You go from table to table, hoping for memorable tastes and flavors, food prepared well, made with thought and care. There’s something edifying about the act of finding it, sharing it with others, appreciating it. You’ve learned to deal with the moments when the taste and flavors do not deliver, when shrimp is overcooked and enchiladas taste like sawdust and not much more, when this food writer or that restaurant reviewer lauds the cuisine of the latest farm-to-table restaurant or poke mecca and you wait a month to try it and find it lackluster at best. Taste is subjective, after all, isn’t it? One man’s bland bowl of borscht is another’s Proustian interlude, no? Those disappointing meals serve to whet your appetite for the next pleasurable repast, as vexing as they might be.
Recently, the good moments have come with satisfying regularity, the pastas done well, the branzino pleasing, the (yes) spicy tofu all that tofu can and should be. You looked on and listened as your friend (and Brockhaus sous chef) Chris savored the rigatoni bianco Bolognese you knew he would love, his sighs audible. Yes, it’s been a good week or two at the table in Houston, days that included a brunch at Tony Mandola’s Gulf Coast Kitchen that featured doughnut sliders that were just what I needed at the time, though I was unaware of the need before I tasted them. (Click here for a look.) The sweet and savory plate is a grand antidote to a night of celebration.
To that Bolognese, which has been my favorite pasta in Houston for a few months now. It’s at Tony’s, and if you have not tried it, you are missing something you shouldn’t.
I was hooked the first time I tried this dish; it’s complex, speaks of hours in the pot, the simmering and melding of the meat and vegetables and breaking down of the parts into a whole that transports. Each ingredient retains its place of pride — look at the carrots, their shape exact and right — but the technique that goes into making this course creates a tour de force of rich and subtle flavors, something full of rustic gusto and refined grace. Appreciate the saltiness of the cheese and the acidity of the olive oil. If all goes well, you’ll have this more than once.
Wine was also fine during these days and nights, and we even enjoyed some in cans. An unoaked Chardonnay and a red blend (Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot) from Ron Rubin Winery did us good, and we paired a Chardonnay from Mitsuko’s Vineyard with chèvre and bread. (Ray Isle recently tasted some canned wines as well, and his review of them is a good read.)
During a dinner at the home of Russ and Judy Labrasca, Angela and I were treated to a 1997 Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon, and a ’96 from Saddleback, the latter a lovely bottle, mellowed into a dream, the former drinking well though expressing charms of a more typical manner. Russ and Judy are a couple — Angela met them when she worked in Dallas, and introduced them to me not long after I arrived in Houston — I consider myself honored to know, friends without parallel. We drank those wines with hamburgers and Judy’s customary spread, and it was good.
Houston Restaurant Weeks is upon us, the annual event that has done so much good for so many people in need of a square meal since it was founded, back in 2003. I sampled a few HRW menus this week, and came across another worthy pasta and a branzino of note, both on the menu at Amalfi Ristorante Italiano & Bar. The pasta, a tortelli, is filled with Asiago, potatoes, and pancetta, and served with beef short ribs. Tender, al dente pasta, top-notch cheese and pancetta, and, OK, the short rib is wonderful. The sea bass, my favorite item on Amalfi’s HRW menu, is accompanied by potato gnocchi, roasted artichoke, and a lemon cream sauce. Sea, lemon, olive oil, gnocchi … try these, and donate $7 to the Houston Food Bank in the process.
Let’s see what comes next …