Monica Hits Midtown
A slice of dark purple duck prosciutto, a little sweet blood orange, some crunchy fennel and a sip of a "yellow fever" cocktail -- that's all it takes. I surrender. Monica Pope is a genius. And her new restaurant, T'afia on Travis Street, is flat-out brilliant.
The duck prosciutto is only the first of five courses on the "local market tasting menu." But it takes just one exquisite bite to see what Pope is up to. Every course of the tasting menu dinner features a Texas artisanal food product. While Pope is bowling you over with her dreamy flavor combinations, she's also single-handedly creating a market for organic farmers, small cheese makers, specialty ranchers and local chocolate makers.
The duck prosciutto at T'afia was made by Richard Kaplan, a Houston caterer who has lately gotten into charcuterie. (The French word charcuterie and the Italian word salumi describe aged, smoked or cured meats.) The meat is cured by the same process as the expensive Italian air-cured ham called prosciutto, but it's much darker, and thanks to the intensity of the poultry's flavor, it's also much richer.
House-made prosciuttos and salamis play starring roles in hip, casual New York eateries like the Kraft Bar and Hearth. But you rarely see duck prosciutto even in New York. And chef Pope's presentation of fanned slices of the cured duck meat with a salad of licorice-scented fennel shavings and blood orange is inspired.
The wonderfully tart and potent yellow fever cocktail I'm drinking is made with TÜRI vodka, pineapple juice, lemon juice and Galliano liqueur and garnished with a slice of star fruit on a swizzle stick. It reminds me of another New York restaurant, Gramercy Tavern, which is famous for its inventive cocktails. "Ginger gin and tonic," made with gin that has been marinated with fresh ginger, is one of my favorites there, but I also sampled cocktails made with rhubarb and fresh fruits. Cocktail lovers should be thrilled to hear that such serious mixed drinks have arrived in Houston.
T'afia has not only embraced the cutting-edge cocktail concept but taken it a step further. The restaurant's moniker is a nickname for a Mediterranean beverage called ratafia, which is made by marinating fruit in a mixture of wine and spirits. Pope starts with white wine and vodka, adds seasonal fruits and lets the mixtures sit for months. The result is an incredibly refreshing cocktail that's catching on quickly. The Texas red grapefruit ratafia I sampled on my first visit was already gone by the time I returned a week later.
The second course of the tasting menu features a wedge of soft, Camembert-style goat cheese paired with slices of dark, unsulphured dried apricots. The cheese is a variety named El Cielo, and it comes from Pure Luck Texas farm and dairy, which is located outside Austin. The outstanding little goat dairy turns out some of the best cheeses in the state, which is why they received the Authentic Stars of Texas award from the Saveur Hill Country Wine and Food Festival last year. The cheese is excellent -- I only wish it came after the entrées. Next time, I'll remember to ask the waiter to switch the cheese course to just before dessert.
Our cocktails finished, we ask to take a look at the wine list. One page is devoted entirely to that overlooked and underloved category of wines, the rosés. We pick a Miner rosé from Mendocino, which is made with the Rosato di Sangiovese grape varietal. The wine has a deep color that looks more like watered-down red wine than the usual pink rosé. There are wonderful floral and berry aromas in the bouquet, but the flavor surprises you with its strong grip.
One succulent little cumin-dusted quail is the third course. My sentimental dining companion won't eat whole fish or birds because the presentation makes her feel sorry for the creatures. To tease her, I dramatically rip the little quail apart with my hands and suck the rosy pink meat off the bones like a true barbarian. She rolls her eyes in appreciation.
The quail, the waiter informs us, is a new crossbreed between Texas farm-raised bobwhite quail and a juicier variety of quail called pharaoh or coturnix quail. According to the menu, the quail comes with "Gita's carrots." Gita Van Woerdan is a farmer from Cat Springs who sets up a stall at the new Midtown Farmer's Market, which convenes on Saturday mornings in T'afia's parking lot. "I went to the farmer's market and then ate dinner at T'afia last Saturday," a friend tells me. "It's great because you can see what Monica Pope is doing with all the same stuff you just bought." I tried the experiment myself last Saturday. I bought a lot of salad greens and strong white radishes at the market, but I completely ignored the stubby little organic carrots, which taste perfect with this cumin-scented bird.
A "San Angelo" veal rib chop with "Texas grits" and saffron aioli is the tasting menu's main dish. The coarse-ground grits come from Arrowhead Mills. They're cooked thick so they stand up like mashed potatoes. After dispatching most of the succulent medium-rare veal meat with a knife and fork, I pick up the bone and gnaw on it to get at the rest. Luckily, we're seated at a little table under the staircase that's out of sight of most of the restaurant, as my table manners have failed me. The food is so good, I have abandoned my knife and fork at some point in each course and started eating with my fingers.
My dining companion is having a drake duck "sirloin" with roasted sweet potatoes and port wine sauce. It looks like a steak, but it's actually a big fat duck breast. The flavor is gamier than beef, but the meat is as dense and chewy as a sirloin. The port wine sauce and sweet potatoes offer a sweet counterpoint. While a more muscular red wine probably would have been a little better with the duck steak, the Miner rosé held up very well.
The dessert on the tasting menu is a trio of chocolate treats served with St. Arnold's stout. My tablemate orders chocolate bread pudding with sour cherries. We take turns washing down the chocolate with sips of the sweet, dark beer. If you've never tried chocolate with a stout or porter, give it a shot. "It's way better than milk," says my companion, with the tiniest hint of a beer mustache. And she loves milk.
The restaurant's interior is striking. All my artist and architect friends love the design. But on neither of my two visits did the sterile atmosphere do anything for my appetite. It's chic and elegant and all that, but it doesn't look like a place to enjoy yourself. I mean, the Rothko Chapel has a lovely minimalist interior, too. But have you ever thought of eating a cheeseburger or drinking a beer in there?
My other nitpicking involves Monica Pope's relationship with the English language. The chef has a habit of forcing words to mean what she wants them to mean. The name T'afia is an unfortunate case in point. According to the restaurant's Web site, www.tafia.com, "t'afia comes from the Creole word 'ratafia' which is a fortified wine made with seasonal produce."
The European cordial may well be nicknamed "t'afia" in French. But according to the American Heritage Dictionary, the English word tafia means "a cheap rum distilled from molasses and refuse sugar in the West Indies." In fact, if you search the word on the Internet, you learn that it has a colorful and controversial past. The locally distilled spirit was the only alcohol available to West Indian slaves. Hence, tafia became the ritual beverage of voodoo and Santeria ceremonies.
Given the restaurant's new location in a neighborhood with strong African-American traditions, it seems Eurocentric to ignore the Creole definition of tafia (however you choose to spell it) while insisting on the Mediterranean one.
But these are minor quibbles about design and language. When it gets down to the food, Monica Pope is the sharpest chef in Houston. She is also a pioneer. Her ideas about handcrafted charcuterie, creative cocktails, local cheeses, chocolates and produce influence restaurants and food stores all over town.
Pope isn't in it for the money. She's just a passionate advocate for good food. Thanks to her, the entire city of Houston is eating -- and drinking -- a little better every day.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.