Friday, March 23, 2007

Boiled Crawfish

As most crawfish fans on the Gulf Coast know, we are now in high crawfish season, and 2007 is looking like one of the best seasons in years. Tons of fat crawfish at low prices have been a boon to Louisiana farmers and mudbug eaters everywhere. As we get ready for our own annual crawfish boil later this month, I thought I'd mention a few places that have been turning out good mudbugs around town:

Pappadeaux isn't my favorite Cajun/New Orleans-themed restaurant, to be honest, but they do a mean crawfish boil, as we found out on Mardi Gras night this year, when we dropped by the Richmond Avenue location. Spicy, deeply flavorsome crawfish dusted with Tony Chachere's lit a nice fire on the lips and in the belly. The only complaint was that the crawfish were unusually small for this year's batch, but they were cooked perfectly and proved easy to extract from their shells. The boiled red potatoes and corn on the cob are also excellent, totally drenched in flavor and spice. (Pappadeaux also has consistently excellent raw oysters, though rarely as good as Goode Company's.)

Floyd's Kitchen, on the other hand, had giant, fat crawfish but disappointingly little flavor. Floyd's could use a boost in their boil, but they can't be faulted for the quality of the bugs. (Floyd's also serves some of the flat-out best fried oysters I have ever eaten -- a subject for a later post. But don't go without ordering some.)

Ragin' Cajun is dependable: good crawfish in good boil. They won't change your world, but you can't go wrong, either.

But, just to annoy you, I should mention that we stopped in for dinner at Franky & Johnny's while passing through New Orleans last weekend. There's just nowhere in Houston that matches F&J for crawfish, I'm afraid. They manage the best balance of size, flavor, and cooking time, to produce a slow-burn heat and rich, buttery flavor at an excellent price. Well off the tourist trail for most NOLA visitors, F&J's divey location on Tchoupitoulas turns out some of the best home cooking in the city, as well as some of the best Uptown people watching. There's also a menacingly enticing "bowling" game in the bar area that managed to wound both my children while we waited for a table. (Their father's contributory negligence pretty much blew any likelihood of recovery in court.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sichuan Cuisine

It's an odd restaurant that I really, really like but won't recommend to everyone. Sichuan Cuisine, at 9114 Bellaire Boulevard in Houston's Chinatown, is definitely one of those restaurants. Sichuan Cuisine is an often-brilliant, always-authentic hole in the wall in the vast Diho Square shopping center on Bellaire, with a clear focus on regional Sichuan cooking.

Sichuan cuisine features a lot of poultry, a lot of pig, and a good amount of freshwater fish (owing to Sichuan's landlocked status). Oh, and small mountains of hot peppers. Pepperheads of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your stomach linings! Sichuan Cuisine deploys spice with abandon, but rarely overwhelms the flavor of the food. The sheer number of peppers sometimes seems intended for comical effect: the ChongQin Chicken, for instance, is literally buried beneath an inch of dried red peppers.

But the carpets of capsaicin are moderated somewhat by the nearly ubiquitous Sichuan peppercorns, actually the husk of a small seed from the prickly ash tree. The peppercorns have a bright, lemony flavor with a peppery finish and add an intense aroma to the food. But the flavor is only one component of the peppercorn's appeal; equally important to Sichuan cooking is the almost novocaine-like numbness that the peppercorn imparts. Coupled with the heat of the chile peppers, the two create a sensation called "ma la," or hot-numb, which is the signature of Sichuan cooking.

Sichuan Cuisine is really into ma la. The appetizers offer a good introduction. Dan Dan Noodles ($1.95) are deliciously slippery, udon-like noodles in a soy-based sauce with fresh basil, peanuts, and chiles. The noodles offer a delicate kick at the end, and a hint of numbness. My five-year-old took a bite of the Dan Dan Noodles and announced, "Dad, we can come here all the time."

More pronounced are the Dragon Wontons ($2.95), flat pork-filled dumplings in a red-oil sauce. The wontons are excellent, and leave a tingling numbness on your lips. Also outstanding are the Chengdu Dumplings and the Crispy Yam Cakes with Sesame ($2.95), a cousin of the sesame bean balls so popular at dim sum palaces.

But it's in the main courses that the ma la comes into its own. ChongQin Chicken ($7.50) -- tiny cubes of fried chicken dusted with salt and Sichuan peppercorns, then smothered under dried red chiles -- is utterly addictive, even better after a night in the refrigerator. Twice-Cooked Pork ($6.95) is outstanding: chunks of pork belly (that's right - bacon, baby!) boiled and then sauteed with leeks, garlic, chiles and peppercorns. Outrageously delicious and decadent, and an Atkins Diet superstar if ever there were one. Any of the entrees will feed two or three adults, easily.

The Boiled Slice Fish came recommended to me, despite its, um, less than compelling name. It's an interesting dish but not for everyone; perhaps not for me. Reminiscent of a Vietnamese hot pot, the fish arrives piping hot in a soup-like sauce of chilis, garlic, and Sichuan peppercorns. The taste -- powerful, hot, and garlicky as hell -- is delicious, but the unctuous oiliness that works well with the restaurant's stir-fried dishes is kind of overwhelming here.

The service is, like many Chinese restaurants in town, brusque but functional. The first time I took the family to the restaurant, we actually received excellent (and friendly) service; familiarity has, I fear, bred contempt, or perhaps we've lost our novelty as The White Family in The Corner. But the focus is on the food at Sichuan Cuisine, and the food is outstanding.

Max's Wine Dive

Max's Wine Dive has nearly every indicia of hipness. Seedy-but-upcoming-neighborhood? Check. Cute bleach-blonde hostess in a 1984 Go-Gos dress? Check. Deafening noise level? Check. Irreverent menus, waitrons in funky T-shirts, and an interesting wine list? Check.

But then.... a few kinks emerge. First you notice that the hipster crowd is actually a little older than you first thought -- in fact, they're considerably older than they're dressed. When their Razr V3s ring, it might be a friend calling to meet them for drinks; more likely, it's the babysitter asking when they're coming home.

Then you notice that the top-volume music you've been humming along to happily is oddly reminiscent of a high school dance. But not a 2007 high school dance -- your high school dance, circa 1989. Yes, that's "Bigmouth Strikes Again," but no, you're not seventeen. You're married with kids and a Volvo, and that's a good thing, because most of the food here is priced well out of any self-respecting hipster's budget.

Max's Wine Dive is really a carefully-constructed simulacrum of hipness designed to appeal to yuppies in their thirties who've developed a taste for wine, but prefer to think of themselves as unpretentious and cool. Hey, who doesn't? The wine list is interesting, and the policies progressive: the house will open any bottle on the list if you agree to purchase two glasses or more.

The food is more retrograde. Filled with "fun" updates on Southern dishes and some bistro faves, Max's success rate is spotty at best. Frites (f/k/a french fries) are a decent snack, and arrive hot and properly salty in paper cones with a chipotle mayonnaise. A bowl of mussels topped with garlic, shallots, and hot peppers nestled in a creamy, citrus-y broth was fantastic; there's not enough bread in the world to soak up the juices left at the bottom.

But the appetizers generally set you up for disappointment. Max's fabled "Haute Dog," an unimpressive wiener lost amidst a sea of bland chili and smothered fries, was an unappealing, sloppy mess. I have no idea what goes through the mind of a Texas chef who puts out tasteless chili. Texans are primed to appreciate a spicy, flavorful bowl of red; why do you disappoint them? How hard is it to make a decent chili? The best part of the "Haute Dog" is the homemade pickled jalapeno slices that litter the plate. Skip the dog and order a side of those.

Fried chicken was good, crispy and thin-skinned, if unnaturally sweet. My friend ordered the Kobe beef burger, which arrived wet, red, and barely warm, like a newborn pig. Notably, the crowd of people nominally sitting at the table behind us completely ignored their food when it arrived. They were too busy partying with the folks at the bar.

As Robb Walsh points out in his (generally admiring) review, even the better dishes aren't really well-suited to accompany wines. The emphasis on fried foods and pickled things -- while nothing to be ashamed of, especially when done properly -- isn't really conducive to sharing with wines.

So, take Max's Wine Dive for what it is: a loud wine bar with loud food. But if you're really interested in wine -- or food -- you're probably better off somewhere else.