The best little steakhouse in Texas

texas beef

Above: Now THAT’S a fine piece of meat! Bone-in rib eye is the preferred cut for steak in Texas.

Now, mind you, Pearland, Texas is not exactly on my beaten path. In fact, it’s a suburb of Houston about 40 minutes south of the city.

Last night, I gladly made the schlep with cousins Joanne and Marty to have dinner with their friend Deedee Killen at her family’s Killen’s steakhouse in Pearland. For months now, my cousins have been raving about the amazing meals they’ve had there and so last night we made the plunge.

texas beef

Above: The key to Chef Ronnie’s iceberg wedge with blue cheese was the creaminess of the dressing.

As much as Texas is known for its beef, its love of beef, and its tide of steakhouses (Dallas has its own “steakhouse row”), I have to admit that I’ve been disappointed with my own personal steakhouse experiences here. But all that changed last night.

texas beef

Above: Chef Ronnie’s crab cake is made with hand-shredded crab meat as opposed to ground. This was, hands-down, the best crab cake I’ve ever had.

The American steakhouse is like a sonnet. Using a rigid and highly codified format, the steakhouse chef is like a poet who has to assemble the same elements given to every troubadour and that artifice must be delivered within the confined space of 14 lines. The success of the poet and steakhouse owner is based on the ingenuity with which that reassembly takes places. Scanning and parsing dishes and the packed house at Killen’s on a Tuesday night, I’d have to rank Killen’s in the same league as Shakespeare.

texas beef

Above: The American steakhouse canon is happily frozen in the 1950 and 60s. Is that a baked potato the way you remember them from when you were a kid or WHAT?

Down at Killen’s, which retains the homey air of a family-friendly restaurant while allowing plenty of wiggle room for the fat cat high rollers, they’re still talking about a 2008 visit from Food & Wine executive wine editor Ray Isle (a great guy and super fun to taste with). That meal landed Chef Ronnie and family in the magazine’s Top Ten Best Restaurant Dishes 2008 for their bread pudding.

texas beef

Above: Even I ate dessert last night. Tracie P will be the first to tell you that I rarely enjoy sweets. But, man, when it’s this good… Chef Ronnie makes the brioche in house.

There was even more than one bottle of wine I could drink on the list, which had judiciously restrained pricing on all the usual suspect Napa Valley “Cabs,” a refreshing surprise for the steakhouse category, where 300% and 400% markups are generally the norm.

Marty and Joanne couldn’t believe how much I ate. I was like that little kid, who gets taken to a steakhouse for the first time, and just can’t believe how big the baked potato is. Everything you want a steakhouse to be…

In other news…

Tracie P on Greco di Tufo…

A gorgeous dry Muscat to start Tracie P’s birthday weekend

Tracie P and I started her birthday weekend off with cousins Joanne and Marty on the patio at the Backstreet Café in Houston, where our friend, sommelier Sean Beck, poured us this AWESOME 2008 dry Muscat from Weinbach (Alsace), a classic expression of the grape (which I was tasting for the first time).

So salty and such beautiful floral notes and so perfectly paired with the warm fall early evening on the patio…

Sean matched this excellent wine with a grilled portabello cap, topped with sautéed Gulf shrimp and cremini, from the restaurant’s current and very groovy “mushroom menu.”

Delicious…

Next up: right this way, your table’s waiting… dinner at the incredible RDG

Run don’t walk: the Greek Festival in Houston is AMAZING!

Above: Houston Greek Festival director Gus Economides, media coordinator Dana Kantalis, and Boutari sales manager Patrick Bennett. Both Gus and Dana told me that their respective families have been involved in the festival, now in its 44th year (!), for three generations. Great folks, GREAT festival.

I have to admit: I was skeptical. When my clients over at BoutariWines.com asked me to cover the Houston Greek Festival for their blog, I imagined one of those stereotypical affairs, like one I attended over the summer in Austin dubiously titled “Italian Festival,” where the raison d’être was that of profiting through the sale of booth space to vendors and not that of celebrating a community and a culture (Tracie P and I were so disappointed.)

Above: All of the food at the Houston Greek festival is prepared by volunteers. The recipes are decided upon by community committees, mostly community matriarchs, Dana told me). No commercial vendors have a presence there.

To my wonderful surprise, I found that this is an entirely homespun, homegrown, grassroots, and community-based festival intended to celebrate Greek culture and cuisine and to benefit the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Houston and its youth programs. EVERY volunteer (and I mean EVERYONE) told me that this is a family affair, with participation handed down from generation to generation (in many cases, the volunteers were fourth generation).

Above: In my capacity as Bloggeropolos (the non-Greek volunteers Hellenize their names for their laminates), I got to taste a lot of great food. The ingredients were fresh and wholesome and man, were they tasty! I’ve never experienced such good food at a large festival. Very cool stuff.

I’ll be heading back this afternoon to the festival with Tracie P, who’s joining me shortly. And we’re doing other fun food and wine stuff while in Houston and on our way back to Austin tomorrow. In the meantime, check out the slideshow I created from my photos yesterday.

An Italian, a Mexican, and two Jews walk into a bar…

My lunch with Tony, Manny, and Marty…

Above: At lunch on Friday, I had the great pleasure to break bread with one of the top Italian restaurateurs in this country, Tony Vallone (left). That’s his good friend, and colleague and good friend of my cousin Marty, Manny Leal, right.

Let’s face it: there’s not a lot of great Italian food in Texas. Since moving here a year ago, I’ve found some great authentic-style Italian and Italian-American pizza, notably in San Antonio and Dallas. Otherwise, I cannot honestly say that I have found Italian cuisine that Tracie B and I truly and unreservedly enjoy.

But that all changed when cousin Marty first treated me to dinner at Tony’s in Houston (where, honestly, I cannot afford to dine but have had the great privilege to enjoy many meals now, thanks to the generosity of Marty and wife Joanne).

Above: Following a little cheese-crisp nosh, the medley of regional Italian first courses opened with some wonderful gnudi, “nude dumplings,” ravioli without the casing, a classic dish from the Maremma in Tuscany, traditionally made with nettles.

Tony and his passion for regional Italian cuisine first came to my attention way back in 1998 when I was working as an editor for The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana and the regional and rustico Italian cuisine craze was just about to explode. The magazine ran a 750-word piece on Tony in the front of the book. What I didn’t know then (and only would find out later) was that Tony wasn’t doing regional Italian cuisine because it had become hip or trendy. He was doing it because it’s what he had and has always done.

Above: The ravioli d’astice (langoustine ravioli) were sinfully good. The sauce for this dish, which could have been prepared in Naples or Venice, was made using the corallo (literally, the coral) of the crustacean: when harvested during mating season, the females carry delicious coral-colored roe that gives the sauce its unique color. True mastery of pastamaking is revealed in the consistency and lightness of filled pasta. Tony’s approached divinity.

“I had to go down to the docks and buy the calamari myself from the fishermen,” said Tony, reminiscing about the opening of Tony’s second location in 1972. “They didn’t sell them: they only used them as bait!” Tony was born in Houston, to a Sicilian mother and Neapolitan father, and has worked in the restaurant industry in one capacity or another since he was 11 years old. While Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects was spoken at home, a visiting uncle — the first in their family to achieve a university degree, in anesthesiology — instructed Tony as a child in “standard” Italian.

Above: The delicious amatriciana at Tony’s is made rigorously with guanciale (the cured pork jowl of central Italy, not prosciutto or pancetta) and dressed with pecorino (not Parmigiano Reggiano). From Tuscany to the Veneto, from Naples to Latium, Italian “regional” cuisine sings like Pavarotti (a frequent visitor to Tony’s) at the restaurant.

Since he first opened the doors of his kitchen in 1965 (originally in one of his father’s gaming rooms), Tony’s top sources for regional Italian recipes, he told me, were Carnacina (the father of “regional Italian cuisine,” whose works were first published in Italian in 1961 and first translated in 1969) and the many itinerant Italian cooks and chefs who would come to Houston, where the oil business lured many easterners and Europeans (and their cosmopolitan palates) early on.

Above: One of Tony’s early supporters was his early landlord, the legendary Houston developer Gerald Hines, who encouraged Tony to develop his skills in French cuisine. This Provence-inspired tuna paillard, dressed with a fresh fava beans, heirloom tomatoes, basil, and a classic vinaigrette, perhaps bespeaks an era when French, not Italian, cuisine dominated fine dining in this country.

A turning point came when Houston developer Gerald Hines told Tony that he was not going to renew the restaurant’s lease because the building was to be razed to make way for construction of the Houston Galleria. Hines was willing to give Tony a new and larger space, the developer told him, on the condition that he cultivate his French dishes. The new menu, unveiled in 1972, included fish bonne femme and beef filet au poivre. “We used trout instead of sole because it wasn’t available then for the bonne femme,” recalled Tony. “We used gulf oysters instead of mussels!”

Above: The litmus test for any great Italian restaurant, espresso. The schiuma (the foam) was sublime.

A subsequent visit from Houston social columnist Maxine Messinger resulted in a nearly 30-year culinary love affair. “You’re in trouble,” Maxine told Tony, “I like your restaurant!” By the mid-1970s, Tony’s had become — and continues to be — Houston’s top see-and-be-seen destination. “I’ve cooked for eight U.S. presidents,” said Tony, “six of them sitting presidents.” (I wondered: did the others eat standing up? I guess it doesn’t hurt that two of the last three presidents were from Texas!)

Above: This man… this man… no, he’s not a rebi. He’s my cousin Marty (my dad’s first cousin) and getting to know him and getting to spend time with him has been one of the most delightful however unexpected surprises since I moved to Texas to be with Tracie B more than a year ago. And the best part? He LOVES good food and fine wine. Marty, I’m so very glad that you, Joanne, Dana, and Neil are part of our lives.

But despite the glamor and limelight he enjoyed by adding Francophile cuisine to his offerings, Tony continued to travel to Italy and to New York, cultivating his knowledge of Italian cuisine and authentic regional ingredients. And most importantly, he remained true to his Italian roots. I believe wholeheartedly that his “linguistic” connection to Italy (the fact that he spoke Italian as a child) is a big part of the his genuine connection to truly authentic and truly delicious Italian cuisine. (Have you ever heard Mario Batali speak Italian?) More on this later.

I’d like to think that Tony enjoyed chatting with me the other day: he promised me another meeting and more tales from the wild west of Italian cuisine in a time long before Whole Foods Market carried Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. I’ll look forward to it.

Thanks again, Tony, for an unforgettable meal, and thanks cousin Marty, for turning me on to great Italian cuisine in Texas! Who knew?

Best margarita in Texas (and Tex Mex gefilte fish)

bar annie

Above: “The best margarita in Texas,” according to my friend, client, and sommelier extraordinaire Julio Hernández, as served at the legendary RDG Bar Annie in Houston.

Last night after pouring and speaking about Italian wines at my client’s tasting in Houston, my friend Julio treated me to what he calls “best margarita” at the legendary RDG Bar Annie, where there may be a recession going on but there is no shortage of bling and great food.

bar annie

Above: Many believe that owner and master chef Robert del Grande is the founding father of “Southwest American” cuisine. His signature shrimp meatballs were delicious. Raw shrimp is finely chopped and formed into balls and then poached. Tex Mex gefilte fish!

The margarita recipe? Equal parts Herradura Silver Tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice (half Persian lime, half Key lime). “Silver tequila has that stoney minerality,” said Julio, “that we Chablis drinkers like so much.”

bar annie

Above: Fried tortilla strips topped with crab meat and avocado. Soooooo good, especially paired with the cocktail. Also not to be missed, although not as photogenic, are the crab beignets with creamy Tabasco sauce.

I gotta say (and I’m not kidding here, Alfonso!) that this was the best margarita I’ve had since moving to Texas and Julio is right: the dominant minerality balanced the acidity of the lime and the sweetness of the Cointreau, making it more food friendly than any margarita I’ve ever had.

bar annie

Above: Julio, left, with Bar Annie wine director José Perez Montufar.

One of the unique things about Bar Annie is that it combines Houston glamor with truly great food AND a world-class wine list. There were many trophy wines on the list, way beyond my reach, but in every section there was a little gem, like the Inama Carmenere Più, that I can afford on a night on the town.

bar annie

Above: There is no shortage of bling at Bar Annie, as evidenced by the valet parking lot. The trade-in value on my Hyundai Sonata was a Christmas windfall! ;-)

2009 has been a wonderful, wonderful year for me, despite the recession and my own struggles to make a living in this economy. Sometimes it helps to have friends in high places.

Thanks again, Julio and José, for a truly special treat!

And happy Friday ya’ll! I’ve been on the road all week and “moving boxes,” as we say in the biz, and I can’t wait to get home to my super fine lady!

Antonio knows that pleasure is the child of pain

From the “run don’t walk department”…

Last night, after leading an Italian wine tasting in Houston, I finally got the chance to sit down with cousins Marty and Joanne for a proper dinner at Catalan, where — and I’ll just cut to the chase since I need to get my butt on a plane in a few hours — wine director Antonio Gianola’s list just blew me away. Joly by the glass? Erbaluce, Vin Jaune from the Jura, Edi Simčič Pinot Grigio, López de Heredia, Nikolaihof, 1989 Domaine des Baumard????!!! There were just so many great wines that I wanted to taste… and that was just in the chapters devoted to white wine! Antonio’s list is precise and informed, informative and fun, easy to navigate for the neophyte and thrilling to leaf through for the connoisseur. There is a threshold where a wine list becomes a thrill of its own and a form of profound dilectio for wine lovers (remember this piece by Eric?). Antonio’s list passes through that threshold with ethereal and seamless celerity. And the best part? His prices are among the most if not the most aggressive I’ve seen anywhere in the U.S. Click through to the restaurant’s website to read his list (which Antonio seems to update like clockwork). And check out this profile of importer Neal Rosenthal by Houston Chronicle wine writer Dale Roberston where Antonio is featured (and where I lifted the photo).

De vinographia: Perhaps the greatest wine writers of all are the authors of great wine lists.

Antonio loves the desert, Antonio prays for rain…

Tracie B and I are on our way to New Jersey for the wedding of one of my best and dearest friends in the world (and the drummer in Nous Non Plus). Stay tuned… I heard something about some Vajra being poured tomorrow night and some Beatles songs… mmmmmm…

*****

“Antonio’s Song”

—Michael Franks

Antonio lives life’s frevo
Antonio prays for truth
Antonio says our friendship
Is a hundred-proof
The vulture that circles Rio
Hangs in this L.A. sky
The blankets they give the Indians
Only make them die
But sing the Song
Forgotten for so long
And let the Music flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
We know the Dance, we have
We still have the chance
To break these chains and flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
Antonio loves the desert
Antonio prays for rain
Antonio knows that Pleasure
Is the child of Pain
And lost in La Califusa
When most of my hope was gone
Antonio’s samba led me
To the Amazon
We sing the Song
Forgotten for so long
And let the music flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
We know the Dance, we have
We still have the chance
To break these chains and flow
Like Light into the Rainbow.

Best Thanksgiving wines (or at least, what me and Tracie B will be drinking)

Above: Tracie B and I held an informal wine tasting last night with our friends CJ and Jen, who made some excellent pulled pork for dinner (photos by CJ).

It’s that time of year again and everyone’s doing their “Best Thanksgiving Wines” posts. So I figured I’d do mine. Seems like there’s more humor and a greater twang of irony this year in the otherwise traditionally Hallmark consumerist spirit. Maybe ’cause everyone is so broke (or at least I am), it feels like you’re reaching beyond the perfunctory when you compile these lists. It does occur to me that we in the U.S. of A are probably the only folks who believe in these “best” and “top” lists. I just can’t imagine Franco writing a “Top Ten Christmas” wine list. Can you?

My favorite top Thanksgiving wine post so far was authored by Saignée, “I Feel Obligated to Do a ‘Thanksgiving Wine Pairing Post'” (it’s worth checking out but it also sports a NC-17 rating).

Above: The only wine that exceeded my $20-or-under-rule for this year’s holiday was the 2007 Bucci Verdicchio dei Castelli di Iesi, which you should be able to find for under $30. Man, I love that wine.

The Solomon of wine writing and blogging, Eric, poked some fun (or at least, I read it that way) at the Grey Lady’s perennial Thanksgiving suggestions (marked this year by the absence of Frank Bruni) in his post “Six Years of Thanksgiving Wisdom.” I love the wine that Eric brought to the paper’s Thanksgiving tasting, a Frappato by Valle dell’Acate (Sicily). I also love the new wine descriptor, coined and used by Eric to describe it, and I love that it made it past the paper’s grammarians: “earthy chuggability.”

And lest he think that I’ve forgotten him, I got a genuine chuckle and chortle out of Strappo’s “THANKSGIVING WINE STUNNER: EXPERTS CLAIM RED OR WHITE OK!”

This year, Tracie B and I will be heading to Orange, Texas, just like last year, but this year, we’ll also be bringing Mamma Judy with us — her first visit to Texas since I moved here last year. Mrs. B and Rev. B are expecting 24 people at this year’s festivities. Since finances are tight for this fiancé (especially in view of our upcoming nuptials), I tried to keep my wines under $20 (and, for the most part, I succeeded on that part, as they say in the south).

Bucci 2007 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi
($22.99 at Jimmy’s in Dallas)

CJ and I really dug the crunchy mouthfeel of this wine and its elegant, lingering finish. The acidity was “tongue splitting,” as Tracie B likes to say.

Domaine Fontsainte 2008 Corbières Gris di Gris
(rosé, $17.50 at The Austin Wine Merchant)

We all agreed that the fruit in this wine was approachable and fun, juicy and tangy. This could go with just about anything at the Thanksgiving table.

Marchesi di Gresy 2007 Dolcetto d’Alba Monte Aribaldo
($18.75 at The Austin Wine Merchant)

I just can’t believe what a value this wine is at under-$20. It’s rich and chewy, surprisingly tannic, and has that noble rusticity that you find in the Marchesi di Gresy.

Mas Lavail 2007 Terre d’Ardoise Carignan
($11.25 at The Austin Wine Merchant)

Tracie B called this “salty” wine “the stand alone” wine of the flight we tasted with Jen and CJ. The price-quality ratio here is stellar (at $11.25? HELL YEAH!) and the wine is chewy, rich, with dark fruit and lots of savory flavors. I can’t wait to pair it with Tracie B’s Meemaw’s deviled eggs and Mrs. B’s sweet potato pie.

AND HERE IT IS, THE MOMENT YA’LL HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR… MY NUMBER 1 THANKSGIVING WINE FOR 2009!!!

Selvapiana 2007 Chianti Rufina
($16.25 at The Austin Wine Merchant)

Selvapiana is one of my all-time favorite producers (one of Franco’s favs, too) and Rufina is one of the greatest expressions of Sangiovese. This wine is tannic and will benefit from a little aeration before serving but once it opens up it’s all about bright acidity and plum fruit flavors. The price range will vary for this wine across the country but it’s always a tremendous value.

Thanks for reading ya’ll! I’m wishing you a great (and safe) holiday with your loved ones.

In other news…

I had a blast pouring and talking about wine and pairing European and domestic wines with Asian food at the Saheli “Discover Asia through Wine” event on Saturday night. The Tandoori chicken (above) was one of the hits of the evening, as was the Selvapiana Chianti Rufina, which I paired with the Chinese roast duck. Donations support battered Asian women and immigrants in the greater Austin area.

In other other news…

I’ll be pouring wines from Piedmont and Tuscany this Thursday at the Galleria Tennis and Athletic Club in Houston. Click here for details.

Quintarelli’s putative son

luca fedrigo

After a year in Texas, you’d think that I wouldn’t be surprised by the vinous talent that comes out to see us. On Saturday, I had the opportunity to chat with Luca Fedrigo, above, owner of L’Arco in Santa Maria di Negrar, whose wines I’d never tasted. “After I started making wines in the late 1990s,” he told me, “my first sale in the U.S. was here in Austin.” The Texas market’s loyalty to his wine has brought him back ever since.

Just as Texas holds a special place in Luca’s heart for the sweet memory of that first sale, so do the wines of Valpolicella in mine: I first tasted great wines from “the valley of alluvial deposits” when I went to study at Padua in the late 1980s.

Franco has written about the regrettable “Amaronization” of Valpolicella that has taken place over the last decade: the region is sadly over-cropped and too many producers are making Amaronized expressions of fruit that would be better destined for Valpolicella Classico.

Luca is part of a small but determined movement of winemakers who remain true to the origins of the appellation. I really dug his traditional-style Valpolicella and Amarone, classic expressions of the appellation, aged in large old casks. I even liked his Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blend, which showed great minerality and acidity (I think I’m going to use this wine for my Veneto class on November 3 as an example of the tradition of Bordeaux varieties long present on Veneto soil).

As it turns out, thirty-something Luca left school at the age of 14 and went to work for the “father of Valpolicella,” Giuseppe Quintarelli, who, in turn, became his putative father (I won’t go into the personal details, but let’s just say that Luca is practically a member of the family). For years, Luca studied winemaking with the great master of the appellation and ultimately became his vineyard manager. Quintarelli, he told me, helped him (and many others) to branch out on his own and create the Arco label. A gift that keeps on giving: thank goodness for Luca and the preservation of the traditions of this truly great appellation. “Valpolicella without Quintarelli,” Luca said, “is like a family without a father.”

The wines are available at The Austin Wine Merchant.

In other news… a savory oatmeal cookie…

oatmeal

After three months of scraping by on writing and teaching gigs, I’m thankfully back to hawking wine. This early morning finds me in a hotel in Houston, where I “showed” wine all day on a “ride with,” as we say in the biz, with a famous French winemaker. It’s only my first day back out on the road and I already miss her terribly. But like manna from heaven, her savory oatmeal cookies somehow found their way into my wine bag and made for an excellent breakfast with my coffee.

Proust had his madeleine…

White Nero d’Avola? Come again?

From the “life could be worse” department…

Last night found me off duty after an afternoon of appointments in Houston. So I met up with cousins Marty and Joanne and Aunt Lillian at Marty’s favorite restaurant Tony’s. Marty and Joanne are regulars there and are close with owner Tony Vallone, who always sends something special over to their table. Last night’s special treat was sautéed sea urchin tossed with mushrooms, tomatoes, and long noodles.

Sommelier Jonathan Hoenefenger paired the dish with Tony’s house white: a Nero d’Avola vinified as a white wine (Tony is Siculo-American). Frankly, I had never heard of such a thing (and neither had Italian Wine Guy when I asked him about this morning on my way back from Houston). In my experience, vanity bottlings like this rarely deliver more than novelty, but this wine was fresh, with bright acidity and minerality, and a surprising tannic note that found a worthy dance partner in the tender, meaty bits of urchin.

With our main course, we opened Quintarelli’s 1999 Rosso Ca’ del Merlo (an IGT for you DOC/DOCG/PDO/PGI buffs and a great example of how some of Italy’s greatest wines are not DOCGs). Man, this wine was killer: still a baby in the bottle, tannic and rich, with a seductive chewy mouthfeel, excellent with my Brooklyn-style thick cut pork chop. And the price was unexpectedly reasonable.

We took Aunt Lillian home (she’s 94) and retired to Marty and Joanne’s place, where we discussed Parzens and Levys, bubbies and zaidis, and even indulged in a little talmudic banter (Marty’s a law professor, after all).

Thanks, again, Joanne and Marty, for a wonderful evening!

Life could be worse, couldn’t it?