Sunday, March 29, 2009

Rise & Dine? We Wish We'd Slept In

We're always excited when a new restaurant opens out in the Woodlands, and were even more excited when a new breakfast spot appears. We gave them a couple of weeks to get the opening kinks out, and stopped by on a Sunday just before noon to try Rise & Dine.

We were greeted quickly, and put on the list. We were surprised to find out that the wait was only ten minutes; Sunday around noon it's typical to wait 30-45 minutes at a popular breakfast spot. We enjoyed our good fortune and were seated in about five minutes.

Our server stopped by and said she'd be with us in a minute. We waited, and she never returned. Another server picked up the slack, and came by with menus a few minutes later. We perused the menu, and found to be a bit odd -- there weren't many full breakfast offerings; just one with pancakes, eggs, breakfast meat, and hash browns or grits. A member of our party wanted something similar with French toast; we asked the server, and she said they could add these sides to make the platter any way we wanted.

I'm sure they could. French Toast is $5.50, a side of bacon is $2.90, hashbrowns are $2. A pair of eggs isn't on the menu, but it's no doubt at least $2, making this "deal" cost over $12.

We asked the waitress how much this would cost, and she flippantly replied, "I'm not sure -- the system adds it up for us, so I don't know what it costs." I then asked if we could get the "Hearty Breakfast", with French Toast substituted for the pancakes, and she said we could. Why didn't she suggest this to us, unless she was just trying to pad the check? The difference in cost was about $5.

After this ordering snafu had been resolved, we were looking forward to our meal. After about 15 minutes, some of it came out (one order was missing, but the server said she saw them "working on it" in the kitchen, and it would be right out). She left immediately, before we could point out to her that we hadn't received any silverware or napkins.

We flagged down another server who resolved this latest issue, and the two who had their food dug in (about 5 minutes had passed, and the waffle that was being worked on was no where in site.

Cut to the chase: The food was terrible.

The French toast was a gloppy mess; it had been soaked in egg for too long, then undercooked; the middle of the Texas toast was wet and raw. The bacon was very thinly sliced, greasy, and limp. Only the hash browns were serviceable, although they were no better than what we'd expect from IHOP or Denny's.

Finally the missing waffle appeared. It was cold and undercooked; a doughy mess in the middle, and nowhere near crisp.

As if on cue, our server dropped by to ask how things were; we told her about the most glaring problems with the french toast and the waffle. She scurried off to get the manager.

The manager arrived in short order. She was a perky woman, clearly surprised that we were unhappy. She asked if there was anything else we would like, but by this point our schedule was tight and we couldn't wait for another go-round in the kitchen. She removed the waffle from the bill, then curiously removed the upcharge for the French toast from the other item.

So we were left paying full price for the "Hearty Breakfast", but a major part of it, the pancakes, were never served.

At this point, we'd had enough, so we decided to just pay and leave. But even that wasn't easy; the way the manager had comped the bad food was with some sort of coupon in the system, and the checkout folks couldn't get it to be accepted. They tried to get the manager's attention, but she was busy being perky somewhere else in the restaurant, and the checkout clerk simply removed the item she couldn't ring up.

Other than the poorly prepared food and utterly inept service, we can't see much wrong with Rise & Dine. It's a nice enough room in a generic strip mall. But if our experience was typical, it is among the worst choices you could make for breakfast in the Woodlands area.

Rise & Dine: 3707 College Park Drive, The Woodlands, 77384, 936-273-5575

Monday, March 23, 2009

Which Wich? How About One that's a Better Value?

We were out in the far northwest reaches of the Woodlands last Sunday, and had an hour to kill. We headed out to the newish center at the intersection of 1488 and 2978.

This area used to literally be BFE, because the map shows the town of Egypt at that intersection. It's amazing how it has grown up in the past few years.

Searching around, we saw a Which Wich shop, and we'd never visited one, so our choice was made.

Upon entering, we were faced with a display filled with hundreds of small paper bags, and a wall explaining everything. The Which Wich concept is different: Pick the bag that corresponds to the category of sandwich you want, then customize by ticking off the appropriate boxes on the bag. Hand it over, and in a few minutes, you get it back, filled with a sandwich build to your specs.

The choices looked interesting; we were in the mood for something Italian, so we went with their Muffuletta. It's a mixture of salami, ham, and their olive salad. We added a bit of garlic and provolone cheese, and handed over our bag.

Part of the concept is that almost all the sandwiches cost the same - about $5.50. Adding chips and a drink bring the total to around $8; not cheap, but not outrageous either.

On this slow Sunday, we waited and waited. Unlike Subway or the other sandwich shops we've visited, Which Wich has one person making sandwiches, which slows things down considerably. The sandwiches are also made behind a tall counter, so you can't observe the work or the ingredients.

Our name was called, and we retrieved our sandwich. In an era of huge portions and too much food on the plate, Which Wich was a surprise... the sandwich was small, perhaps 5" long, and it wasn't exactly overstuffed with ingredients. The flavor was OK; a little too much olive salad, not enough meat and cheese.

All in all, we were disappointed. The place has promise, but the value side of the equation is off. When the market leader is offering a footlong sandwich stuffed with ingredients for $5, paying more for a sandwich that's less than half the size and with skimpy ingredients just doesn't make sense.

Which Wich: 6619 FM 1488, Magnolia, Texas 77354, 832-934-3034

Sunday, March 22, 2009

RIP Matt Martinez, Jr.

Legendary Tex-Mex restaurateur Matt Martinez, Jr. passed away recently. He and his family owned Matt's El Rancho in Austin, Matt's Rancho Martinez and Matt's No Place in Dallas.

While Martinez didn't have a restaurant in Houston, he is a very significant figure in the Texas restaurant scene, and is considered by many to be one of the first to popularize Tex-Mex cuisine.

Godspeed, Matt. You'll be missed.

Rodeo Redux - Chow Down at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

Another year at Houston's annual rodeo has drawn to a close, and we survived another visit. As always, the rodeo was home to some truly bizarre and not remotely healthy choices, including a wide variety of truly mediocre bar-b-que, a selection of unremarkable hamburgers, a plethora of items impaled on stick, and an assortment of things we never thought could be fried.

In other words, business as usual in Rodeo food.

We're Texans. We enjoy haute cuisine, but we love a great burger or a slab of BBQ just as much. And when the burger isn't up to snuff, or the BBQ is mass produced instead of lovingly smoked, we console ourselves with the necessary accompaniment to fast food in Texas: Dr Pepper.

But we were surprised by one small fact that has been overlooked in the numerous reviews we've read:

We couldn't find Dr Pepper at the Rodeo.

Apparently Coca-Cola has an exclusive with the Rodeo, and that extends to the supposedly independent concession stands. We searched the midway, and all we found were Coca-Cola products.

Why is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo giving an Atlanta company an exclusive, locking out the Texas-based Dr Pepper?

Friday, March 13, 2009

If You Can't Beat 'Em - Fertitta buys 1.3MM shares of McCormick & Schmick's

Tilman Fertitta, the majority shareholder of Houston-based Landry's Restaurants, has announced that he has acquired a 9 percent stake in seafood restaurant chain McCormick & Schmick's. The 1,326,033 shares have a market value of approximately $3.5 million. The purchase makes Fertitta the largest shareholder in the company.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Textile - Another Tycer Venture Tainted by the Chef's Attitude

Houston is one of the nation's great food towns, and we're fortunate enough to have many great restaurants at a variety of price points. And unlike the restaurant scene in many towns, Houston's is driven by its great restaurateur families, not by its great chefs. The Vallone, Mandola, Cordua, Pappas, and Goode families are examples of those who set the course of the Houston restaurant scene, and have been doing so for years.

For these families, customer service comes first. It's not about ego, it's about business, and establishing a long-term relationship with their patrons.

A recent review in the Houston Press made me shudder at the alternative. Katharine Shilcutt's "The Tastes of Textile" was a fascinating look into a much hyped restaurant that's one of the rare ones in Houston - the chef is the personality behind it, for better and for worse.

Textile is Scott Tycer's latest venture, and Houston foodies were eagerly anticipating this talented chef's next moves after the closings of his previous ventures, Aries and Pic. In Shilcutt's review, it's obvious that Chef Tycer is on his game (with a couple of notable exceptions) when it comes to the food, but it also shows the problem of letting a huge ego in the kitchen run the show.

The article mentioned that Aries, the highly regarded Tycer fine dining venture, was closed in a fit of pique. Stories about Tycer's temper have run through Houston food circles, so few are suprised by this.

And in this latest venture, Tycer's shadow seems to be looming over the dining room, and not necessarily in a good way. Shilcutt writes:

"...but there seemed to be an odd undercurrent of apprehension in the restaurant. The palpable nervousness of the staff, coupled with almost clinical service, made for a very uneven meal: The food was very good, but I was almost afraid to enjoy it."

No matter how wonderful the food, a restaurant lives and dies by the entire dining experience. And a staff that is scared of the chef's reactions aren't going to be able to provide a great experience, as Shilcutt describes:

"Staff spoke in hushed voices, and interactions were limited. My dining partner and I were eager to know about the laconic wine list, the cocktails prepared at the potent-looking bar and the provenance of certain ingredients. Our inquiries were met with polite yet quiet and restrained answers while the staff almost imperceptibly continued to glance over their shoulders towards the looming kitchen door. The maitre d' solemnly recited the ingredients of each dish as it was presented as though he were dictating a crime scene."

What a contrast to the warm, genial service we've come to expect at high-end Houston restaurants.

"I wasn't able to finish the large piece of pork tenderloin, and left a scant bite on my plate. As the busboy cleared our plates away, the sommelier caught sight of the morsel I'd left behind. He whispered curtly to the busboy to clear that piece of food off the plate before he took it back into the kitchen so that Chef Tycer wouldn't see it. This eavesdropped conversation only served to underscore the nerves that everyone seemed to be feeling that evening."

Ouch. We have little doubt that Tycer will find his groove in the kitchen; the man has serious culinary chops. But it seems that Textile is yet another Tycer venture where his diva attitude overshadows his superb skills.

I can't ever remember reading about this sort of problem at a non-Tycer restaurant in Houston.

Perhaps this is the reason that Tycer's ventures tend to shine brightly then crash and burn; do patrons really want to dine in a room where everyone is on edge, in fear of the next outburst from the boss?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Road Trip Chow Down - Chris Madrid's in San Antonio


A recent weekend found us in San Antonio for a convention, and over the years we've learned that as lovely as the Riverwalk may be, it's not the place for serious food. So we ventured out to Chris Madrid's, the legendary nacho and burger joint.

We arrived around 7 on a Saturday night, and parking was nowhere to be found. We circled the restaurant a couple of times, and swooped in when a space appeared.

Entering the building, we were impressed by the cross-section of humanity enjoying the cool March evening. We headed to the counter and waited in a short line while perusing the menu.

Following the advice of some regulars, we ordered a Cheddar Cheezy, macho. For those who've not been to CM's, macho is the keyword for a half-pound burger.

Chris Madrid's builds a very unique burger. The half-pound patty is not thick, but it is very wide; the size of a medium-sized pancake. It drapes across the bun on all sides, and is covered with a thick, oozy layer of cheddar cheese.

We like an oozing burger as much as anyone, but this, my friends, is too much. There's no way to really grip the burger without fondling all the cheesy, meaty goodness. We think the quarter-pound, non-macho version is the way to go, even if you're very hungry.

This is also the first burger we've found that has way too much cheese. There was over a quarter pound of cheddar, and we ended up discarding about half of it in order to get the cheese/meat ratio where it needed to be, and then folding the patty to make it (mostly) fit on the bun. This was way too much work; we'd rather have the kitchen deliver a more finished product.

Once we reengineered the burger for good handling, we ended up with an above-average cheeseburger that we really enjoyed. The thin patty was griddled well throughout, and gently seasoned with salt and pepper. Ooze remained, and it combined with the cheddar cheese to form a mass of molten goodness. The bun was beautifully griddled to a buttery crispness, and the veggies were plentiful, crisp, and fresh.

So how does this burger rate compared to the best in Houston? Pretty well, but it wouldn't crack the Top Five.

For our money, Houston is still the best burger town in Texas, and thus in the world.

Free Food Alert - Free Fries and Drink at Jack in the Box

Jack's back, and JitB is giving away more free food in his honor. You can grab the coupon online.

Valid today (10 March 2009) only.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Free Food Alert - Free "Roast Burger" at Arby's

Arby's wants you to try it's new hamburger alternative, the Roast Burger. So you can try one for free, as long as you buy a soft drink. Here's the coupon.

He's Back - Texas Burger Guy

After a painful one-year hiatus which left Texas burger lovers directionless and confused, The Texas Burger Guy is back, with a new review of Koppe Bridge in College Station. Welcome back!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Two All-New Restaurants from Alex Brennan-Martin

We're excited to hear that Brennan's will be reopening, but there's even more news coming from the Brennan's brain trust.

Alex Brennan-Martin, co-owner of Brennan's has quietly began developing two new restaurant concepts in association with Hotel Sorella, a hospitality project from Houston's Valencia Group.

The first is Cafe Rose, a casual yet sophisticated 35-seat spot, reminiscent of a neighborhood gathering place that Brennan-Martin frequented while attending school in France. Fare will include coffees and light breakfasts, and well-priced, creative salads and sandwiches plus premium cheeses and salumi as well as great wines in the afternoons and evenings.

The more upscale concept is Bistro Alex, the 160 seat restaurant that features a sleek, design-forward setting, a significant departure from the Creole traditionalism that is a hallmark of current Brennan's establishments. Bistro Alex will be open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, and the menu will feature a mix of classic Brennan's dishes and cutting-edge cuisine. Pricing will be similar to that at Brennan's Houston.

At the time of this report, no chef has been selected for the venture.

More details are available from Hotels Magazine.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Brennan's to Reopen in the Fall

Great news for foodies who miss Brennan's superb Creole cuisine and genteel setting; MSNBC reports that Brennan's will be reopening in the fall.