Date night Houston with Tracie P, fantastic conch ceviche & groovy Bourgogne blanc

best ceviche recipe houstonIt’s not easy finding “alone” time for parents with small children like us.

But now that we’re settled into our new lives in Houston, the stars occasionally align for a baby sitter and a date night.

On Saturday, I took Tracie P to Caracol, a chic and smart Mexican seafood restaurant here in Houston and one of my favorite restaurants in the U.S. right now.

Chef Hugo Ortega’s cooking is always fantastic but the thing that takes it over the top is wine director Sean Beck’s excellent, value-driven wine list.

We drank a delightful Oregon Pinot Gris by the glass with the tender conch ceviche above.

camerones en escabeche recetta houstonThe camarones en escabeche were also great.

The escabeche was delicately seasoned and not overly sour, the shrimp perfect salted and grilled.

One of the things I love about Caracol is how cosmopolitan the crowd is there. You always see lots of sharply dressed young south American professionals at the bar (where we love to eat).

But that night, I only had eyes for Tracie P.

correct way to slice prosciuttoNext we headed over the Camerata, the city’s hippest wine bar these days (and the place where all the visiting international wine celebs hang).

We love chef Felipe Riccio’s affettati and cheese selection.

Not just one but two orders were placed for his expertly sliced prosciutto, which accompanied a super tasty bottle of Bourgogne Blanc Le Petit Têtu 2012 by négociant Jean-Marie Berrux.

petit tetu burgundy chardonnayWhen the wine opened with some apple cider notes, I was worried that it might go south.

But it quickly snapped into focus and white and white stone fruit aromas and flavors emerged along with good balance in alcohol and acidity.

I didn’t know the wine but Monday morning googling revealed that it’s pretty hard to come by. The fact that you can drink it here is another example of how Houston, in my view, is swiftly becoming one of America’s top wine cities (more on that later).

By the time we left to turn back into pumpkins (around 9:30), we were surrounded by young blue bloods, finance and energy managers who swirled and sniffed their glasses with an earnestness that would rival that of their counterparts in lower Manhattan.

Tracie P and I have been married now for nearly five years. With two little girls now and a move to Houston earlier this year, our lives have changed a lot since we first drank beer and danced at the Continental Club in Austin back in 2008.

But “eating at the bar” is still our favorite thing to do together. And we’re happy to live in a city that always seems to have a spot and a bottle to accommodate us.

I love sipping with you, beautiful Tracie P… What a fun night! I love you.

Cult BBQ with J.C. Reid, leading ‘cue commentator & connoisseur

cork screw bbqAbove: BBQ waits for no one at Cork Screw BBQ in Spring, Texas, where the line begins to form at 8 a.m. for an 11 a.m. open.

There was a time in Texas, I’ve been told, before citizens would begin lining up early in the morning to get a taste of limited-edition cult BBQ.

Some say that Snow’s in Lexington (about an hour east of Austin) was the first pit master to attract such an early morning crowd.

But it was Franklin’s in Austin (proper), opened in 2009, that irrevocably created a new BBQ vernacular: BBQ zealotry punctuated by early-morning commitment and/or long waits under the Texas sun to savor the coveted gelatinous beef fat or pork product of choice.

With Killen’s, which opened earlier this year, Houston got its first high-profile cult BBQ destination — including the long waits and disappointed customers who don’t make it to the front of the line in time for their favorite cut.

chris jc reid bbq texas writerAbove: J.C. Reid, left, travels across Texas and the United States writing about BBQ. Georgia P and cousin Marty sit to his left.

On Saturday morning, Georgia P, cousin Marty, and I joined J.C. Reid — the foremost authority on Texas BBQ in my view — and his beautiful wife Tamara for a meal at Cork Screw BBQ in Spring, about forty minutes north of Houston.

“Chris,” as he is known to his friends, was the first in line when the cashier opened at 11 a.m.: he had been there since 7:30 holding his place (read the Cork Screw FAQ for queue etiquette [please excuse the pun on 'cue]).

In his weekly BBQ column for the Houston Chronicle (launched in April 2014), Chris wrote that Cork Screw’s “smoked meats now rank with the city and state’s best, and the bar will likely keep getting raised higher.”

Click here for the article. It’s a great window into the commitment and unbridled passion that go into great BBQ (I love the line about the “thousand-yard stare”).

foldover sandwichAbove: a “fold over,” in southern parlance, when you make a sandwich using one slice of bread. The brisket — the sine qua non of BBQ in Texas — was outstanding, with melt-in-your-mouth texture, well balanced rub (seasoning), and integrated smokiness (a key factor in the best BBQ in my experience).

Chris has written about BBQ for a number of top mastheads (including the New York Times).

We became friends a few years after I moved to Austin in 2008 via social media thanks to our shared love of central Italian cookery (we’re planning a carbonara-fueled trip together to Rome in spring 2015).

The thing that sets him apart from the current and past generation of BBQ chroniclers in Texas (blowhards, for the most part) is that he sets his sites beyond the state’s borders.

He and his wife are world travelers and gourmets and he’s acutely aware (and self-aware) of BBQ’s role in the americana gastronomic canon (a grad of USC, he has also worked as an architect in New York and the chief of a web hosting company here in Houston).

When I thanked him for holding our place in line, he smiled and told me he was happy to do it.

“It’s my job,” he said.

The best place to follow Chris is his Twitter, where he posts a subscription-free link to his Houston Chronicle column each week. See also his article, published last week, on favorite BBQ destinations beyond Houston and the Texas tradition of the “BBQ run.”

Chef Grant Gordon, rising culinary star in Houston, dies at 28

grant gordon chef houstonImage via Houston Press.

Today, the Houston restaurant community mourns the loss of one of its most promising and beloved stars, Grant Gordon, who died on Monday night.

A Houston native, Gordon, age twenty-eight, rose to prominence as the chef at Tony’s, one of the city’s leading fine-dining destinations, where the kitchen earned a top rating from the Houston Chronicle in 2011.

In 2012, he was a James Beard Rising Star Chef semi-finalist and one of Forbes 30 Under 30.

In 2014 he was selected by the U.S. State Department as a culinary ambassador and earlier this month, he and his business partners had announced plans for an ambitious new restaurant to be opened in 2015.

Click here for the Houston Chronicle notice of his passing and here for Culture Map’s profile. As both mastheads reported, the cause of death has not been determined.

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Parzen girls update & an extravagantly delicious gumbo

the producersAbove: our girls love going to restaurants and Georgia P always wants to read the menu. On Saturday morning we took them to Kenny & Ziggy’s deli for white fish, salmon, eggs, and bagels. It’s such a great restaurant and as a former New Yorker and now Houstonian, I can tell you that it’s just as good (and as pricey) as any you’ll find in the city.

We’ve had a really lovely weekend here in Houston, with weather that reminds us all of the California where I grew up (and where they’re experiencing unseasonally high temperatures).

My mom came in from La Jolla for a four-day stay to visit Georgia P (above) and Lila Jane (below).

As any parent will tell you, raising babies and toddlers is never an easy task and our girls — like anybody’s kids — can be a handful. But they always have a smile, hug, and kiss for us and all it takes is a coo or an “I love you” to make the sleeplessness and headaches vanish…
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Del Posto a night at the opera

del posto octopus new yorkAbove: Charred Octopus with Umbrian garbanzo, celery hearts, and 25-year Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.

Paolo, Adam, Zachary, and I had an epic night Tuesday at Del Posto in Manhattan.

From Jewish boy stomach to A.J. Liebling, to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the conversation was as wild as the food and wine.

I posted images and notes (including our celebrity sighting) today over at the Boulder Wine Merchant blog

Thanks again, Paolo!

NY Times mea culpa & Nossiter’s new film “Natural Resistance” debuts

new york times olive oil cartoon

Above: a screen shot of Nicholas Blechman’s half-hearted mea culpa. I’ve copied and pasted the text below.

I’m still feeling sick over Nicholas Blechman’s sensationalist, fear-mongering olive oil cartoon, published recently by the New York Times. And I’m feeling even worse about his half-hearted mea culpa, which now appears at the very end of the cartoon (image above, complete text below).

As my friend and colleague Pete Danko pointed out yesterday on the Facebook, the retraction was longer than the original piece!

Why, on earth, did the editors of the Times op-ed page invite someone like Blechman to write about olive oil? He’s a supremely talented and wildly successful illustrator and editor, no doubt about it. But I can’t find any credential that points to his would-be authority on gastronomy.

The bottom line, as one reader pointed out, is that if a bottle of olive oil costs so little that it seems too good to be true, it probably is…

Just have a look at olive oil authority Tom Mueller’s post on a flight of olive oils he tasted from the Trader Joe’s selection.

There is plenty of adulterated olive oil out there. But high-quality bona fide olive oil is also widely available to us here in the U.S. (San Giuliano from Alghero, Sardinia is our house olive oil; it costs about $14 at our local gourmet market for a 750 ml bottle).

In other news…

nossiter film natural resistance

Jonathan Nossiter’s new film, Natural Resistance, will debut this weekend at the Berlin Film Festival.

It chronicles the bureaucratic and political obstacles and challenges faced by four Italian grape growers and winemakers — La Stoppa (Colli Piacentini), La Distesa (Castelli di Jesi), Pacina (Chianti), and Cascina degli Ulivi (Alessandria) — as they pursue their dream of growing grapes without chemicals and making wines without additives.

In bocca al lupo, Jonathan! Or better yet, in culo alla balena!

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Furor in Italy, Mueller disavows himself of NY Times olive oil cartoon

best italian olive oil

Above: ribollita, “twice-cooked” Tuscan bread soup drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Italy’s community of wine and food writers, Italian olive oil producers, and Italian politicians are still reeling in the wake of Nicholas Blechman’s sensationalist cartoon, “Extra-Virgin Suicide: the Adulteration of Italian Olive Oil,” published by the New York Times on January 24, 2014.

In an editorial published today, the editors of Il Parlamentare, a weekly magazine that covers politics in Italy, write: “This is how the New York Times ‘makes fun of Italy.'”

The cartoon erroneously reported that up to 69 percent of Italian olive oil is adulterated. And although the cartoon was later amended, it also incorrectly reported that oil from other countries could be legally labeled as “Italian” despite the provenance (see below).

[Today, the final panel of the cartoon reports that "an earlier version of this graphic contained several errors," including those cited here.]

The cartoon was purportedly based on data gathered by journalist Tom Mueller, who authors the blog Truth in Olive Oil. He is also the author of a Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (Norton, 2013).

On January 29, Mueller appeared before the Italian parliament’s Chamber of Deputies (akin to our House of Representative) to answer questions about his research. During his appearance, he disavowed himself of the cartoon, which made explicit reference to his work.

“There is no connection to me,” said Mueller of the cartoon, “nor is it my work.” It is made up of “humorous images that incorporate fact but also — and above all — include glaring errors. They reflect a biased approach that ignores quality and focuses only on fraud.”

According to the Italian national daily Corriere della Sera coverage of his appearance before the chamber, he expects the Times to publish a retraction.

On January 31, Italian blogger Olga Mascolo published an interview with Mueller on the popular food blog Dissapore.

The following is an excerpted translation of the interview (to my knowledge, Mueller has only made these comments in Italian and they have not been published in an English-language forum; translation mine).

*****

“There are two principal errors” in the cartoon. “The first is approximation. I wrote 200 pages on this subject documenting the problem of olive oil adulteration. But I also brought attention to those who are doing good work… The overwhelming majority does good work. There are just a few rotten apples who make life difficult for everyone.”

“In regard to the New York Times, it’s a cartoon, fifteen panels that give the impression that all of Italian olive oil is evil. But that’s not the case. The fact that such an authoritative newspaper has reported this makes it all the worse. This is not Home Simpson making silly declarations.”

“In particular, there is a vignette that claims that 69 percent of Italian olive oil is adulterated. That’s not the case. The figure is based on a California study that shows that, at most, the oil is not extra-virgin. But that doesn’t mean that it is adulterated.”

Sources: Dissapore; DiVini (Corriere della Sera).

*****

The following line in the New York Times cartoon was amended in a subsequent version:

“Bottles are labeled ‘Extra-Virgin’ and brand with the globally respected ‘Made In Italy.’ (Oddly this is legal, even if the oil does not come from Italy.)”

The current caption reads as follows:

“Bottles are labeled ‘Extra-Virgin’ and brand with the globally respected ‘Made In Italy.’ (Oddly this is legal, even if the oil does not come from Italy — although the source countries are supposed to be listed on the label.)”

Source: Intravino.

#BestMeals2013: Dispensa Pani e Vini (Franciacorta)

The Dispensa in Franciacorta is one of my all-time favorite restaurants. This spring, I took Tracie P and Georgia P (and Lila Jane in Tracie P’s belly) to eat there not once but twice…

italian grissini

Above: Grissini — bread sticks — are one of Italy’s great gifts to humankind. I’m not talking about the hydrogenated oil-charged grissini that come in a plastic wrapper. I’m talking about the ones that chefs like the amazing Vittorio Fusari bake in-house. Georgia P couldn’t get enough!

Franciacorta Chef Vittorio Fusari and his Dispensa Pani e Vini have become a happy Parzen family obsession. Last week I wrote about the first of two meals we had there earlier this year.

Vittorio’s ability to match brilliant technique and precision with his uncanny knack for sourcing wholesome materia prima have fascinated and thrilled me. Bringing Tracie P and Georgia P to lunch there was one of the highlights of our family trip to Italy in the spring.

Here’s what we ate on the second day.

32 via dei birrai

There is so much great beer being made in Italy right now. We loved the richness of aroma and flavor in the Oppale by 32 Via dei Birrai.

raw salmon italy

The salmon wasn’t cured. It was served raw, expertly sliced and dressed with a gentle drizzle of olive oil. So simply yet ethereally satisfying.

pasta asparagus

Vittorio made these penne with green beans especially for Georgia P. Mommy and daddy couldn’t help stealing a bite.

risotto asparagi asparagus

Vittorio’s risotto agli asparagi was a masterpiece. This dish left me speechless.

italian chicken salad

Poached chicken salad. That’s a lightly breaded, fried egg in the middle. It’s yolk was perfectly runny.

italian hamburger

The Bresciani (ethnonym for natives of Brescia, Lombardy, the province that claims Franciacorta) love beef. This was Vittorio’s take on the hamburger. All the bread is baked in-house at the Dispensa.

manzo olio brescia lombardy

Manzo all’olio — literally “beef cooked in oil” — is a classic dish of Bresciana cuisine. Slowly braised beef usually served with polenta and/or potatoes.

giovanni arcari eugenio signoroni

If I’m in Franciacorta, you’ll usually find me in the company of my bromance Giovanni Arcari (left), winemaker extraordinaire and grand personage of Italian wine. He met us for lunch and we bumped into Eugenio Signoroni, editor of the Slow Food beer and osteria guides. That’s the kind of place the Dispensa is. You always run into food and wine professionals and personalities there.

happy italian baby

What a joy to watch our sweet baby girl enjoy her meals at the Dispensa. Our family life is centered around eating well (and by “well,” I mean deliciously and wholesomely) and there is no chef I know who devotes more attention and passion to the wholesomeness of what he serves his guests.

Thank you, Vittorio! The Parzen family is your unabashedly and eternally devoted and grateful fan!

McChianina? You have to be kidding me! #MakesMeHeave

gran chianina

Above: The new “Gran Chianina” burger at McDonald’s Italy (image via McDonalds.it).

“When will we stop selling off our enogastronomic heritage?” asks my friend and blogging colleague Andrea Gori in a post for the popular Italian wine blog Intravino today.

Andrea, a native Florentine and one of Italy’s leading sommeliers and wine bloggers, is referring to McItaly’s launch of the “Gran Chianina,” a hamburger purportedly made with Chianina beef, the famous Tuscan breed that gave the world the bistecca fiorentina.

Italians are obsessed with hamburgers this year (see this post, one of many devoted to their hamburger mania). I’ve had some great hamburgers with my bromance Giovanni Arcari in Brescia. And my friend Wayne Young, Joe Bastianich’s special ops man, tells me that young Italians love the hamburger at Joe’s new restaurant in Cividale del Friuli.

But McChianina? It touches a raw nerve on both sides of the Atlantic.

For those of you unfamiliar with Chianina cattle, here’s the Wiki entry.

Evidently, McItaly (yes, that’s what it’s called!) is also launching a line of Piedmontese beef burgers.

While the first Italian McDonald’s opened its doors in German-speaking Bolzano in 1985 (according to the Wiki), it was the launch of the McDonald’s at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome that inspired the creation of what would become the Slow Food movement.

This legacy has made McDonald’s the symbol of enogastronomic colonization in Italy, a bitter pill to swallow for a country united only by culinary pride and football.

Here’s a video capture of the Gran Chianina spot from Andrea’s YouTube. It’s enough to make you want to heave…

I can only imagine how offensive this is to Andrea. Not only is he one of Italy’s leading wine personalities, he’s also the wine director for his family’s legacy restaurant, Trattoria da Burde, in Florence. It was the model for the Gambero Rosso (Red Lobster) restaurant in Collodi’s Pinocchio.