There's a saying in my family: "Just 'cause a cat has kittens in the oven, it doesn't make 'em biscuits." Roughly translated: You're more than just the product of your environment; there are inherent qualities about yourself that can't be changed, ever.
But the phrase also applies to another dilemma, one that I encounter frequently in upscale and semi-upscale restaurants: In order to make something special or worthwhile, you have to put more effort into something than just procuring it.
You can't just call a bunch of kittens biscuits just because you made that mama cat give birth to them in an oven; you have to somehow figure out a way to transform kittens into biscuits (and good luck with that). On a less euphemistic and more applicable level, it means this: You can't expect lavish praise simply for buying quality ingredients if you screw them up the moment you go to cook with them.
Bear with me here.
Case in point: Sorrel Urban Bistro, which is the subject of this week's cafe review. I really want to like Sorrel. I really, really do. Not only because of its cheerful ambiance and service, but also because it has the potential to be a really strong neighborhood bistro along the lines of Roost (another recent review subject), but with a more white-tablecloth aesthetic and a shorter wait.
Like Roost, Sorrel carefully sources its produce and proteins from area purveyors. The greens in its salad come from Animal Farm, the cheese from the Houston Dairymaids, the meat from Black Hill Ranch. It actually goes to great lengths to incorporate seasonal ingredients like kumquats and fennel, but it incorporates those alongside fun exotics or tried-and-true staples. Sorrel is not an uncompromising ideologue when it comes to eating "local" or "seasonal," but rather weaves a menu that's something like 45 percent local, 45 percent other and 10 percent poly-cotton blend.
But it also takes such a ham-fisted approach to many of those wonderful local ingredients that it's painful to watch, let alone eat.
One night, it was a freshly-caught red snapper filet that had been pummeled into inedibility by vicious lashings of salt and pepper. On top, plump strands of blue crab meat weren't worth eating for all the stray bits of shell I had to pick out. And that was just my plate. My friend's New York strip was so tough, the table shook to and fro with every tug of the steak knife.
On another afternoon, purple potatoes the bright hue of fresh ube inside my roasted quail had been rendered mealy and unappetizing. My friend's beautiful, fat burger was covered with white cheddar and vividly-colored lettuce and tomato, but the bun could barely hold the juicy mess together -- and not in a fun way.
Luckily, not all of my meals nor dishes at Sorrel have turned out this way. But it bothered me both times to see such a terrific arsenal ingredients wasted, scattershot. Especially with chef Soren Pedersen in the house both times (you can tell by the TV monitors that provide a rather creepy Big Brother-esque view of the kitchen).
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This haphazardness with excellent ingredients was only one of my concerns at Sorrel, but one I don't have is this: The bar still makes an excellent cocktail (try the ultra-summery hibiscus margarita) and pours a very above-average glass of house wine, procured from Vintners Own in the Heights. The wine is on tap, which makes it both economically and environmentally friendly -- and that's something for which Sorrel should be commended.
I hope I'll be saying the same thing about all of its ingredients and foodstuffs someday soon. Until then, it's not enough just to buy the stuff; Sorrel has to make it shine, too.