At the recently opened Latin-Indian fusion restaurant named Trenza, Susie Jimenez creates dishes that match her physical and personality traits: bold, petite, enthusiastic, and colorful.
All over the menu, Indian spices and Latin foods -- and vice versa -- play together in bold strides to create an animated dance of captivating flavors in the form of small plates. Curried braised short rib tamales illustrate the notion perfectly. Duck fat incorporated into the tamal's masa heightens the "sin" factor of the four-bite portion of tamal, and is the perfect greasy companion to the slightly dry short ribs inside seasoned with masala, a mix of Indian spices. As the unexpected masala flavors make you sway from side to side in delight, a bright pop of spicy green Mexican-style sauce topping the tamal spins you around, reiterating and reminding you of where that tamal dance began: Mexico. You're spun around once more, however, when you taste the char of the masa -- yes, char. Chef Jimenez unwraps her tamales before serving them and chars the edges, a delightful twist that makes the dish even more likable.
In another dish, a beautifully seared scallop stands high and mighty while a bed of cauliflower purée twirls gently below with the twang of ginger, forming an ever-so-creamy concoction that carries and complements the scallop in a most ceremonious fashion. Jalapeño and shallot-dressed watercress adorn the plate, only slightly upping the tempo on the otherwise pleasantly mellow creation.
Other appealing dishes include a Lemon-Crusted Jalapeño that cha-cha-chas with ricotta, blue cheese, and bacon, all with a lemon cumin crust. Turmeric Potato Tacos served with an apple-herb slaw and coriander crema quenelle sound like they would be a great Bollywood number -- with turmeric being the heroine and coriander its backup dancer. The menu may be small (about 30 items total), but there's plenty of attractive acts to be found, and there's no shortage of Jimenez's Hispanic heritage shining through.
The drink menu, particularly the cocktail section, is quite appealing as well. House-made bitters, syrups, and fresh fruits, along with their juices, combine to form tasty drinks with big personalities -- a perfect match for the food's bold flavors. Aguas frescas, or non-alcoholic Mexican fruit-flavored waters, are also among the in-house-made beverage selection. They're served in a carafe that's good for one or two people to sip on. The Hibiscus Black Cardamom Spritzer is a real winner -- refreshing, perfect for any season, and not overly sweet.
Trenza is a chic, versatile space. An evening of indulging exclusively on libations would seem appropriate there, just as appropriate as a dinner date or a group outing. Windows that go from the floor to the high ceiling on the second story of the upscale West Ave lifestyle center make the spot feel palatial. Warm hues -- predominately copper, red, brown, and splashes of deep yellow -- color everything from the floor to the tabletops to the curtains to the lamps. The space is a display of Jimenez's creative hand outside of the kitchen -- she picked out or designed just about every visual detail at Trenza. It all comes together quite nicely to form a modern, inviting dining environment.
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SHOW ME HOW
At a recent intimate media dinner, Jimenez described the restaurant as being highly personal. She recounted the story of going to her grandmother's ranch in Mexico as a young girl, where chicken for dinner meant that her grandmother had wrung a bird's neck that day, and a glass of milk indicated that a cow had just been milked, perhaps even by the young Susie herself. The restaurant's food is an embodiment of all that she learned about and experienced throughout her upbringing -- Mexican cuisine, fresh-from-the-farm ingredients, and wasting not any scrap of ingredients -- combined with her professional, worldly training at the California Culinary Academy.
Her culinary style may be long in the making, but Chef Susie really blossomed publicly in the summer of 2011, when she appeared on the TV show Food Network Star. Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis served as the judges of the reality show, on which she and 14 other contestants chosen out of a pool of 50,000 applicants participated in cooking challenges. Although Jimenez was the runner-up in the seventh season, it's safe to say that her creative juices were flowing throughout the show, or she would not have made it that far. Had she won, she would have been given a TV show of her own. It turns out, though, that the Food Network's loss was Houston's gain, as Chef Jimenez has created a noteworthy upscale restaurant that is young, fresh, and pleasant.