The Apple Martini Tour
In the low cool light of the glowing Plexiglas squares behind the bar, the black-clad bartender doesn't appear old enough to drink. But he says he knows how to make an apple martini. It's seven o'clock on a Wednesday night at Dish, and I am the only person at the bar. There are maybe six or seven people eating in the dining room, but things are way too quiet. I had heard that Dish is one of Houston's hottest new restaurants, so I can't figure out why I am sitting here all alone. "People start coming in around seven," the bartender says. Then he looks at his watch. "Oh, it's after seven."
My apple martini arrives. It's cloudy, pale green and ungarnished. I had never heard of apple martinis until I read about them in The New York Times. (See Stirred and Shaken for the recipe.) According to the Times's cocktail correspondent, it's the trendy drink of the moment in both L.A. and New York. So I thought I'd go on an apple martini tour of Houston, a bachelor's search for the city's hippest new restaurants.
The bartender at Dish apologizes that he doesn't have any DeKuyper's Sour Apple Pucker, the liqueur that is usually combined with vodka to make the drink. But he swears that a combination of Midori and sweet-and-sour mix tastes exactly like the green apple stuff. I have no idea what the drink is supposed to taste like, but I like it anyway. It has a pleasant crispness that reminds me of autumn. Unfortunately he doesn't have the proper decoration, a green apple slice.
Dish is a spare-looking place. The interior walls are squares and rectangles painted lavender and rose and set off with minimalist art. Spindly orchid stems sprout from an elevated planter box separating the bar from the entrance area. Dish's menu describes comfort foods that have been "gussied up" with premium ingredients or innovative twists. The grilled pork chops come with caramelized apples, mashed sweet potatoes and asparagus; a steak comes with sautéed spinach, blue cheese mashed potatoes and a zinfandel reduction sauce.
After a forgettable appetizer of macaroni-and-cheese cakes, I dig into an entrée of buffalo meat loaf with potato pillows, cream of corn and sun-dried tomato ketchup. The portion of meat is larger than even a big eater like me can handle. I discover that sun-dried tomatoes taste almost exactly like plain old tomato sauce when reconstituted. Potato pillows are deep-fried cubes of mashed potatoes. (Why?) The low-fat buffalo makes a pretty good meat loaf, but it is screaming for seasonings. I want to dump some Bufalo chipotle, that spicy Mexican ketchup, over it. The corn appears to have been cut from the cob and cooked in cream. But again the dish stops just short of having any big flavors. I muse about how I'd doctor it up at home -- some roasted garlic and green chiles, maybe?
I have heard some grumblings about the incongruity of the food and interior design at Dish. A big serving of upscale comfort food goes over great as the blue-plate special at a chic new diner or in a cozy American bistro. But at Dish, the homey food and stark art-gallery decor are as mismatched as plaid pants and a striped shirt.
Some would disagree with this criticism -- like Rebekah Johnson, for instance. I happened to meet Rebekah at Bossa, the new Cuban bar and Nuevo Latino restaurant on Main Street. It is only the third night the place has been open, and I find myself there at a big table with an Art Guy, a corporate consultant and two great-looking women. One of the women is Rebekah, a stylish blond who not only is witty and urbane but also is wearing some very sexy shoes.
"I like to be surprised by things that don't seem to go together," Rebekah argues in defense of Dish. I consider this for a minute. I have to confess that I love it when elegant food is served in inelegant surroundings, such as at the Green Room in Dallas, a restaurant that Gourmet magazine recently described as an "haute dive." But I am not so sure it works the other way around. Rebekah suggests that I go back to Dish for another try. She likes the B.A.L.T., a bacon, avocado, lettuce and tomato sandwich.
Bossa is also pretty quiet, but it's a Monday night, and the restaurant hasn't even been open a week. An item from Bossa's "Small Plates" menu, called a "Big Seafood Platter," arrives at our table to the sounds of oohs and ahs. This multistory metal tower is loaded with bowls of seviche, escabèche and shellfish; the whole edifice is placed in the middle of the table. I would guess that the presentation is modeled after the three-story seviche sampler at Patria, Douglas Rodriguez's groundbreaking Nuevo Latino restaurant in New York.
Bossa, whose menu is identical to those of the Samba Room restaurants in Dallas, Chicago and Florida, is owned by the Minnesota-based Carlson Restaurants Worldwide. (See Dish, "A Mojito? Ya Betcha!" September 28.) The corporate folks have done a beautiful job with the interior design, but the food, as you might expect, is geared toward the mass market. Take, for instance, the gleaming tower of seafood on our table. At Patria, the seviche tower is loaded with Honduran seviche with tuna, chiles and coconut milk; Peruvian seviche in a fiery-hot squid-ink-blackened marinade; and Ecuadoran seviche with a garnish of corn nuts and popcorn. While the presentation at Bossa is impressive, the sea bass seviche is plain old lime juice and cilantro; the grilled calamari is served in a simple escabèche; and an avocado-and-tuna seviche tastes like sushi chunks in guacamole.
An entrée with the Brazilian name xinxim, a sautéed shrimp-and-chicken dish served with coconut rice and toasted cashews, is by far the best thing on the table. It is very spicy and a little soupy, sort of a cross between a Thai curry and a Jamaican rundown. I also try Bossa's chargrilled New York strip with chimichurri sauce, which is beautifully presented with drizzled sauces, colored rice and black beans. The steak is served already sliced, and it tastes oddly dry, as if all the juice had run out of it. I also taste a roast pork tenderloin with sweet potato hash, and it has the same juice deficiency. It seems to be a timing problem, like the meat was sliced too soon. I'm sure with a little practice the kitchen and waitstaff at Bossa will get in sync.
"We decided not to call it the Samba Room in Houston because there was already a Samba Grill in town," says Kit Taupin at Bossa. I wonder how Bossa's menu compares with those of other Houston Nuevo Latino restaurants, such as Américas, Amazon Grill, Café Red Onion and Ruggles Bistro Latino. Pretty soon my tablemates are handicapping the restaurant scene in general, and Rebekah makes the interesting observation that Houston eateries that seem boring on Friday and Saturday are absolutely rocking on Thursday. A girl with patent-leather mules and an impeccable pedicure has a story to illustrate her point: Not long ago, she and a girlfriend got all dolled up and went out cruising in her friend's mom's BMW, she says. They decide to have dinner at Dish on Westheimer. When they pull into the lot, the valet takes one look at the two of them and says, "You girls need to come back on Thursday." "On Thursday nights, singles take over the city," Rebekah giggles. "It's divorcée night!"
Rebekah knows her way around the trendy restaurant scene, so I ask her to show me what's new some Thursday night. She agrees, and we meet a few weeks later back at Bossa.
The place is hopping at seven-thirty; both the bar and restaurant are packed. Rebekah shows up in a handkerchief-hem skirt and black knee-high boots, carrying a hot pink silk purse that looks exactly like a giant Chinese take-out carton. We sit down at the bar and both order apple martinis. The bartender doesn't blink. He makes them with the same combination of Midori and sweet-and-sour mix I had at Dish.
In the '70s, singles hung out in discos hoping to get lucky. In the '90s, it was coffeehouses. Cruising in the aughts goes like this: You go to a hot new restaurant and put your name on the inevitably long waiting list. This gives you the perfect excuse to hang around in a bar full of fashionable people without looking like you're hanging around in a bar.
Rebekah is the owner of Bergner & Johnson Design, an upscale florist shop in Bellaire. The 37-year-old demurely confesses that she recently was chosen as one of "Houston's most stylish people" by that journal of air-kissing, Paper City. This makes her a fashion expert as far as I'm concerned, so I ask her to come up with a fitting description of the crowd. She describes the look at Bossa as "pretty young Latin girls in tight skirts, and guys in suits with dark shirts." It looks like the Copacabana to me, and I think a girl down the bar might be flirting with me. But we finish our martinis and head out on the town for a proper trendy restaurant survey.
On our way to the car, we pass Zula, Mercury Room owner David Edwards's new haute American restaurant, which has just opened in the St. Germaine building on Capitol. Through the windows we can see a lot of champagne and a lot of well-dressed men in dark suits and women in cocktail dresses drinking it. "Charity event crowd," Rebekah says. We try to crash, but we are repelled by a blond bouncer in a little black dress. It is indeed a private party to benefit a charity. I am wearing a black shirt and black jeans, which doesn't pass for black tie.
Farrago, in the newly minted Midtown neighborhood (see Dish, "Attack of the Killer Developers," August 3), is a sleek new spot that's popular at lunch but obviously isn't on the divorcée circuit yet. At eight o'clock on Thursday night there is nobody at the bar, and the dining room is about half full. The crowd here is dressed much more casually than downtown. We take a table and order apple martinis. This time the bartender uses DeKuyper's Sour Apple Pucker with vodka, and it makes a big difference. The drink is tarter, with an apple cider sort of flavor that complements the crispness, and it's clear instead of cloudy, with a different shade of artificial green. Much better, we both agree. But there is still no apple garnish.
We start off with a tomato pizza salad, which is a tomato, basil pesto and buffalo mozzarella pizza topped with salad greens and a balsamic vinaigrette. It sounds kooky, but it tastes pretty good. The vinaigrette adds some flavor to the simple pizza, and the greens give it some crunch. The half rotisserie-roasted chicken with fiery Asian mustard, mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables features chicken with a spice mix glazed on the skin, although "fiery" is hardly the word I'd use to describe it. In fact, we ask for some extra mustard to add a little zing. The potatoes are homemade chunky-style and very satisfying, while the squash medley is a bore.
I had already tried Farrago's most highly recommended appetizer, the curried mussels, at lunch the day before. They aren't really curried; they're actually served in something closer to a Thai tom kha soup with lots of coconut milk and herbs. The broth makes a great dip for the juicy mussels and the toast provided on the side. However, when I try to use a soup spoon to finish the broth, I discover it's too salty to eat straight. Farrago's chicken curry topped with dried cherries, mango, cilantro and crushed peanuts really is a curry. The waiter described it as the restaurant's comfort food dish. It was a pleasant enough little chicken stew with Indian seasonings, but too mild by far for a real curry freak. I also think the cherries and mango unbalance the dish on the sweet side.
The best-conceived dish I had at Farrago was grilled salmon with nectarine and sun-dried tomato salsa over sweet potato puree with fresh greens and jerk dressing. Everything about the dish was absolutely perfect; the jerk seasoning was spicy enough to balance the sweet salsa, and the sweet potatoes were wonderfully buttery. It all would have come together in World Food Harmony with a juicy salmon fillet in the middle. But yesterday at lunch the salmon was so overdone and dry you needed a drink of water to choke it down.
"Thursday is our slowest night," the manager tells us when he comes over to our table. "Tuesday is the big night here." So we head back to Dish to see what's hopping on a Thursday night. We pull into the parking lot a few minutes after ten, but Dish is dead. A few diners are finishing their meals, but the bar is empty.
"I think we timed this wrong," Rebekah says. "We should have started at the trendy restaurants farther out first and then headed downtown." My disappointment is palpable. "I'll tell you what, you want to see divorcée night, I'll show you divorcée night," she says. I immediately break into a smile. Bachelors can be so predictable.
Swinging open the big wooden door at Carrabba's on Kirby Drive with a flourish, Rebekah leads me into the astonishing scene inside. I don't think I have ever seen so many gorgeous blonds in a restaurant in my life. They are lined up two and three deep at the long wooden bar. We can barely part the pulchritude to order our apple martinis. The drinks here are made with a splash of both Apple Pucker and Midori, "to take the edge off the sourness," the bartender says. The green drinks look Christmasy with a garnish of maraschino cherries.
There is, of course, a catch to this staggering display of feminine charms. The guys who are really knocking them dead are dressed in Italian designer suits, alligator tassel loafers or silk T-shirts that show off their body-builder physiques. And I am sporting none of the above. Rebekah and I sit at a table where she does a running fashion-show commentary, and I stare in wonder, sipping my apple martini.
It has been quite a night, and we have barely made a dent in the trendy restaurant scene. But much has been explained. I used to wonder why so many people would crowd into a popular restaurant, creating an interminable wait at one place while a quieter establishment with better food sat empty across town. Now I know. What seems like lemming behavior is actually singles seeking safety in numbers.
It is almost 11 o'clock, and the Thursday Night Fever is starting to kick in at Carrabba's as we head for the door. Outside, Rebekah tells me she once ran into Marilyn Manson at a Houston bar. She sang to him a few bars of "The Beautiful People." She is singing it again now.
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