Kevin Naderi works on a dish at Menu of Menus.
Kevin Naderi works on a dish at Menu of Menus.
Kaitlin Steinberg

Menu of Menus® 2014

Menu of Menus®

Silver Street Station had a lot of new things going on forMenu of Menus®this year. Air conditioning, for one, had people happy to be inside eating warm comfort food from spots likeFrank's Americana RevivalandFish & the Knife. There was a lovely photography show up on the walls as part ofFotoFest. There were new restaurants like VERTS, Heights General StoreandNaradebuting their food for Houstonians, some of whom had never tried it.

But one thing remained the same: Kevin Naderi, chef of Roost, won the competition this year for the third time in a row.

The competition, emceed by Randy Evans of Haven, was fierce — it wasn't clear what Naderi was making until the very end of the 45-minute time limit, while Kevin Bryant, chef of Eleven XI, was very transparent about what he was preparing. In the end, though, Naderi edged out Bryant with his use of the secret ingredient, citrus. The judges all agreed that Naderi put the ingredient to use better than Bryant did, though Bryant's incorporation of the twist ingredient, bananas, with a pistachio mole was masterful.

So Naderi took home the title and the lron Fork (quite a heavy trophy), while Eleven XI's general manager, Joe Welborn, said he'd be working with Eeyore the rest of the week, referring to Bryant's sadness at having been beaten.

For the first course, Naderi served up a simple citrus salad with chile powder, olive oil, radishes, celery and grapes. It was a lovely dish to look at and a great way to showcase the secret ingredient. Bryant made ceviche that he cured in the citrus juice and topped with his signature "caviar" — little rounds of citrus that emulated fish eggs in the way they popped in your mouth.

Next, Naderi made chicken wings with a lemon jalapeño glaze, while Bryant prepared pork wrapped in bacon and stuffed with lemony kale. In this round, Naderi's wings were the clear winner, since they came out hotter and had a wonderfully complex flavor.

For the third course, both chefs had to incorporate bananas into a dish, which sounds nearly impossible for a savory item. I say nearly impossible, because they both did it, though neither banana offering was great. Naderi prepared rockfish on a bed of sliced bananas and a citrusy cream sauce, while Bryant cooked the bananas slightly and served them with quail in a pistachio mole. All the judges agreed: The mole and bananas worked much better than the rockfish and bananas.

The chefs weren't required to make a fourth course, but Naderi did. He attempted to make a dessert using a biscuit in a chai tea and citrus broth and topped with Greek yogurt. He should have stopped at three courses.

Still, the competition was close. For each of the judges, the scores came down to about one point separating Naderi from Bryant, and we had to hand it to the chef of Roost for his inventive dishes and use of citrus.

Elsewhere, the chefs and restaurateurs of the nearly 50 invited restaurants were celebrating the huge crowds and unlimited free wine, beer and cocktails. Each attendee was given a token to vote for his or her favorite restaurant based on the dishes each eatery was serving, and I hear the competition was steep.

Favorites included crawfish étouffée from The Cajun Stop, lobster rolls from Maine-ly Sandwiches and a daring squid dish from Nara. There could only be one winner, though, and the restaurant with the most votes from the crowd was Ciao Bello, which served individual tortellini-style pasta bites with a bolognese sauce and freshly grated Parmesan. It's very appropriate that Ciao Bello won, too, as the No. 1 dish on my list of 100 favorites this year came from that restaurant.

Congrats to Kevin Naderi and Ciao Bello for their big wins, and thanks to everyone who came out to celebrate the amazing food we have here in Houston.

Top 10

Top 10 Oatmeal Cookies in Houston
Just like Grandma makes.

Molly Dunn

While some kids sulked at the sight of an oatmeal cookie in their lunchbox, I rejoiced. I love the chewiness that oats add to a cookie, and I can't get enough of it.

Oatmeal cookies are comforting, sweet and simply a joy to eat. Brown sugar and butter hold together the flour and tender oats to create textural complexity. Classic recipes stick with raisins, while others think outside of the box and throw in a multitude of ingredients, like nuts, chocolate chips, dried fruit, coconut and even crushed cereal. Here in Houston we can find cookies just about everywhere we go. So to help you find the tastiest oatmeal cookies, here are ten you must try.

10. Central Market

For those who enjoy a citrus ingredient in their oatmeal cookies, might we suggest the orange-cranberry oatmeal cookies from Central Market? You get six in a container, each bursting at the seams with sweet-tart cranberries. The cookie has a slight hint of orange, which balances nicely with the oats, brown sugar and cranberries.

9. Dessert Gallery

Dessert Gallery offers a wide variety of treats, but the oatmeal raisin cookies are a sweet treat you can't resist. You can taste the brown sugar in each bite of these large oatmeal raisin cookies. Each is loaded with oats, but you might have to search for the raisins. You'll be a happy camper once you find the soft, sugary raisins.

8. Three Brothers Bakery

At first glance, you might not want the oatmeal raisin cookie from Three Brothers Bakery; it's flat and doesn't look like anything special, particularly when compared to the beautiful black and white cookies or any of the dipped decorated cookies. But Three Brothers creates one of the softest oatmeal cookies in Houston. The oats in this one are tinier than those found in most other oatmeal cookies; it's almost as though they are finely ground. Overall, this is a super-soft oatmeal cookie, from the base to the raisins.

7. The Chocolate Bar

Usually when you visit The Chocolate Bar, you're going for something chocolaty. But we're telling you to get the Cape Cod Oatmeal Cookie, despite its lack of chocolate. This thick, dense cookie (available at the Rice Village location only) is studded with fresh cranberries and loaded with oatmeal. However, it's the intense vanilla flavor that makes this one a winner. If you like adding extra vanilla extract to your dough when baking, then you're going to go crazy over this oatmeal cookie.

6. Sinfull Bakery

Dylan Carnes knows how to make anyone love vegan baked goods. Her oatmeal raisin cookie is chock-full of oats and infused with soy-free maple; it's such a joy to eat that you won't even remember that it's a vegan treat. It has the texture of her incredible Everything Bars: soft and crumbly. It's a beautiful cookie to look at, with the ever-present oats sticking out of every nook and cranny. You can find Sinfull Bakery oatmeal raisin cookies at various local coffee shops such as Black Hole, Catalina and Agora, as well as at Urban Harvest Farmers Markets.

5. Ooh La La Bakery

You could get the regular oatmeal raisin cookie at Ooh La La Bakery, but we think you should set your sights on the Ranger cookie. Ask the ­cashier what's in these, and the description alone will make you salivate. Rice Krispies cereal with oats and coconut make up the base of this dense, sweet cookie. The cereal adds a crunchy texture, while the coconut and oats create an overall chewy experience.

4. Michael's Cookie Jar

Michael Savino is known for his beautifully decorated buttery shortbread cookies, but you need to try his oatmeal raisin cookie from the Americana Collection. Savino uses real butter in all his recipes, so each bite is tender and instantly melts in your mouth. These cookies are not only loaded with oats, they're also topped with his house-made oat granola for extra sweetness and crunch. Toss in some sweet raisins, and you'll feel like Grandma made you that cookie.

3. Tiff's Treats

Even after you take them home, Tiff's Treats's cookies are still warm and gooey. It's a mystery how they do it, but their oatmeal chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies are incredible. It's unfortunate that these tender cookies studded with oats and raisins or chocolate chips are smaller than most other cookies, but it's fortunate that there are many locations throughout Houston — and they deliver!

2. Petite Sweets

How can we have a list of oatmeal cookies without including oatmeal cream cookies? Petite Sweets may make tiny treats, but that doesn't mean they aren't finger-licking good. In fact, you'll be licking the sweet, smooth vanilla frosting stuffed between two oatmeal raisin cookies, because with one bite the cream comes spilling out. And since these are small, it's okay to indulge in more than one.

1. Pondicheri

Chef Anita Jaisinghani is always making inventive sweets that are sold in the Bake Lab at Pondicheri; there's no question as to why she's building a bakery upstairs. If you visit Pondicheri without getting the chocolate oatmeal chile cookie, you're wrong, just so wrong. It's spicy, sweet, comforting and a reflection of Jaisinghani's talent. You might need a glass of water (or a glass of milk) with each bite. And even though your mouth might be on fire from the intense chile powder, you won't be able to keep your hands off this thick, moist oatmeal cookie.

Wine School

Ciao, Bella
Houston Press Tasting Panel Takes on Chianti.

Jeremy Parzen

Just say the word"Chianti"and you evoke winding roads lined with cypress trees and old limestone farmhouses in what is perhaps Italy's most photographed and photogenic region, Tuscany.

Whether it's mentions in pop culture (who can forget Hannibal Lecter's infamous pairing?) or the straw-flasked bottles that once hung from the mom-and-pop Italian joints that we all loved as kids, Chianti is arguably one of the world's most recognizable wines. No matter the level of wine appreciation, enthusiasm or connoisseurship, nearly everyone has tasted a Chianti at some point in his or her adult life.

Chianti is produced in a number of Tuscan appellations, or DOCs (which stands for denominazione d'origine controllata or designation of controlled origin, a classification system created in the 1960s and based on the French AOC (or appellation d'origine contrôlée). These include Chianti dei Colli Fiorentini (in Florence province), Chianti dei Colli Senesi (Siena province) and Chianti Rufina, named after the village, one of the highest-elevation townships in Chianti, where it is made.

The most famous, of course, is Chianti Classico, so named because it covers the original townships or communes where Chianti has been produced since the 18th century, when Tuscany's ruling family, the Medici, began to regulate wine production there.

The primary grape in this typically blended wine is Sangiovese, Italy's workhorse red grape and most widely planted variety. But the blend can include a seemingly limitless number of native and international grape varieties, including Colorino and Canaiolo (indigenous to Tuscany and held to be the traditional blending grapes in the appellation) and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, among others (international grapes that tend to dominate the more delicate Sangiovese).

The newly formed Houston Press Tasting Panel gathered recently to taste five expressions of Chianti. Loosely based on New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov's tasting series, the panel was (on this occasion) composed of HP managing editor James Brock, Houston-based journalist Angela Shah, 60 Degrees Mastercrafted wine director Vanessa Treviño-Boyd and Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca wine director Nathan Smith, who hosted the gathering in the restaurant's private dining room and wine cellar.

The wines were not tasted blind, and the panel made a point of pairing them with dishes from Dolce Vita's kitchen in order to evaluate them in terms of how they worked with (or against) the food.

All the wines cost less than $30, and all of them are available in the Houston market. (Spec's had the widest selection of Chianti, while the Houston Wine Merchant had a more focused and higher-end offering.)

The panel's most expert taster, Treviño-Boyd, noted that Chianti is a "gateway" wine, a category that often inspires budding wine enthusiasts to delve deeper into Italy. Echoing her observation, Smith talked about how Chianti has always been an integral part of his list at Dolce Vita, "a great value for the money" and "always a favorite" of guests.

The panel's No. 1 wine was the Villa di ­Vetrice 2009 Chianti Rufina Riserva, which rings up at less than $15 at Spec's. Even though ­Treviño-Boyd found it to be "disjointed," with the "acidity trumping the fruit," the panel's ­cumulative scores (based on a 1-10 scale) put it on top.

Villa di Vetrice 2009 Chianti Rufina Riserva (under $15; BEST VALUE)

Bright in the glass and on the palate, this acidity-driven wine showed bright cherry and berry fruit flavors. This was arguably the most traditional-style Chianti in the flight, and its Sangiovese character was prominent. (Rufina, pronounced ROO-fee-nah, is a village in the northern part of Chiantishire and lies outside the Chianti Classico zone.)

Fèlsina 2011 Chianti Classico Berardenga (­under $30)

This wine, made from 100 percent Sangiovese grapes, also scored high with the panel. "Texture is particularly pleasing," wrote Treviño-Boyd, "a touch of grit that provides overall complete mouthfeel. Complex fruit."

Monsanto 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva (around $25)

This iconic wine also scored high, and everyone on the panel remarked about how its beautiful label makes it a "great gift idea." Brock was particularly taken with the wine's "funkiness," calling it "a good thing." The wine had good balance between fruit and body, he noted, and "paired well with the salami."

Ruffino 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale (around $25)

Ruffino (the winery name, pronounced roo-FEE-noh), with its distinctive gold label, is perhaps the most easy-to-find and recognizable of all the wines the panel tasted. The panel wasn't particularly impressed by this bottling. "Pretty green with intense oak tannin," wrote Smith, who works almost exclusively with Italian wine and travels each year to the Italian wine-trade fairs. "I don't see this one coming together," he noted.

Querciabella 2010 Chianti Classico (under $25)

The Querciabella was the least favorite among panelists, with Shah noting that it was "light in body" and had an unappealing "sweetness." Treviño-Boyd also gave it a lower score, noting that it was "closed aromatically. Very nice upfront concentration, but missing a mid-palate presence as well as a finish."

The panel was impressed with the Molino di Grace 2010 Chianti Classico, which Smith pours by the glass at Dolce Vita, although it's not currently available for retail sale in our market. It was classic in style, with wonderful Sangiovese character and notes of plum and ripe red fruit.

Stay tuned for more Houston Press Tasting Panel posts.


City Hall Farmers Market Is Moving
Construction forces change of venue.

Molly Dunn

TheCity Hall Farmers Marketmust relocate during the first week of May, a change forced by a plumbing project to be carried out on the Reflection Pond at City Hall. The construction is set to begin on May 1, so the market will be heading down the street and around the corner to the front of theJulia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library at 550 McKinney. The market will extend into theHouston Public Library's plaza.

Don't freak out when you head to City Hall for lunch on Wednesday, May 7, and don't see any food trucks or vendors. The market isn't gone; it has simply moved. Tyler Horne, market manager at Urban Harvest, says there won't be much change to the market, just the layout and location.

"We will be just one block over, and it's going to be a logistical hassle," Horne says. "But I think, overall, when I was looking at it, we are going to have the Eatsie Boys be that anchor food truck right there on the corner of Smith and McKinney, least they won't completely miss the fact that there are still food trucks and all that kind of stuff."

Moving locations mid-season might seem like a difficult task for the market and a slight annoyance for those organizing the weekly event, but the change could be a good thing for the overall layout.

"What's going to be kind of cool is that we are going to have more seating now," Horne says. "We have more space for that, so we are looking at some options now to see what we can come up with to get people more places to sit."

So for those of you who come to the market during your lunch break in a suit, dress, or skirt and don't have anywhere to sit but on the ground, you'll have the chance to keep your work attire clean while comfortably enjoying your meal from your favorite food truck or vendor. You'll still be able to eat crepes from Melange Creperie, stomach-filling bites from Eatsie Boys, Brazilian barbecue from Churrasco To Go and meat pies from Blackbird Foods.

Urban Harvest will have a Cajun theme for the kickoff of its new location. Horne says the Zydeco Dots will provide tunes for the afternoon, and chef Ara Malekian of ARACAN, The Roaming Kitchen, will supply crawfish ­samples.

"The season closes June 19, and then [the farmers' market] will have to reopen," Horne says. "This is what is making it so crazy, is that the construction is so involved; it's going to take the better part of six months. We will reopen the following season at the second location, at the library at the Julia Ideson Building."

Restaurant News

Openings & Closings
Dirk's Coffee ceases to brew after 15 years in business.

Molly Dunn

It's always sad to see a long-standing restaurant shutter, but after 15 years, Dirk's Coffee, formerly Diedrich Coffee, has decided to close its doors. The coffee shop on Montrose closed on April 8, according to Eater. Back in 2012, Katharine Shilcutt ranked the Mayan Mocha at Dirk's Coffee as the No. 6 best iced coffee drink in Houston, and in 2011 Dirk's was awarded the No. 10 spot on the Houston Press's list of Top 10 coffeehouses in Houston. On the day it closed, an employee of the coffee shop told Eater that Dirk's was shutting its doors but didn't provide any additional information. The idea of the shop reopening at a different location is still up in the air.

In case you missed the breaking news last week, House of Pies on Kirby finally reopened after a fire forced its closure in November 2013. Go get your late-night pie, everyone, because House of Pies on Kirby is back in business.

The Austin-based fast-food restaurant chain VERTS opened on April 12 at 107 Yale. VERTS specializes in döner kebap, which Eater Houston describes as "a panino packed with roasted meat, veggies and yogurt-based sauces," and you get all that with fewer than 550 calories. This is the first VERTS to open in Houston; more locations will open in River Oaks, Cypress, Spring, Vintage Park, and on Westheimer later this spring and in the ­summer.

Though a few Washington Avenue bars have closed recently, that hasn't stopped Alba Huerta from opening her club, Julep, at 1919 Washington, the space previously occupied by The Corkscrew. According to Eater, Huerta is the former general manager of Anvil and partner in The Pastry War, and her bar will serve drinks from the American South. Julep is planning a May opening. CultureMap's Eric Sandler reports that Adam Garcia, former chef at Revival Market and The Pass & Provisions, has been hired at Julep.

You can now get your doughnuts from a food truck. Doughmaker Doughnuts serves gourmet creations like baked blueberry cake doughnuts with lemon zest, honey orange blossom doughnuts with a pistachio crumble, and caramel doughnuts with toasted coconut.

Town & Country Boulevard is getting a new South American restaurant, Sal y Pimienta South American Kitchen (sal y pimienta means "salt and pepper" in Spanish). According to a press release, owner Gianfranco Percovich was part of the Cordúa Restaurant Group for several years and opened Tango & Malbec in the Galleria area. He will open Sal y Pimienta in May. The restaurant will offer a variety of South American dishes, as well as a selection of top South American wines.

As he announced at the Houston Press Menu of Menus® Extravaganza during the Iron Fork Chef Competition (which he won for the third straight time), Kevin Naderi is opening a new restaurant, Lillo & Ella, in the space previously occupied by El Gran Malo, 2307 Ella Boulevard. According to The Leader, this new restaurant won't be similar to Roost, and it is scheduled to open by May 1.

The second TopGolf in Houston opened on April 8, and it's not just a place to go hit golf balls off of three levels. The Houston Chronicle reports that guests can feast on a variety of bar-food items (with a contemporary twist) such as pickled fried chicken and a Thanksgiving Burger complete with bacon-wrapped sage, cranberry stuffing, pear relish and brussels sprouts slaw. The new location opened at 560 Spring Park Center Boulevard off I-45.

These two restaurants are already open, but they are adding new dining services: Triniti began a Saturday brunch on April 12. The Chronicle writes that Triniti's pastry chef, Samantha Mendoza, will end her Saturday morning bakery pop-ups but will include her baked goods on the brunch menu; the bakery products will also be available to go. Coltivare opened in January, but the new restaurant from Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber of Revival Market is now open for weekend lunch from 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. The lunch menu, according to Eater, consists of items like brunch-friendly pizzas and the Coltivare Burger. The lunch menu also includes cocktails.


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