Every year, there are specific dishes that wow me enough that I end up talking about them endlessly, or craving them desperately.
Taking into consideration factors such as flavor, texture, mouthfeel, overall taste, execution, visual appeal, crave-worthiness, and wow factor, the following is my list of the best of the best I tasted in Houston this year, 2011 (you can also view them in the slideshow).
25. Chilled cream of asparagus soup accented with floating bubbles of extra virgin olive oil, at RDG + Bar Annie. Created by Chef Robert del Grande for a $500-per-plate charity dinner, this soup was stunningly smooth, delightfully chilled, and perfect on the hot summer day I sampled it.
24. Papas a la crema, at Latin Bites. They may seem simple, but these are no ordinary potatoes. Chef Roberto Castre weaves some special magic to make them delicious and unlike any other potato you’ve tasted. The creamy cheese sauces containing rocoto pepper, amarillo pepper, and cilantro elevate the simply boiled golden potato into something totally addictive.
23. Salted toasted pork spareribs, at Shanghai Restaurant. The house specialty at family-run Shanghai Restaurant should win awards, it’s so good. The Colonel could have been describing these when he coined the phrase “finger-licking-good.” And they taste that awesome, every time.
22. Pan Fried Dumplings at Arirang Dumpling King. (9715 Bellaire Blvd, Ste B). One of my best finds of the year, the hand-made, pan-fried dumplings at this casual cafe next to Arirang Korean Restaurant, identifiable only by three Chinese characters above the door (which, translated mean “Dumpling King”), looked and tasted delicious. And the best part? Ten dumplings are just $4.95.
21. Mediterranean branzino crudo with crispy skin, at Tony’s. Part of Chef Grant Gordon’s Chef’s tasting menu, whose cuisine, incidentally, received a rare four-star review from Houston Chronicle Food Critic Alison Cook, the cold fish’s unexpectedly crispy seared top was perfectly executed, to my absolute delight.
20. Sashimi tuna avocado salad, at Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro. I could have chosen their off-menu short-rib dish, or their Vietnamese inspired cubed beef dish, or their Thai inspired basil clams dish — each was delicious in its own right, but it was the sashimi tuna avocado, with a creamy tangy rice vinaigrette dressing that has me smacking my lips in remembrance of how good it tasted.
19. Lobster taco at Hugo’s. One bite is all you need to take before your eyes roll back into your head and you start gushing about how a little morsel could taste so divine. At least, that’s what I happened when I ate it.
18. Bacon salad at Strip House. To call it a “salad” is a misnomer. Four centimeter-thick strips of house-cured honey-glazed bacon puts Oscar Meyer and Hormel to shame. All I can say is: “Give me more bacon!!”
17. Steamed egg with chili-miso sauce, fried rice balls, and aromatic herbs, by Chef Justin Yu of Oxheart Restaurant for Money Cat Brunch. Texturally, the somewhat runny, semi-poached, half-translucent egg whites resembled those of a Modernist-style 63 degree poached egg. Fried rice balls added a flair of crispy, which, when combined with the spicy miso sauce, made this a knockout dish.
16. Risotto with robiola cheese and fresh white Alba Truffle, at Valentino Houston. Prepared by James Beard Award-winning Chef Luciano Pellegrini and Cunninghame West for a recent truffle-themed dinner, this risotto was best-in-class; the shaved white truffle, an aromatic and flavorful Coup de Grâce.
15. Caviar topped kaeshi poached egg, toasted rice furikaki, creme fraiche, kim chi bread, by Pilot Light Group. Everything comes together in a creamy, salty, delicately crisp amalgam of flavors and textures that is quite simply, stunning. By Chefs Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner.
14. Tora-fugu at Kata Robata. If I felt any numbness or tingling when eating this rare poisonous puffer fish imported from Japan, I didn’t feel it. What I felt was excitement, awe, and admiration for Chef Manabu Horiuchi, who made it possible for Kata Robata to become the 16th location in the entire US to serve tora-fugu.
13. Ecuadorian shrimp in a beer/tomato gazpacho, topped with beer foam, popcorn, plantain chips, at Samba Grille. If anyone passes this dish on the menu, I say, you are missing out. By Executive Chef David Guerrero, his Ecuadorian twist on the traditional shrimp cocktail is part ceviche, part gazpacho, and wholly scrumptious.
12. White truffle oil and parmesan souffle at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge. I am admittedly a Francophile and love all things French — french music, french art, french cities, and french cuisine. And though I sampled many standout French dishes this year, the one that takes the cake is Philippe Schmit’s signature savory souffle. Give me truffle and give me cheese, and wrap it up in a souffle, please.
11. Riceless risotto of root vegetables, with almond mullet roe, by Restaurant Conat. The ingredients were simple, the execution flawless. For one of the Umami dinner collaborations with Kata Robata, Chef Randy Rucker turned some plain root vegetables – think turnips and two other plain roots — into little kernels that looked like rice, but was something altogether otherworldly.
10. 72-hour sous-vide Texas Akaushi Beef Short Ribs, at Kata Robata. If you love beef — the melt-in-your-mouth, yet slightly seared kind — this creation by Chef de Cuisine Mark Gabriel Medina will leave a long-lasting impression. The cilantro ginger pesto over sliced cherry tomatoes, and the sprouts tossed in Japanese wasabi dressing all add to the overall effect of absolute deliciousness.
9. Live lobster sashimi, at Azuma Kirby. Yes, there will be people who squirm at the thought of eating live lobster, but the crustacean’s flesh must be eaten just-in-time, and when it’s prepared by a master sushi chef like Masa Wakatsuki, the sweet flavor the the lobster with freshly grated wasabi is sweeter than sweet shrimp, a true delicacy that must be sampled at least once.
8. Veal chop, at Backstreet Cafe. An oldie, but a goodie, Backstreet Cafe has been serving top notch food to inner loopers for years. When they brought out this glistening, perfectly crisped and charred veal chop, over a bed of spinach and butternut squash risotto, it just re-confirmed what I’d known all along: Backstreet Cafe is here to stay and has the goods to back it up.
7. Lobster with candied orange zest powder, at Restaurant Cinq. Jeramie Robison’s off-menu creation was not only a visual stunner but a palate-stunner as well. The sweet and tangy powder enhanced the lobster’s own sweetness, sending this dish over-the-top to a place that for me, was unforgettable.
6. Duck waffle at Bistro Alex. The hearty, deep flavors of the shredded, coffee braised duck, mixed in with a sweet three onion jam, and laid in a mound atop the sweet doughy crispness of a butternut squash waffle just makes you go “ahhh.” Add some chicory coffee ganache and foie gras fondue sauce, and top it with a sunny side up quail egg, then break the quail egg so that the runny yolk mixes in with everything else, and your palate will explode in happiness.
5. Ham-honey shrimp cocktail at Max’s Wine Dive. Every quarter, Chef Michael Pellegrino changes the chef’s half of the menu, and if you were one of the lucky few to taste this dish during the first quarter of 2011, then you would have tasted a brilliant dish, made of ham-infused honey, thinly sliced avocado “carpaccio,” bright orange paprika oil with streaks of squid ink, and of course, shrimp. Wow.
4. Hickory Smoked Kurobuta pork belly, glazed cherry, cherry-tamarind sauce, at Killen’s Steakhouse. Created for a special Paul Hobbs wine dinner, one of the guests that night exclaimed loudly “This is the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth!” The sous-vide pork belly was charred to just the right degree of outer-shell crispness, while the inside had that melt-in-your mouth effect from being sous-vide for a couple of days. Add to that a slight sweet tanginess from the cherry-tamarind glaze with a smoky barbecue flavor, and it was, without a doubt, one of the best things I’d put in my mouth all year, too.
3. Fresh snapper in coconut curry broth, at Sorrel Urban Bistro. Chef Soren Pedersen is always writing new menus and creating new dishes, and less than a week after he’d served me this delectable fresh snapper poached in delicate coconut curry broth, he’d already forgotten what he’d done. Since then, I’ve had fresh grouper, halibut, shark, and many other wonderful fish preparations at Sorrel, but this is the one I won’t forget. So. Dang. Good.
2. Chicken involtini with braised cippolini onions and chicken skin gravy, by Triniti Restaurant and Les Sauvages. I tasted so many impressive dishes by the Triniti team these last few months, that it was difficult to select one, but this was a standout. The chicken had been sous-vide and wrapped in the skin, which was fried to a crisp. Inside, the chicken was glisteningly moist and tender, braised cippolini onions added a bit of sweetness to the dish, while the chicken skin gravy was oh-my-goodness-so-very-delicious.
1. Mushroom powder, poached egg, fried spring garlic, a hazelnut pickled spring garlic cream, shitake mushroom, by Seth Siegel-Gardner for Kata Robata. This is one of those dishes that cause your senses to explode the moment you put it in your mouth. The flavors were distinct, and yet, blended together perfectly. The textures of the egg with the fried spring garlic were runny yet crispy, and the mushroom powder and spring garlic cream created an amalgam of powdery yet smooth heaven. Without a doubt, the most memorable dish I had this year.
About the author:
Mai Pham covers Restaurants and Fine Dining for lodeplus.com. Click on the subscribe link above to stay up to date with news and events about food in Houston. You can read previous stories here. Pham is also featured on Fox 26 news every other Friday evening at 9pm, where she dishes about food and restaurants in the Houston scene.