North Italia

Today (Sunday) is a free day for me because the Patriots are not playing. They will play tomorrow. For those who know about my football obsession, my weekends primarily revolve around Tom Brady’s schedule; secondarily with that of Drew Brees (played last Thursday). Thank God Aaron is hurt and Peyton has retired. Those are a lot of people and schedules to work with. So today, we go Christmas shopping. Or so we hoped.

Galleria was a mess, I just couldn’t deal. So we decided to salvage our shopping fail with what we do best—eating out. We came across this restaurant and I honestly thought we have eaten here. I can’t believe this has been here for a while and we’ve never tried.

The appetizers were very tempting so we ordered the top two that we liked.

ARANCINI 
crispy mushroom risotto
stuffed with scamorza cheese &
served with red sauce
ITALIAN
MEATBALLS 
marinara, pecorino,
grilled bread

The drinks list was not a slouch either. A lot of good choices.

D had a really good Barolo which is expected for any self-respecting Italian joint
I had a RED SANGRIA —
brandy, blood orange,
red wine, strawberry, lime
I had too much to eat last night so I settled for pizza. FUNGHI —
roasted mushroom, cipollini onion,
smoked mozzarella
And D, as an homage to our favorite, Peyton Manning, had CHICKEN PARMESAN 
crushed tomato, aged provolone, mozzarella,
parmesan rigatoni (it tastes so good!)

As always, desserts are my favorite (along with dessert drinks).

HAZELNUT TORTA —
nutella cream, hazelnut toff ee,
salted caramel gelato
We paired it with ITALIAN COFFEE —
espresso, caff è borghetti,
amaretto, vanilla whipped cream

That lunch went very well! I’m writing this blog as D is trying to navigate away from here. We wanted to stop by Trader Joe’s but we couldn’t find parking! This day is a wash. Thank God for the Italians and their extremely comforting food, this day didn’t totally suck.

North Italia, BLVD Place
1700 Post Oak Boulevard, Suite 190
Houston, Texas

Maison Pucha Bistro

This week, like most weeks in December, has been a blur. Holiday season is fun but there’s just way too many things that need to be done. My only accomplishment is putting up the Christmas decors (yey!), but I have not wrapped presents yet because I have not bought any presents to wrap. Every time I go to the malls, I always end up buying things for myself so I started doing my Christmas shopping online. So far, none of the orders arrived yet, so technically, I still have nothing…

We always try to have a nice Saturday date to celebrate surviving the week. It’s a good excuse to unwind with wine and good food. We chose this French restaurant at the Heights because the chef,  Manuel Pucha, has been constantly impressive with his work at La Table (another favorite). Maison Pucha is huge from what you would expect at the Heights, and also a lot prettier.

I received a cheat sheet of its wine list from a friend who was here the other night so we were quick on deciding the drinks for tonight.

Paloma Picasso—
Fortaleza blanco, Parisian organic sparkling grapefruit soda, fresh lime, salt
Malbec 2008
Gougeres!!!

This is what they served in lieu as bread to start. In other restaurants, gougeres would be on the menu, hence, not free.

For starters we had the Ponzu crab
My entree, Lamb Navarian, is beautiful and delicious.It comes with a side of mashed potatoes.
D had his usual filet mignon
Dessert — Noir et Blanc Soufflé —
organic Ecuadorian chocolate, passion fruit crème anglaise, house made vanilla ice cream

This is an absolute gem. It takes 20 minutes to prep so order early. It is totally worth the wait.

Coffee in Bed —
cinnamon/coffee-infused bourbon, carpano antica, coffee & cacao bitters, condensed milk

This is the winner of the night. I cannot believe how bourbon and coffee can taste so good together.

I’m really glad we came here tonight. Everything was delicious! As we drove out, there was some event in the area and all the homes were lit up and there were food trucks everywhere. If we weren’t so full, we would have tried some of them.

I am looking forward in bringing my work peeps here for our monthly dinner club. This will be a hit!

Maison Pucha Bistro – 1001 Studewood St. — Houston, TX

Street Food – Iceland Edition

I started this blog to chronicle my travels and my passion (eating) as a way of learning about other cultures. The food that local people eat is very telling of the history, geography and character of a city/country. Iceland, while so gorgeous with its  waterfalls and glaciers, is a big challenge when in comes to food production. Its frigid condition does not make it conducive to growing and raising veggies/livestock for consumption. What they have, though, is  all the bounty that seas have to offer.

I will start with this because I feel like should be receiving an award for having eaten this. My dedication to food knows no bounds. Exhibit A.

Hakari aka fermented shark

Hakari is made from the meat of a Greenland shark, which is naturally full of noxious chemicals, similar to antifreeze, so that it can survive in the cold depths of the ocean. Are you kinda throwing up yet? Here’s more…The shark is caught, and then cut up and literally allowed to rot for approximately 6 months. AND I ATE IT. They were not kidding about the strong chemical smell. Locals recommend that this is eaten with Icelandic vodka. I actually brought some home so I can pair it with the Russian vodkas that i prefer. Where’s my award?

Harðfiskur

Harðfiskur or dried fish is a traditional Icelandic food often served at the start of a meal along with bread, butter, and other meats, similar to a charcuterie plate. This preserved fish preparation, usually made of cod, haddock, or catfish, is thought to have originated from the Vikings as they required foods that would keep for months at sea. While there are other cultures that preserve their fish, there is nothing quite like fish from the clean Icelandic waters dried in their fresh air. For my Bisaya friends, this is similar to our very own “bulad”, but not as salty. Of course, I bought some to take home and i had it with breakfast porridge(arroz caldo). Amazing.

Skyr

For breakfast, as a snack, in a sauce at dinner, skyr is everywhere in Iceland. Made with fat free milk and a culture, skyr looks and taste like yogurt, but is actually a cheese. It is tangy like Greek yogurt, but much creamier. Good news, I found one in Trader Joe’s and tried it last night and it was good!

A true Viking Treat — lamb meat carpaccio, liver sausage, and ram’s testicles.

Yes, you read that right. RAM’S TESTICLES.  The lamb carpaccio is twice-smoked (with dried sheep dung — yup, not a typo—dung). The liver sausage is the most pedestrian here, I’ve tasted similar ones in Germany. The ram’s testicles…oh boy. The testicles are pressed onto blocks, boiled the cured in whey. The end result is a sour, spongy meat that surprisingly goes well with beer. This is sold in many grocery stores. This is a pack I found in the airport which i, of course, brought home. Have I written about my many mis(adventures) in bringing meats to the US? I really hope no one from customs is reading this.

Hot Spring Rye Bread

Let’s move on to something not so disgusting. It’s a dark bread with a very particular taste, that’s slightly sweet. To bake  this bread is to put the dough into special wooden casks in the ground close to a hot spring and pick it up the next day. Absolutely delicious!

Dala Cheeses

Búðardalur (west Iceland) specializes in the making of mold cheeses. The hard cheeses are made in the northern part. The dala cheeses are usually, brie, blues, camembert taste-alikes. I love how they are all over grocery stores. We had these for breakfast.

Lamb Soup

This, I can totally make. I can’t believe I never thought making this, considering how much I love lamb. It’s cooked they way one would with run-of-the-mill beef soup—carrots, potatoes, onions. Rich flavor and very comforting. We had this after the glacier hike.

Lava Cheese

Lava cheese is a crunchy cheese snack made from Icelandic cheddar, which is then dried, baked and seasoned. It is similar to the parmesan crisps you see in Whole Foods.

Lava Salt

I found this while wandering around the airport prior to departure. The black lava salt is an Icelandic geothermal flaky sea salt blended with activated charcoal. The activated charcoal is a natural detoxifier that has health benefits.

Last, but not the least …

Gellur (Cod tongues)

Don’t be fooled by the innocent appearance of this pasta dish. While you have the palate-friendly lobster and shrimp, it also contains tongues of a fish. Actually they’re a fleshy, triangular muscle behind and under the tongue, if that seems less disgusting. It really is good. It is best incorporated in a seafood dish such as this one. It brings a lot of “seafood flavor” and an interesting texture. No actually “street food”, we had this at a restaurant. Still worth the mention since we area on a roll here with weird foods.

I had to include this. Iceland has the best water. This is a bottle we got from our flight. Same quality as that come out of the tap. Beans wants this as Christmas gift. Seriously.

There you have it. My Icelandic street food experience. I hope you learned a thing or two, if not of their food and culture, then the fact that I will literally try anything, just for the taste of it. If you’ve read this far, I might as well tell you how an admin of a Facebook food group in Houston, shot one of these pics down. Her words—“I can’t have you post that. Why would Houston foodies want to know about Iceland anyway”. Uhm…because if you’re a foodie, you would be interested in what the rest of the world eats? And to that I click “leave group”. I can’t stand close-minded people. Thank God I can afford to have my own blog…

 

 

LAVA Restaurant – Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Before I expound on the bounty of the food this restaurant offers, let me just say that this place is absolutely gorgeous. It is set in the heart of the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa, that despite its very tourist-y vibe, remains one of the most breathtaking man-made places I’ve been to. The restaurant  is called Lava, because it is surrounded by, well…lava. It  has huge picture windows and in the second floor, you can sit (and freeze) by the balcony and enjoy this view.

No words. This was taken at sunrise.

On the main floor, the picture windows allow you to get a closer look of how amazing the milky, white water is against the dark lava rocks.

The water gets its bluish-white hue as reflection from the sky

As mentioned, we got here before the crack of dawn. The experience we had is well chronicled in my Facebook page. The Premium package we got offered a reservation to this wonderful restaurant so I booked one for lunch. I have read in many blogs that going to the lagoon after a long flight rejuvenates you. Nobody said anything about how it deals with hunger. After flying from H-town, watching movies and drinking the entire flight, then soaking up in the lagoon, we were famished!

We got started with several types of bread, including ICELANDIC DARK RYE BREAD (DÖKKT RÚGBRAUÐ), which is baked in geothermal rocks. Butter was softened and sprinkled with lava salt.
As appetizer – Birch and juniper cured arctic char, with Horseradish foam, cucumber, pickled mustard seeds, arctic char roe, rye bread

Arctic char is a cold-water fish in the Salmon family, more tender and flaky, found only in arctic and sub-arctic waters.

Langoustine soup

Langoustine is a Norwegian lobster – a lot smaller than the Maine lobsterbut flavor is very delicate. It is now dubbed as the new foie gras (per Bon Appetit—I have no idea why. All i know is that it is delicious).

Lamb fillet and shoulder of lamb
Artichokes, carrots, dates, thyme

Iceland boasts having the best lamb in the world. I would have to agree. This lamb was cooked medium-medium well and was absolutely tender without being chewy.

Cod with Cauliflower, barley, fennel, mussel sauce. This was D’s entree. The cod was super flaky and moist, the kind you get when the fish never visited the freezer.
Grilled beef tenderloin with Icelandic mushrooms, crispy potatoes, onion jam, dijon mustard

Beef is where Iceland, and in general, European beef, would lose out against American beef. It’s a matter of taste of course, but there is always that “stringy-ness” in this beef that one would never get from any USDA meat. Although if I’m really to rank beef, the real-deal Kobe beef would outrank (and out-price) any of these meats by a mile. But..that’s another post for another time…

Dessert – “Ástarpungar” & caramel — aka
Caramel chocolate mousse, vanilla ice cream, salted caramel
…and because we still have to travel to Reykjavik after being here, we needed these Nordic coffee to wake us up.
Here’s “us”

This is the best meal I had in this country. I had the pleasure of dining on other restaurants (which I shall be writing about soon), but this is special because it is soooo pretty. Haha. But it really is. If you happen to book a tour in Blue Lagoon, spring for this too.

LAVA Restaurant, Nordurljosavegur 9, 240 Grindavik, Iceland

 

 

 

Theodore Rex

This restaurant was where Oxheart used to be. The chef is the same (James Beard awardee, Justin Yu), but the name has changed and the menu as well. The location reminds me of Fillmore St in San Francisco, vibrant but a bitch to find parking. It was not easy to get reservations and as soon as we entered, I understood why. It is tiny. I soon found out that it only seats 28 people.

As much as my first impressions of this restaurant may seem negative, the food experience is the exact opposite. The food is absolutely amazing. This is easily one of the best meals I have in Houston. Should there be someone who is willing to campaign for a Michelin rating, this restaurant should definitely get a star (or 2).

D had his usual Bordeaux and I tried an unfiltered Prosecco, which surprisingly was good.
Tomato Toast – thick slice of browned pain de mie that’s brushed with tomato water and topped with tomato fondant and a salad of fresh tomatoes

This is one of the more famous dishes on the list. And for good reason. The picture does not do it justice. This is one beautiful and delectable dish.

‘Yellow Edge’ Grouper steamed in collard green parcels, with Japanese turnips, and green tomato sauce vierge
Roasted Texas Wagyu dressed with fermented radish and beefy bits, charcoal grilled-greens

This was D’s entree. The chef suggests that this is cooked medium rare. We usually get our steaks cooked medium but this was a good exception.

Paris-Brest filled with sweet Swiss cheese cream, honey caramel

This is an amazing dessert which paired well with their coffee whose brand I forgot to get. The Swiss cheese had an almost nutty quality to it that prevents it from being too sweet.

As mentioned, if you’re a foodie, this restaurant won’t disappoint. The food is a bomb. If you’re looking out to wine and dine and expect a rowdy company, you might want to rethink this because I cannot overemphasize how small this place is. Come here to appreciate how much food can be taken to a whole new level by creative genius. Just don’t forget to make a reservation a few weeks before….

Theodore Rex, 1302 Nance St.
Houston, Texas 77002

 

Lucienne

We had our usual Sunday brunch a bit earlier today in preparation of all the games I wanted to watch. Texans at 3 and Astros at 7. My Patriots play at noon but since I am so underprivileged as not to have Direct TV football package, I just listen in (radio style) if their game is not shown on local channels. Such is the life of a cheap sports fan.

Lucky for me, I have a more decent budget for my eating out hobby. So we are here at Lucienne, the new restaurant off fancy Hotel Alessandra in downtown Houston. Decor is really pretty, color scheme is similar to that of Ladure, that macaron place in Paris, very inviting.

D had Makers Mark Manhattan and i had a French 75
The drink is made table-side. Yummy and so pretty.

We ordered escargot for appetizer, but for some reason, the waiter forgot. So there we were, taking tiny sips as there’s nothing worse than taking in all this alcohol on an empty stomach. As our entrees arrived, I knew that the escargot was a goner.

Risotto – Butternut Squash, Parmesan, Black Hills Ranch Pork Belly

This was really good. Although I felt a wave of guilt as I got to the bottom of the bowl because there was a little pool of oil. Who am I kidding? It is lard. After all, this is pork belly.

D’s lobster Omelette– another winner
This is a Pommes soufflé

This is the first time I’ve had this and I am definitely intrigued. A quick perusal of Google revealed — pommes soufflées are a variety of French fried potato. Slices of potato are fried twice, once at 150 °C and a second time after being cooled, at 190 °C. The potato slices puff up into little balloons during the second frying and turn golden brown.

Because of the little mishap on our escargot, the manager decided to comp us our dessert.

Here’s mine – PISTACHIO VACHERIN.

This beautiful dessert is cow’s milk cheese (vacherin) admixed with pistachio. The solid top on the cup is white chocolate with raspberry.

D had creme brûlée

We ordered coffee for the desserts and the unthinkable happened. As I poured the creamer, it came out in chunks. It was sour! I had to call the waiter again and the manager was horrified. They immediately replaced the bad creamer. When we got the bill, we were comped off our alcohol as well.

With all the faux pas that occurred, the management knew how to handle it. Impressive, considering they just opened less than a month. We gave a huge tip, because I really don’t like NOT paying for a good meal. As I have always said, good food covers a multitude of sins. We definitely are planning to be back. In all likelihood for dinner, when most of the staff are on their A-game.

Speaking of A’s, the Astros play tonight and I am kicking myself to have allowed myself to get hooked to this game. Last night’s game was heartbreaking. I have no need of this negativity in my life. But knowing me, I will still watch tonight’s game, sleep late, wake up angry, then of course, stress eat….

GO ASTROS!

 

STQ

It’s fall weather at last! I finally had the top down on Turby as I drove around town for my never-ending errands. By noon, D was back from Fredericksburg. Of course, he has not eaten. He does not eat out without me. And he would rather starve than stop at any drive through. So after driving 4 hours, he was hungry and I didn’t have anything cooked because I didn’t expect him to be back so early. Luckily, he still had energy to drive back to H-town to get some decent lunch.

We decided to try STQ’s lunch. This restaurant is an off-shoot of the famous Killen’s barbecue in Pearland. They just started opening for lunch, so gave it a shot. Menu isn’t as  extensive as that of dinner, but the goodies are still there.

D’s Tempranillo and my Fall’rita
Queso Flameado for appetizers

 

My burger- I’m not a big burger fan but this is definitely a good one. Like every dish, good ingredients always win out.
D’s Filet mignon- it didn’t turn out to be medium as ordered, more like medium-well, but holy moly, it was good!
They had Mac n cheese so naturally, I ordered that. We had to take it home because there was way too much food.
This is the winner. Dessert is tres leches bread pudding. They used croissant as bread and the piece de resistance is the bacon crumbles on top together with toasted almonds. Amazing! I will come back here just for this.
i kinda regretted that we chose to share the dessert. But we truly love each other and God knows we’ve met our calorie requirement for the day, so….

Overall, it was a very good meal. I like how this restaurant is not as crowded as the one in Pearland. I would definitely try the dinner here pretty soon!

 

Oxbow 7

I have noticed that the last couple of restaurants I’ve reviewed, the newly-opened ones, don’t have menus online. Is this a new “thing”? Being a teeny bit OCD when it comes to eating out, this concept is a bit daunting because I really want to know what I’m in for before making reservations.

Oxbow 7 is Bayou Cuisine with Chef Bryan Caswell at its helm. I guess that little nugget info was enough for me to venture into the unknown. As I grew older, I welcome surprises more and more. Although, I would not put it beyond me  NOT  to walk out if the menu is simply underwhelming. Speaking of menu, it was strange that the dishes were grouped in numbers. It was numbered  1 through 6; 1 and 2 seem to be appetizers, 3 and 4 soups and salads, 5 are the entrees, and 6 are the desserts. This wasn’t explained to us, although I’m pretty sure I came to a fair assumption. Why just not label it as such? Again, is this a new “thing” with restaurants that I’ve never heard of?

Like I always said, in every dining experience, good food covers a multitude of sins. And boy, with the food we had, they could have written the menu backwards, I would still have forgiven them. It was THAT good!

Tasso cornbread with preserved fig.

I was never a big fan of cornbread, but this was so good, I actually had two orders of this to-go.

Gulf Crab Gratin – a beautiful dish, cooked perfectly
Longfin Yellowtail with Grilled Watermelon and Lemon Catsup — this is an explosion of flavors. This kind of dish is creativity at its best
Crispy Skin Snapper with Charred Corn and Green Tomato Mache Choux, Roasted and Raw Peach.

All this time, I ate my fish with some sort of sauce or dip. The combination of corn and roasted peach together with the snapper is absolutely delicious.

Dry Aged Strip with Chorizo Dirty Rice

D knows that I love  chorizo so he lovingly picked it all out and gave it to me. Love!

Gooey Cake for dessert. Apple butter pudding with candied apple. Yum yum!
These are the faces of the delightfully surprised.

This was definitely one of our better dinners. D was happy with his Joquet Chinon 2014 as I was with my daiquiri. Sometimes in life, we just have to trust our instincts. I’m glad that we did tonight.

Oxbow 7, 1121 WALKER STREET
HOUSTON, TX 77006

 

 

Quattro

Last week, I read an interesting article on how men are so exasperated when women in their lives can’t decide where to eat. It’s the total opposite with me. I decide where to eat 99% of the time. I usually book our weekend restaurant reservations on Mondays. I was pretty sure that I booked for BCN this weekend but for some reason, I just didn’t. This threw me off completely, so, for once, I let D decide where to eat.

He chose Quattro because he said that we have been loyal patrons to this restaurant for the last 8 years for a reason— it is always consistent in it’s quality and service. I have good memories of this place. I remember how we always have our Easter Brunch here because Beans loves the egg-hunt and there’s always an Easter bunny handing out treats.

This is B with the Easter Bunny. He’s about 8 years old in this pic. I can’t wait for him to find out I posted this.

This is also our go-to restaurant during New Year’s day when I’m too lazy to cook.

This was 5 years ago. Getting an early buzz courtesy of the amazing bellini is always a good way to start a year.

D’s criteria in choosing a restaurant is based solely on the wine list.

This is the real reason why we are here. He wanted to get this bottle. Luckily, it was really good.
I had Jalapeño Mule.
The server recommended that we start with Padini – they contracted this cheese maker from Italy. It is very similar to Parmesiano-Reggiano without the saltiness
I loved, loved, loved this wild caught octopus. Perfectly cooked and paired with olives and grilled potatoes
D had 30 day dry aged filet
This tiramisu was made table-side and it totally stole the show. The lady fingers are freshly made and soaked in espresso with marsala.

Yesterday, we had a really bad experience in a once-loved restaurant. It has all been settled now. Manager has apologized and all. But for once, it’s nice to dine and have everything the way it should be. That is Quattro. From the time they lead you to your table, to the way they pour the wine, everything is done correctly. D made a great choice.

Quattro, 1300 Lamar St, Houston, TX 77010

 

Aqui

My quest to find the best lechon in Houston led me to Aqui, the new Southeast Asian cuisine created by Chel Paul Aqui, a “Top Chef” champ who is behind the success of of several Austin restaurants. Another food blogger told me about their lechon and urged me to try it and see if it’s up to my expectation.

I always make it a habit of viewing the restaurant’s menu before I decide to book. The restaurant opened less than two weeks ago so their menu is not up in their website. But since lechon was already promised, I decided to wing it. Imagine my surprise as I sat down and realized that the menu is filled with Filipino dishes. EVerything is certainly familiar except that the presentation was really unique, and well, fancy.

There is a column called “Perfect Bites” and you can choose one or a couple of delicious samplers. I chose three of these as my appetizer.

Dinuguan and Rice Cake – pork jowls cooked in pork blood on top of a rice cake (puto)
Ensaymada – brioche with scamorza filling topped with Iberico ham and Manchego cheese

I used to bake ensaymada back in the Philippines. But I was not fancy then. I just topped it with cheddar cheese. I am serisouly considering baking these brioches again, this time with all the fancy trimmings.

Tapioca Dumpling with ground pork, peanut and salted radish. This was too salty and spicy.
D had a Filipino classic – Yellowfin Tuna Kinilaw, it had coconut sauce and jackfruit. It even had the siling labuyo which frankly, should have come with a warning as it is super hot.
So here’s my LECHON. They serve the belly part and the requisite crispy skin.
It came complete with all the trimmings: the liver sauce, atchara, kim chi and nam chim
D had the Bistek – this is a fancy-fied version as it uses Wagyu steak, cooked medium well.
I had Turon for dessert – it had banana cream, instead of the real banana. It reminded me of fried ice cream
D had this chocolate curry mousse with cocoa crumbs. I never thought curry would go well with chocolate.
D with his Cotes-du-Rhone

My verdict: Every dish turned out great. I was very impressed by the creativity on what used to be everyday food that I had growing up. The lechon,  however, was still not up to what I expected. This was more like lechon kawali (deep fried pork belly) and not the conventional lechon, which is the whole pig roasted in a spit.

I am happy, however,  that someone elevated the Southeast Asian cuisine to this level. The restaurant  is located in the Montrose area, right in the heart of all the hip foodie hangouts and it hangs with the best of them. The last time I was in a similar restaurant was back in New York, 2013, at Purple Yam when they made it to Michelin publication. It’s a hight time that Houston would have one as well.

Aqui, 520 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX