appetizer. The market soup today is carrot. That'll do. I'm having the quail with foie gras butter and lamb chops with jalapeño mint salsa. Mom's impressed that her water glass is being filled so frequently but wonders why it's tepid. When she notices water with ice on another table, she asks if we have to request it.
I love her as much as my quail. It's cooked perfectly, and the barbecued sweet potatoes with ground spiced pecans are an inspired touch. The foie gras butter tastes like plain ol' butter, but it adds even more moisture to the dish. Mom's carrot soup is poured out of a ceramic tea pitcher over cooked, diced carrots. Fancy. "It tastes like baby food," she says. In truth, it kind of does, although the subtler tastes of fennel and cinnamon probably won't find their way into a jar of Gerber anytime soon.
Mom loves her cocoa-roasted chicken and seems to be warming to this "exotic" fare. Her bird is accompanied by the same grilled sweet potatoes that came with my quail. She thinks the watercress is a garnish and asks if the pumpkin seeds are pine nuts.
My lamb is cooked perfectly. The salsa, with its brunoised jalapeños and fresh mint highlighted by what appears to be a subtle mint oil, is a twist on the traditional. And the pan-roasted shallots, tomatoes and fingerling potatoes nestled underneath are so good, I start wondering if Del Grande created them on the eighth day.
On my second visit to Cafe Annie, I eat lunch with my former boss, who's a sous chef. This guy has worked under both of the other Southwest-cuisine giants, Pyles and Miller. He tends to begin his sentences with the words "When I worked for Mark Miller " The guy is serious about food and doubly serious about Southwest cooking. He once came within inches of firing a cook for cleaning the charred skin of a red pepper off in the sink, violently screaming, "You're washing off the essential oils, jackass!" In the interest of full disclosure, that cook was me.
We arrive at the restaurant in the midst of a wicked rainstorm, 30 minutes late for our reservation. But as it turns out, we have the room to ourselves. He orders the crab tostada. I want the black-bean terrine with goat cheese. We decide to eat half our food and pass the plates to each other. Hey, I notice before the food arrives, there's ice in my water!
The crab tostada is superb. The sweet jumbo lump meat and corn work wonderfully with the fat of the avocado. It's served in the middle of the plate, molded into a cylinder, with crisp tortilla chips sticking out of the bottom. This makes it easy to eat and gives you lots of meat. The black-bean terrine is a clever new take on a dinosaur of a dish. It looks like a slice of terrine but is far too soft to be cooked and cut out of any sort of a mold -- Del Grande is good at making you wonder, "How'd he do that?" The roasted tomato sauce with a touch of cumin and soft goat cheese complement the "terrine" perfectly. "This has got to be a signature dish," says my buddy.
On to the main event. My former boss wants the snapper with roasted corn, corn pudding and green chile vinaigrette. I order the rabbit enchiladas with red chile mole, avocado relish, crema fresca, Spanish rice and refried beans. We're both bowled over by our mouthfuls of food, and neither one of us wants to trade plates. The enchiladas could be a nod to Houston chef-of-the-moment Hugo Ortega of Hugo's, letting him know, "Yeah, I can do that, too." It's as if a spell has been cast over us. "These are the perfect flavors," says Miller's protégé. "You really just can't beat it."
He's heard a rumor that Cafe Annie will soon be moving to a new location, one that looks less like a strip club from the outside. Our waiter confirms this, saying that they're close to beginning construction on a freestanding structure in the parking lot and will soon have a larger banquet space and be able to seat more guests. "Well," I say, "we heard the rumor, so we had to ask." I don't have the courage to ask him if he's ever seen Del Grande walk on water.
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