Cupcake Fever Strikes Houston (No known cure for icing fixation)

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Edit

What is it about peeling away the pastry wrapper on a warm chocolate cupcake, and then deftly biting into it without getting your nose covered in icing that evokes childhood memories? Nearly as poignant as holding a vanilla ice cream cone, we feel like a kid again balancing a cupcake in our hand. The appeal is nostalgic; we fondly remember the cupcakes from our youth.

A modern cupcake craze appears to have started in New York in 1996 when a quaint Southern-style bakeshop opened in Greenwich Village. According to legend, Magnolia Bakery began making vanilla cupcakes as a way to use up leftover batter. A few years later, “Sex and the City” featured Carrie and Miranda sitting outside on a small bench eating the cakes. Soon, Magnolia was a stop on the “Sex and the City” bus tour, and the queue streamed around the block. The shop installed full-time security guards with hour-long waits becoming the standard.

Magnolia’s success spawned countless imitators as entrepreneurs jumped into the business of baking. The question was: could cupcake mania spread beyond New York City? The answer is a resounding yes. From New York City to Los Angeles, and Chicago to Houston, “Cupcakeries” are springing up all over the United States.

Sprinkles Cupcakes, a sleek shop offering elegant, dainty cakes in over 20 rotating flavors, started in Los Angeles. The company’s president, Charles Nelson, claims it was hard to find someone to lease him space for the first shop. Now, the bakery boasts six outlets in three states, each selling about 1,500 cupcakes a day. Sprinkles’ expansion plans involve 18 cities, including a location in Houston’s Highland Village in April of this year.

There are already places to cop a cake in Houston. Crave Cupcakes in Uptown Park cleverly designed their building so cupcake fanatics can watch their miniature confections bake in an open kitchen. Sugar Babies Cupcake Boutique, which opened a mere eighteen months ago with claims of being Houston’s “original” cupcake shop, offers several flavors including the most popular, red velvet. They are located on South Shepherd between Richmond and Alabama. Red velvet cupcakes, you ask? Look how far this little confection has come: chocolate marshmallow, lemon coconut, peppermint crumble, and even chai latte or mocha for those in need of a coffee-kick. Cupcakes used to be limited to the same humdrum flavors: vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, but no more.

In Chicago, More Cupcakes has gone a step further and introduced bold flavors, including the BLT- a bacon cupcake with ranch frosting topped with an heirloom tomato and micro-arugula. According to founder Patty Rothman: “The question is, how far can we push it? Can we make a cupcake into an appetizer or a side dish?” The shop sells up to 150 BLT cupcakes a day. Men in particular like them; women prefer other flavors. Apple and Gorgonzola cakes are on the menu, as well as curry cakes swirled with berry jam and topped with goat cheese frosting. Strange as it seems, the humble cupcake is humble no more. Even Houston is catching cupcake fever. Cupcake-emblazoned t-shirts and baseball caps are frequently worn by lovers of the treat.

“Cupcakeries” are experiencing explosive growth, but will the future be even sweeter? “Who’s not having a birthday, even in an economic downturn?” asks Sprinkles President, Charles Nelson. “Cupcakeries” in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, sell an average of 8,000 cupcakes per week. Do the math. At $2.75 to $3.50 a pop, that’s some serious sugar.

Starving in Style

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Edit

Models strut the runway as people dine on lettuce.

There’s an old saying. Really old. And it goes like this: “What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others.” — Lucretius. 95-55 B. C.

I prefer a newer saying by one of my favorite suicidal authors: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” — Virginia Woolf

It dawned on me while sitting at a fashion show. Well, actually it was a cross between a fashion show and a luncheon. Let’s call it a “Funcheon.” One of those gigs where you have the pleasure of eating lunch while watching a parade of stick-thin, waif-like, Keira Knightleys model the latest couture.

I glanced around the table of glamorous Houston women, and realized I was the only person eating. Yes, me. Solamente. (Which means “only” in Italian and Spanish in case you were wondering.) The shock registered in slow waves. Not only had I eaten my entire bread roll swabbed with butter (a sin in itself, I dare say) I’d also consumed my chicken breast salad in a dizzying haste. My plate was so clean, it looked as though a St. Bernard had licked it.

Oh. My. Goodness. Could I be any more gauche? Probably not. Unless, of course, I’d shown up at the funcheon: • Sporting a fanny pack and a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt with ‘EuroDisney!’ splashed across the chest in rainbow colors. • Brought my “best friend” Tila Tequila, or, Dick Cheney as my guest; or • Ordered an Old Milwaukee on tap, instead of a white wine.

How to save face? My choice was clear. I waited for the perfect moment. As the women at my table turned their attention toward the fashion finale taking place on the stage, I hurriedly summoned the waiter.

“Bring me a new salad,” I whispered. He seemed momentarily stunned. “You want another one, Ms.?” he asked, his eyes widening in dismay.

I handed him my empty plate and slipped him a small cash bribe. “Please. I beg you. Just bring me another salad so no one knows I actually ate.”

He disappeared and was back in a flash with a fresh lunch. I looked down at the romaine lettuce, the small strips of lean white chicken breast, and the drizzle of olive oil — and I grinned. Yes, I was taking refinement to the next level. Alas, my dear Houston sisters-in-arms. I leave you with this question: Since when did eating go out of style?

Houston Restaurants Serve up a Blank Canvas

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Blogs, The Glamorous Life / Jo Barrett

FEAST YOUR EYES

Houstonians may eat out more than residents of any other major U.S. city, but it’s not all about the food. Ambiance adds to the dining experience and many Houston restaurants offer distinct art exhibits to compliment their cuisine.

Prego, the casual, Italian Trattoria in Rice Village commissioned Gremillion &Company to do a permanent installation by John Pavlicek, the Houston artist who specializes in mixed media on canvas using collage, tissue, paint, and graphite. Pavlicek’s multi-colored piece wraps around one of the main dining room’s focal walls.

Prego specializes in custom-made pastas and fillings, and the menu changes seasonally. The restaurant’s Rice Village location attracts families and students, and the art provides a unique backdrop appealing to a wide variety of tastes.

Another Village favorite, Benjy’s, gets a fresh new look every few months thanks to a revolving art display. Gremillion &Company carefully selects the pieces to ensure the scale of the art is appropriate for the space. Benjy’s prefers to exhibit edgy art from a variety of Houston and international artists.

Fernando Casas, a top Bolivian painter who has lived and worked in Houston for many years, displays his work in the Benjy’s intimate space. Casas approaches his artwork from a philosophical perspective. Currently, a self-portrait of the painter sitting in a chair, abstracted almost to the point of cubism is on display.

Open since 1995, Benjy’s offers diners standouts like Ahi Tuna, crunchy chicken, and blood orange margaritas amidst an eclectic mix of art on the walls. They recently opened a second location on Washington Avenue.

In the Heights, Lance Fegen, Chef and co-owner of Glass Wall, takes a different approach. He exhibits his own work. The self-taught painter’s art pays homage to his other life as a surfer; bright, airy scenes of surfboards and waves.When H TEXAS visited Glass Wall, Chef Fegen was offered a lump sum by a local art enthusiast to purchase his entire art collection.

One of the paintings inside Glass Wall is an original by Ashton Howard, who is known for crushing coral and other organic sea ingredients into his paint. The surfer turned internationally renowned painter depicts a giant wave, known as a glass wall — hence the restaurant’s namesake.

The Glass Wall’s menu, inspired by the natural lifestyle of coastal regions, changes often to incorporate seasonal ingredients. Fan favorites include custom made soups, old bay crab cakes, seared tuna mignon and beef short ribs.

Mo Mong restaurant offers display space for fledgling painters. After opening his Montrose charmer eleven years ago, founder Viet Hoang wanted to share his love of art with Houstonians. Hoang took inspiration from the Menil Collection’s clean design and tranquility, neutral lighting, and pine wood flooring. His restaurant mirrors the ambience of the museum. Mo Mong features a gallery-like atmosphere, with local art hanging in the contemporary lounge area and the intimate dining room upstairs.

A well-known urban hideaway, diners can enjoy Pan-Asian flavors including Vietnamese spring rolls or mango martinis while being captivated with innovative art from local Houstonians. “Food and art are similar,” Hoang says. “Both are creative, based on a mixture of ingredients blended together for presentation.”

In January, mixed media paintings by Matt Messinger adorned the restaurant walls. This month, Mo Mong features local artist Justin Garcia. At 23, he is an ambitious mixed media artist who specializes in portraying the human condition. Garcia uses a mixture of oils, acrylics, and glazes with steel, glass and stone to convey his message. Boheme café and wine bar in Midtown has displayed Garcia’s art, where it was captured in scenes shot for the indie film, “Pretty People.”

Mo Mong’s staff selects and showcases one local artist each month. Artists with 15 tasteful and non-offensive paintings may call the restaurant or email at art@mo-mong.com to make an appointment to present their work for consideration.

Houston’s artful dining scene lures both art and food lovers. After all, what better aesthetic is there than enjoying a masterpiece on the wall, while eating a masterpiece on the plate?

Houston’s Best Chefs Dish Up Romance

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Blogs, The Glamorous Life / Jo Barrett

Food For Lovers

Saint Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14th in the Americas and Europe. Traditionally, lovers express their admiration by sending flowers, confectionary, or Valentine’s cards. The holiday is associated with two early Christian martyrs named Valentine, and its connection with romance developed in the High Middle Ages when practices of courtly love flourished.
Sending Valentines in the form of handwritten cards was popular in nineteenth-century Great Britain. In 1847, a woman in Massachusetts named Esther Howland started an explosive business fashioning Valentine’s cards from the British model. She is responsible for popularizing Valentine’s greeting cards in America.
Today, one billion Valentine’s cards are sent each year worldwide, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year behind Christmas. (Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all Valentine’s cards.) Modern Valentine’s symbols include the heart, a pair of doves, and the winged Cupid.
Valentine’s Day in America represents one of the largest dining-out celebrations in the country. We interviewed some of Houston’s most popular restaurants on the art of preparing romantic dinners.

1. FLEMING’S PRIME STEAKHOUSE
With its soft amber lighting, cozy booth seating, and warm wood accents, Fleming’s lends itself to a romantic meal for two. The restaurant prides itself on their extensive wine list, which includes over 100 wines by the glass.
Unlike other restaurants which force Valentine’s diners into an early or late seating, usually 6:30 and 8:30, Fleming’s allows couples to choose their own time, but highly encourages advanced reservations. The menu includes hand-cut prime beef, bone-in rib eye, and tender filet, and other traditional favorites along with a sharing menu, meant for two.
“Our staff is purely hospitality driven,” says Operating Partner, Maeve Pasquera. “Most of them have been here since we opened. They think long term. It’s not about this Valentine’s Day; it’s about every Valentine’s Day for the next ten years.”
For the most traditional Valentines Day treat, Chef James Cole fashions handmade chocolate covered strawberries for guests celebrating special occasions. And, according to Pesquera, “There’s no beating our molten chocolate lava cake for the most romantic dessert ever.”

2. MAX’S WINE DIVE
Although it may seem like an unconventional choice, Max’s is a great spot for new couples or singles looking to mix and mingle. Reasonably priced wines and upscale “down-home” food complement the restaurant’s hip atmosphere. From deftly crafted Kobe beef burgers and Cabernet, to Haut dogs and Shiraz, Max’s offers something for everyone.
Chef and Manager Michael Dei Maggi says, “We’ll open any bottle of wine from our extensive wine list for only a two glass commitment, and I don’t know any other restaurants in town who offers this.”
Instead of violin music and a staid atmosphere with white tablecloths and candlelight, Max’s provides an upbeat Valentine’s ambience. Couples who enjoy Jukebox music, Honky Tonk, and classic Texas rock will feel right at home.
Max’s offers the regular menu for Valentines Day, along with a special prix fixe meal. At press time, the chef was still working on a signature dessert using molecular gastronomy.
With local modern art adorning jet-back walls and sexy bar seating, Max’s is not a typical dive. The restaurant lacks the pretense of others in town and offers nearly 200 bottles of wine at considerably lower price points.

3. MARK’S AMERICAN CUISINE
Houston’s most romantic restaurant needs no introduction. Located in a 1920’s renovated church, Mark’s is a temple of top-notch cuisine. The restaurant features golden vaulted ceilings, hand painted deco walls, and candlelit tables. Chef Mark Cox specializes in sourcing ingredients from around the world: “We use the best purveyors in the industry, from our big-eye tuna and Escolar brought in from Hawaii, to our Mero fish which comes straight from Japan.”
For Valentine’s Day, Chef Cox prepares a special three-course menu with different varieties of seafood, meat, or game. Advanced reservations are recommended, but Mark’s doesn’t overbook, ensuring each guest feels special. “We actually start Valentine’s a week early for couples who want to celebrate but can’t make it on February 14th,” Chef Cox explains
Sample items from the special combination menu include lobster and short ribs, or specialty Akaushi beef. Chocolate remains a popular choice for desert, but this year, Chef Cox reveals that he’s working with a sticky date pudding. “It’s a play on the word ‘date.’ And of course, bread pudding is always good in February,” he explains.
On February 14th, roses are delivered to each lady, and the restaurant sees wedding proposals each year. “The restaurant setting is a church, and it’s exciting whenever it happens,” Chef Cox says, adding, “I’m more than happy to do a special ring presentation on one of my plates.”

4. RAINBOW LODGE
Imagine a log cabin built in the late 1890’s, overlooking a creek that runs into White Oak Bayou. The Rainbow Lodge features a quaint hunting and fishing atmosphere, cozy, candlelit tables, blazing fireplaces and small, intimate rooms. For Valentine’s Day, the restaurant offers open seating and wild game specialties. Expect rustic, cabin-style, cold weather food like elk and pheasant. Venison, buffalo, and seafood are also top stars at this thirty-year Houston favorite.
Rainbow Lodge Chef Randy Rucker offers special chef’s tables for Valentine’s diners who prefer not to look at a menu. Instead, Chef Rucker whirls around the dining room, and asks diners what they want that evening, for a more personalized dining experience.

5. BISTRO DON CAMILLO
Perfect for older married couples or Valentine’s Day diners who enjoy rustic Provencal cuisine, Bistro Don Camillo offers a quaint setting convenient to Tanglewood, Memorial, Piney Point, and the Galleria.
The restaurant specializes in Cote d’Azur classics like duck confit, pizza from a woodburning oven, and rabbit or beef stew. Fresh profiteroles, crème brulee, and homemade sorbet are on the menu for dessert.
Valentine’s Day is one of Bistro Don Camillo’s biggest holidays. The restaurant offers a five-course prix fixe menu, with several evening seatings, including an early-bird seating for a lesser price.

Cupcake Fever Strikes Houston

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Blogs, The Glamorous Life / Jo Barrett

(No known cure for icing fixation)

What is it about peeling away the pastry wrapper on a warm chocolate cupcake, and then deftly biting into it without getting your nose covered in icing that evokes childhood memories? Nearly as poignant as holding a vanilla ice cream cone, we feel like a kid again balancing a cupcake in our hand. The appeal is nostalgic; we fondly remember the cupcakes from our youth.

A modern cupcake craze appears to have started in New York in 1996 when a quaint Southern-style bakeshop opened in Greenwich Village. According to legend, Magnolia Bakery began making vanilla cupcakes as a way to use up leftover batter. A few years later, “Sex and the City” featured Carrie and Miranda sitting outside on a small bench eating the cakes. Soon, Magnolia was a stop on the “Sex and the City” bus tour, and the queue streamed around the block. The shop installed full-time security guards with hour-long waits becoming the standard.

Magnolia’s success spawned countless imitators as entrepreneurs jumped into the business of baking. The question was: could cupcake mania spread beyond New York City? The answer is a resounding yes. From New York City to Los Angeles, and Chicago to Houston, “Cupcakeries” are springing up all over the United States.

Sprinkles Cupcakes, a sleek shop offering elegant, dainty cakes in over 20 rotating flavors, started in Los Angeles. The company’s president, Charles Nelson, claims it was hard to find someone to lease him space for the first shop. Now, the bakery boasts six outlets in three states, each selling about 1,500 cupcakes a day. Sprinkles’ expansion plans involve 18 cities, including a location in Houston’s Highland Village in April of this year.

There are already places to cop a cake in Houston. Crave Cupcakes in Uptown Park cleverly designed their building so cupcake fanatics can watch their miniature confections bake in an open kitchen. Sugar Babies Cupcake Boutique, which opened a mere eighteen months ago with claims of being Houston’s “original” cupcake shop, offers several flavors including the most popular, red velvet. They are located on South Shepherd between Richmond and Alabama. Red velvet cupcakes, you ask? Look how far this little confection has come: chocolate marshmallow, lemon coconut, peppermint crumble, and even chai latte or mocha for those in need of a coffee-kick. Cupcakes used to be limited to the same humdrum flavors: vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, but no more.

In Chicago, More Cupcakes has gone a step further and introduced bold flavors, including the BLT- a bacon cupcake with ranch frosting topped with an heirloom tomato and micro-arugula. According to founder Patty Rothman: “The question is, how far can we push it? Can we make a cupcake into an appetizer or a side dish?” The shop sells up to 150 BLT cupcakes a day. Men in particular like them; women prefer other flavors. Apple and Gorgonzola cakes are on the menu, as well as curry cakes swirled with berry jam and topped with goat cheese frosting. Strange as it seems, the humble cupcake is humble no more. Even Houston is catching cupcake fever. Cupcake-emblazoned t-shirts and baseball caps are frequently worn by lovers of the treat.

“Cupcakeries” are experiencing explosive growth, but will the future be even sweeter? “Who’s not having a birthday, even in an economic downturn?” asks Sprinkles President, Charles Nelson. “Cupcakeries” in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, sell an average of 8,000 cupcakes per week. Do the math. At $2.75 to $3.50 a pop, that’s some serious sugar.

Starving in Style

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Blogs, The Glamorous Life / Jo Barrett

Models strut the runway as people dine on lettuce.

There’s an old saying. Really old. And it goes like this: “What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others.” — Lucretius. 95-55 B. C.

I prefer a newer saying by one of my favorite suicidal authors: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” — Virginia Woolf

It dawned on me while sitting at a fashion show. Well, actually it was a cross between a fashion show and a luncheon. Let’s call it a “Funcheon.” One of those gigs where you have the pleasure of eating lunch while watching a parade of stick-thin, waif-like, Keira Knightleys model the latest couture.

I glanced around the table of glamorous Houston women, and realized I was the only person eating. Yes, me. Solamente. (Which means “only” in Italian and Spanish in case you were wondering.) The shock registered in slow waves. Not only had I eaten my entire bread roll swabbed with butter (a sin in itself, I dare say) I’d also consumed my chicken breast salad in a dizzying haste. My plate was so clean, it looked as though a St. Bernard had licked it.

Oh. My. Goodness. Could I be any more gauche? Probably not. Unless, of course, I’d shown up at the funcheon: • Sporting a fanny pack and a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt with ‘EuroDisney!’ splashed across the chest in rainbow colors. • Brought my “best friend” Tila Tequila, or, Dick Cheney as my guest; or • Ordered an Old Milwaukee on tap, instead of a white wine.

How to save face? My choice was clear. I waited for the perfect moment. As the women at my table turned their attention toward the fashion finale taking place on the stage, I hurriedly summoned the waiter.

“Bring me a new salad,” I whispered. He seemed momentarily stunned. “You want another one, Ms.?” he asked, his eyes widening in dismay.

I handed him my empty plate and slipped him a small cash bribe. “Please. I beg you. Just bring me another salad so no one knows I actually ate.”

He disappeared and was back in a flash with a fresh lunch. I looked down at the romaine lettuce, the small strips of lean white chicken breast, and the drizzle of olive oil — and I grinned. Yes, I was taking refinement to the next level. Alas, my dear Houston sisters-in-arms. I leave you with this question: Since when did eating go out of style?

Don’t Stop ’til you Get Enough

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Edit

Still waiting to settle a Hurricane Ike insurance claim? It may be time to call the law.

Every month, we write checks to insurance companies “just in case” — just in case we get in a car accident on the way to work, or set the house ablaze while frying the Thanksgiving turkey. And though some of us amped up our insurance policies after Hurricane Katrina, the thought of ever really needing our insurance wasn’t anything we lost sleep over. Fast forward to post Hurricane Ike, and losing sleep is the least of our worries — it’s the loss of roofs, cars and other possessions that have us troubled. But thankfully, we’re covered. Here’s where those monthly payments come to our rescue, right? Not necessarily. For many of us, recovering what we lost in the storm is less promising than PETA hosting a dinner at Vic&Anthonys. We thought we could turn to our insurance agency; instead, we’re turning to the law.

“A lot of companies are trying to avoid responsibility and aren’t honoring the terms of their policies,” Houston attorney Michael Josephson says. “They’re shortchanging customers left and right when it comes to paying for house repairs or compensating them for lost or damaged personal property. Lawyers see this on a regular basis, but it’s not something the everyday homeowner thinks about until it affects them.”

The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), the state’s insurer of last resort, has been a go-to group for homeowners who can’t find adequate coverage elsewhere. However, shortly after Ike hit, TWIA announced they wouldn’t pay for storm surge damage; they consider surges floods. Most insurance companies follow similar policies, leaving homeowners waist deep in distress.

“People assume they just have to make a claim and they’ll automatically get their money, but that’s rarely the case,” Josephson says. Although flooding often causes extensive damage, it’s rarely covered by insurance policies.

All insurance companies must abide by the Texas Insurance Code, a set of guidelines that help ensure fair insurance practices. Though many individuals try to pursue their claim alone, it’s advisable to hire a lawyer at the first sign of wrongdoing on behalf of an insurance company. The sooner you get legal advice under the Insurance Code, the better chance you have of getting fair and faster treatment from your insurer. Lawyers who specialize in settling insurance claims are well versed in the code and will likely recognize infractions you’re unaware of.

An insurance company should take legal action very seriously and in some instances, will present your case to multiple claims adjusters hoping to resolve the issue without going to court.

According to State Farm spokesperson Kevin Davis, the insurance company has handled over 102,000 claims from Hurricane Ike and paid out over $900 million to date. “Every claim is different so some require more attention than others,” Davis says, “but our goal is always to help our policyholders recover their losses — especially after something like Hurricane Ike.” The Texas Department of Insurance tracks policyholders’ complaints and deems whether or not they’re justified. Of the complaints against State Farm, only 37 have been labeled justified and the company has extensively addressed each one.

Conversely, some companies have a vested interest in dragging out the process, even if they know they’ll eventually have to pay a claim.

“They’ll postpone making payments for as long as possible because they lose money when they have to answer these claims,” Josephson says. “The longer it takes to resolve the dispute, the more time they have to come up with the money they owe.” In addition, companies may anticipate individuals will become increasingly frustrated and simply give up.

While there are many situations when a lawyer can help strengthen your claim, in some instances, insurance companies are well within their rights to refuse it, or compensate you for less than you expected. Homeowners should also be aware of rising deductibles. After filing claims for damage accrued from Ike, many homeowners were shocked to find that unbeknownst them, their deductibles had recently increased. Still, there is no harm in contacting a lawyer. If your agent didn’t sell you the right insurance or evaluate your needs and risks properly, they may be liable for covering part or all of your losses. “There are times when people will go to a lawyer with a claim that isn’t covered by their policy,” Josephson says, “but they can usually get some assistance, whether it’s guidance through the claims process, or closure to months of battling with an insurance company.” For more information on the Texas Insurance code, visit www.tdi.state.tx.us.

Alla in the Family

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Edit

Sunday Supper “Alla Famiglia” Honors Houston’s Treasures

Consummate hosts Tony and Donna Vallone invited a distinct group of Houstonians to join them for Sunday Supper. Their guest list included supporters of “The Social Book” and select media personalities. The special celebration honored The Social Book’s 2009 Houston Treasures. Treasures are remarkable Houstonians who have demonstrated a lifelong commitment to philanthropy, volunteerism, the arts, medicine, business, media or politics. Past winners include: Becca Cason Thrash, Dr. Michael DeBakey and Barbara and President George H. W. Bush.

New Executive Chef Francesco Casetta wowed guests with family-style servings of pasta, vegetables, meats and cheeses; Mr. Vallone personally fashioned each meatball by hand. The traditional Italian dinner included five fabulous courses served by Tony’s award winning wait staff.

The 2009 Houston Treasures are: Jan Carson Connolly, Diane Gendel, Joanne King Herring, Maryann &Jodie Hoffer, Patty Hubbard, Don Jordan, the Kickerillo family, Melanie Lawson, Ann Sakowitz, Lester &Sue Smith, Nancy &Dr. James Willerson, Fred Zeidman and Ron Stone (posthumously).

Donna and Tony Vallone; Philamenia Baird and Joanne King Herring

IL MENU DELLA SERA

Traditional Italian menus have five sections. A full meal usually consists of an appetizer, first course, a second course with a side dish, followed by desert.

PRIMI
Tortellini Modenese
Pennette Genovese
Gnocchi ai Porcini

(The first course is traditionally a pasta, soup, or risotto)

INTERMEZZO
Polpette

Intermezzo roughly translates into a brief interlude in the dinner (a scoop of homemade sorbet) or in this case, the meatball — fashioned by Tony himself.

SECONDI
Cannelloni
Rollatini di Vitello alla Marsala
Cernia Agrumi

Second courses in traditional Italian dinners often consist of meat, poultry, or fish.

CONTORNI
Fagiolini Ammollicata
Rapini
Parmigiana di Melanzane

The Side Dishes – Contorni: This can be a vegetable (verdura), potato, or salad (insalata).

UNA SINFONIA DI DOLCI
Dolci: Desserts

At the end of your meal, you will be offered dolce. Sometimes there may be a choice of fruit (often whole fruit served in a bowl for you to select what you want) or cheeses. After dessert, you will be offered cafe or a digestivo (after dinner drink).

FEAST YOUR EYES

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Edit

Houston Restaurants Serve up a Blank Canvas

Houstonians may eat out more than residents of any other major U.S. city, but it’s not all about the food. Ambiance adds to the dining experience and many Houston restaurants offer distinct art exhibits to compliment their cuisine.

Prego, the casual, Italian Trattoria in Rice Village commissioned Gremillion &Company to do a permanent installation by John Pavlicek, the Houston artist who specializes in mixed media on canvas using collage, tissue, paint, and graphite. Pavlicek’s multi-colored piece wraps around one of the main dining room’s focal walls.

Prego specializes in custom-made pastas and fillings, and the menu changes seasonally. The restaurant’s Rice Village location attracts families and students, and the art provides a unique backdrop appealing to a wide variety of tastes.

Another Village favorite, Benjy’s, gets a fresh new look every few months thanks to a revolving art display. Gremillion &Company carefully selects the pieces to ensure the scale of the art is appropriate for the space. Benjy’s prefers to exhibit edgy art from a variety of Houston and international artists.

Fernando Casas, a top Bolivian painter who has lived and worked in Houston for many years, displays his work in the Benjy’s intimate space. Casas approaches his artwork from a philosophical perspective. Currently, a self-portrait of the painter sitting in a chair, abstracted almost to the point of cubism is on display.

Open since 1995, Benjy’s offers diners standouts like Ahi Tuna, crunchy chicken, and blood orange margaritas amidst an eclectic mix of art on the walls. They recently opened a second location on Washington Avenue.

In the Heights, Lance Fegen, Chef and co-owner of Glass Wall, takes a different approach. He exhibits his own work. The self-taught painter’s art pays homage to his other life as a surfer; bright, airy scenes of surfboards and waves.When H TEXAS visited Glass Wall, Chef Fegen was offered a lump sum by a local art enthusiast to purchase his entire art collection.

One of the paintings inside Glass Wall is an original by Ashton Howard, who is known for crushing coral and other organic sea ingredients into his paint. The surfer turned internationally renowned painter depicts a giant wave, known as a glass wall — hence the restaurant’s namesake.

The Glass Wall’s menu, inspired by the natural lifestyle of coastal regions, changes often to incorporate seasonal ingredients. Fan favorites include custom made soups, old bay crab cakes, seared tuna mignon and beef short ribs.

Mo Mong restaurant offers display space for fledgling painters. After opening his Montrose charmer eleven years ago, founder Viet Hoang wanted to share his love of art with Houstonians. Hoang took inspiration from the Menil Collection’s clean design and tranquility, neutral lighting, and pine wood flooring. His restaurant mirrors the ambience of the museum. Mo Mong features a gallery-like atmosphere, with local art hanging in the contemporary lounge area and the intimate dining room upstairs.

A well-known urban hideaway, diners can enjoy Pan-Asian flavors including Vietnamese spring rolls or mango martinis while being captivated with innovative art from local Houstonians. “Food and art are similar,” Hoang says. “Both are creative, based on a mixture of ingredients blended together for presentation.”

In January, mixed media paintings by Matt Messinger adorned the restaurant walls. This month, Mo Mong features local artist Justin Garcia. At 23, he is an ambitious mixed media artist who specializes in portraying the human condition. Garcia uses a mixture of oils, acrylics, and glazes with steel, glass and stone to convey his message. Boheme café and wine bar in Midtown has displayed Garcia’s art, where it was captured in scenes shot for the indie film, “Pretty People.”

Mo Mong’s staff selects and showcases one local artist each month. Artists with 15 tasteful and non-offensive paintings may call the restaurant or email at art@mo-mong.com to make an appointment to present their work for consideration.

Houston’s artful dining scene lures both art and food lovers. After all, what better aesthetic is there than enjoying a masterpiece on the wall, while eating a masterpiece on the plate?

I’ll Drink to That

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Edit

From confused to connoisser: What everyone should know about wine

With an inception dating back to 6000 BC, the history of wine is as rich as its distinct flavors. Archaeological evidence suggests the beverage first appeared in what is now Georgia and Iran. In medieval Europe, wine was lauded by the Roman Catholic Church for its use in Mass and favored over beer in Germany for its civilized appeal. Today, wine is synonymous with fine dining and to many enthusiasts, equally important as the food it accompanies. Wine bars are popping up in cities throughout the country and Houston is among rapidly growing markets. But popular as it may be, exploring the world of wine can be daunting. Red, white, dry or sparkling — the countless options are dizzying. You may feel alone in your cluelessness when friends start “label dropping,” but rest assured, you’re not. H TEXAS sat down with Tony Elsinga, Sommelier at The Tasting Room Uptown Park, for a briefing on the basics.

THE NAME GAME
While many people can name the wine most tempting to their pallet, how a wine is termed may not be as obvious. “Today, wines are generally named after the grapes they’re made from, but in the past, the beverage was classified by region,” Elsinga notes. For example, Pinot Noir and Merlot share their moniker with specific grapes while Chianti hails from the Italian region of its namesake. Dryness and body also describe wines. A dry wine has little sugar in comparison to its acidity and is not sweet. Body accounts for the weight of the beverage in the mouth and is described as light, medium or full. Body is generally related to the amount of alcohol in a wine; the more alcohol, the heavier or fuller the body.

This dynamic duo is a staple at cocktail parties and tastings. Because acid and fat play off of each other, wine and cheese are the ideal combination to fully enjoy both flavors. A dry, red wine perfectly complements hard cheese, while white wines are traditionally matched with softer ones.

Consider
Director’s Cut Cabernet with Parmesan
Caramel Road Chardonnay with Brie

Light-bodied Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs complement seafood dishes without overpowering their flavors. While white wines are often recommended for seafood, dense fish like salmon goes well with full-bodied reds.

Consider
Rombauer Chardonnay
Starborough Sauvignon Blancs

A Texas-sized steak needs a bold wine to match. A rich Malbec or spicy Shiraz will take a steak dinner from simple to superb with a few sips.

Consider
Don Rodolfo Malbec
Boarding Pass Shiraz

If your meal already has a kick, it’s best to stick with a white wine or fruity red to counter the dish’s spice, as their sweetness sooths the palate without compromising flavor.

Consider
Highlands Zinfandel

Vegetarian food is paired best with white or light-bodied red wines. Because vegetables, fruits and grains are less dense than meat, they go best with comparably light wines.

Consider
Zind Humbrecht Pinot d’Alsace (a blend of Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay)
Leitz Riesling

Executive Chef, Steve Super, is cooking up an alluring aphrodisiac-inspired meal for Valentine’s Day, complete with cider braised short ribs and Mediterranean mussels in coconut milk. Couples may consider the following labels, ensuring every part of their meal includes a little bit of love.

Consider
Braccetto Rosa Regale
Infused with a hint of rose petals, this wine is like a bouquet in a bottle.
Shiraz Sincerely
A labor of love produces this fruity, medium-bodied bottle. Wolftrap (a red blend)
For enticing the one you almost let get away.

While the aforementioned moderately priced wines are perfect for everyday consumption, on special occasions, these pricier bottles are worth splurging on.

Champagne Hernriot La Cuvee Des Enchanteleurs
Soldera
Soldera Brunello di Montalcino
Cabernet Sauvignon
BV Georges de Latour

ABOUT THE EXPERT
After living in Europe for 24 years, Tony Elsinga returned to the states a bonafide wine aficionado. He started writing wine lists for upscale restaurants and won the coveted Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 2005. He’s procured wine for Denzel Washington, Francis Ford Coppola and Billy Joel, and worked with Wolfgang Puck. Elsinga joined The Tasting Room in 2006 and won the Houston Iron Sommelier Competition and the Houston Cellar Classic’s Sommelier Smackdown in 2007.

TONY’S TIPS
Described by Elsinga as “a luxury everyone can live without, but everyone wants,” good wine lies in the pallet of the beholder. When running in foodie circles, it’s easy to feel embarrassed by a lack of wine knowledge. But according to Elsinga, one should stop feeling troubled, and start tasting. When tasting wines, take note of what you like, even if it’s not what an expert suggests or happens to be moderately priced. “People often get talked into `liking’ a wine simply because a Sommelier suggested it,” Elsinga says. “And pricier doesn’t always mean better. I’ve tasted $500 bottles against $19 bottles and in one instance, six out of seven guests enjoyed the $19 bottle.”

For more information on the wines featured in this article and wine tastings at The Tasting Room, visit www.tastingroomines.com.

A Dine’s Worth of Difference Houston’s out to Lunch (and Dinner, Too)

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

Houston is known to the outside world for many splendors: oil, gas, traffic and their offspring, smog. Others have heard of NASA, the Texas Medical Center, the Astrodome and on and on. When it comes to touting our pluses, we all know the drill (on or offshore). But one of the joys of living here — besides cheering for the Texans — is great eating. It is said that Americans eat to live and the French live to eat. On both counts, Houstonians go back for seconds.

We partake of every taste, ethnic background and drive-thru. This cornucopia of calories also means we go out a lot. According to the Zagat Restaurant Surveys, Houstonians dine out more often than residents of any other major American city. In fact, Houstonians go dining an average of 4.2 times per week compared to the national average of 3.2 times per week.

There are 6,425 restaurants in Houston, including white table clothes, sit-down franchises and fast-foods joints, but excluding our schools, hospitals and convenience stores with their mouth-watering two-month-old hotdogs and sketchy soft serve ice cream. Eating out is an $8 billion-plus annual business in this metropolitan area.

The Houston Yellow Pages lists 47 pages of restaurants (compared to 25 for air conditioning and 20 for churches), plus listings for food brokers, food consultants, catering, etc. Each month, H TEXAS lists and profiles all sorts of different eateries — Asian, Fusion, Asian/Fusion, Contemporary (which apparently means the food is fresh), Road Kill, Global and Yankee. This brings us to our geographical smorgasbord (we have Scandinavian restaurants, too). Our eating tastes come from everywhere because we come from everywhere. HISD students represent 84 different languages and nearly one out of every four Houstonians is foreign born. No wonder we have 87 foreign consulates, third most in the nation.

We make the U.N. General Assembly look as homogeneous as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This is reflected in our cuisine — Houston’s melting pot is really more of a cafeteria line. You want a good, authentic Mongolian yak fat cake? Could you be more specific? Upper northwest Mongolian or urban peasant yak fat cake? There is a wonderful Serbian-Mongolian-Salvadorian café in the Heights–Vlad’s Little Bit of Bator Cantina. Ask for the chef, Lars-Erik. Conversely, while we celebrate outside influences, we must not underestimate our own, homegrown offerings, which look pretty good to visitors. Example: On Sept. 17, 1989, after visiting NASA, out-of-favor Boris Yeltsin dropped in unexpectedly at a Randalls on El Dorado Blvd. and Galveston Road, south of Ellington Field. He wandered the aisles for 20 minutes and commented, “Even the Politburo doesn’t have this kind of choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev.” Historians recount Yeltsin’s eye-opening visit to a Houston supermarket as the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union. Look it up.

Image: Steve Dern (Robber), and Oliver Malms (City)

Beyond our freeways and skyscrapers is another aspect of our appetite: agribusiness. In 2006, the latest year available, 229,393 acres (19.12 percent) of Harris County were classified as agricultural/timber land. Incidentally, that number is shrinking because we keep turning farmland into housing developments. On this acreage, we produce agricultural products valued at $364 million a year and growing. We raise beef, vegetables, rice and corn, and hatch 1.2 million eggs a year. To paraphrase Blue Bell, we eat all we can and ship out the rest: Agricultural products represent 17.4 percent of what is shipped from the Port of Houston.

We’ve got astronauts, but 2,173 of Harris County residents list their occupation as farmer, fisher or forester. At the other end of the food chain, 88,541 people in the county are either food preparers or servers, aka cooks and waiters.

Yes, other American cities have some great places to eat. New York City is the winner hands-down. Unfortunately, in New York City it is often hands-up. Otherwise, where’s the competition? Kansas City has great steaks, but how’s their chili con queso? New Orleans has wonderful Cajun cooking. And that’s all they have. Go to Elgin for barbeque and to San Antonio for fine Tex-Mex. (We shall know we’ve lost control of the immigration situation when we eat at Mex-Tex restaurants.)

Each city has its specialty, but Houston has excellent food in all of the above. It is my own oft-quoted theory that Houston’s melting pot tastes better because of location. We are at the crossroads of Mexico, Louisiana, the Gulf and the rest of Texas. So we get great Tex-Mex, mouth-watering Cajun cooking (remember that we received 250,000 Katrinians, and many never returned to the swamps), wonderful fresh seafood from the Gulf, and Texas steaks and barbeque from our ranches. No other city can make that statement.

But we are witnessing conflicting movements in our eating habits. Go into any bookstore and you will see aisles of books on food. Cookbooks frequently top best-sellers lists and celebrity chefs have their own restaurants and TV shows. Indeed, there is an entire cable network, the Food Network, totally dedicated to eating and restaurant critic ranks among the most envied positions. However, we are also in the midst of an economic downturn. People are losing their jobs and survivors’ salaries are being reduced. America has slipped on a banana peel and may be forced to eat it. One of the first cutbacks on the family budget is eating out.

Yet experts predict 2009 will be a rare year, well done. Let’s look at the big, middle and little pictures. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2009 Restaurant Industry Forecast, industry sales nationwide are anticipated to reach $566 billion this year, an increase of 2.5 percent above 2008. As for Texas, that same forecast predicts our state will lead the nation in sales growth in 2009 to hit $35 billion (up 4 percent) and will employ more than 1 million Texans. We’re Number One!

Richie Jackson, executive vice president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, says, “Even in these tough economic times, it is clear that the Texas restaurant industry is the best place to do business in the nation. While our country is coping with the weakest economy in decades, Texas restaurateurs continue to buck the trends and post positive sales and job growth.” And locally, we’re also expected to do better than the rest. Rene Zamore, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, says Houston restaurants seem to be somewhat bucking the economic trends. But Zamore also points out that restaurants are getting hit with a one-two punch: a worsening economy and the rising price of food, which began well before the recession. “Many of our members reported positive numbers for the holiday season, but are bracing for a slower than usual January and February.”

So there we have it. Houston continues to feast, but business may slow from very good to only good. Speaking of dining, eat your heart out, Politburo.