Posted tagged ‘Restaurant Review’

Leave the Fork at Home – Review of Blue Nile Ethiopian Cuisine in Houston

April 25, 2010

Do you order the same item off the menu every time you go out to eat?

I can’t do that. To me that would be like paying my $12.50 for a ticket to watch a movie I’ve already seen a second time… and a third… and a fourth… and so on.

And thus when it comes to restaurant dining, I like to mix it up once in awhile. Try something new and adventurous, maybe something I’ve never had before, and oftentimes something entirely too dangerous and death-defying.

Last week, Megan and I decided to embark off our culinary beaten path and dine on a recommendation by Katharine Shilcutt of the Houston Press, who recommended Blue Nile Ethiopian Cuisine here in Houston. We figured since Katherine is such an unabashed foodie and raved about this place, it might be an excellent opportunity to try something new.

Ethiopian Food – A Background on Culture and Customs

How much do you know about the country of Ethiopia? Before I give you my take on the dining experience at Blue Nile, let me give you some background information on country and culture.

As a country, Ethiopia has been an independent nation since ancient times, their roots dating back well-over a millennia to 10th century BC.  It’s also one of the oldest sites on record of human existence and may be the point where homo sapiens first ventures forth from Africa into the middle east and the rest of the world. That’s right boys and girls, this place is truly the cradle of life.

In Ethiopian dining custom, meals are typically serves on a large platter around which family and guests gather. These platters, usually composed of weaved baskets, are lined with a pancake-like bread called injera, which is made with an Ethiopian grain called teff, which is recognized as one of the smallest grains the world.

Ethiopians do not use dining utensils. Pieces of injera are torn off with the right hand and used to scoop up food, much like naan and tortillas. In Ethiopian custom, it’s considered rude to use the left hand when dining. And when you’re full, expect to be urged to take more food. Providing an abundance of food is a sign of hospitality.

The Experience at Blue Nile

As I mentioned previously, we had no knowledge of Ethiopian dining custom nor any familiarity with Ethiopian cuisine before we went to Blue Nile last week. They could seriously have served me chicken enchiladas and I would have been none the wiser.

Blue Nile’s location is fairly low-key. They are in a fairly nondescript strip mall on Richmond Avenue in between Gessner & Fondren. The strip mall itself looks sketchy but the interior of Blue Nile’s dining room is well-decorated and clean. The staff at provided prompt and polite service. We were sat quickly and the waitress came by quickly to take our order. Though the place was not full at 8pm on a Thursday night, it was not empty either. Just right in terms of ambiance for a quiet dinner.

What we ate.

  • Doulet – (An Ethiopian delicacy – minced lamb tripe, lamb liver and lean top round meat (Beef) sautéed with spiced butter, mitmita (Hot pepper) and herbs. Served lebleb or raw.)
  • Doro Wot – (Chicken, in Ethiopian traditional way, cooked in berbere, onion, specially spiced butter and spices.)
  • Tej – A Sweet honey-wine. It is often homemade and is of varying strengths, ranging from the very sweet and almost non-alcoholic “birz”, to the stronger and less sweet true tej.

The injera that came with our platter was definitely new to me. I was hesitant at first because the texture and look of injera is very spongy and I didn’t know what to make of it. But once I realized  the lack of silverware at the table, I knew where this was going. I quickly tore off a piece and scooped up some meaty goodness. To my surprise, I enjoyed the injera more than I thought I would, and it made the meal, in its entirety, feel very filling.

As far as our entrees, everything was very, very spicy! It reminded me much of spicy Indian food. I liked the texture and taste of the lamb on the doulet but the liberal addition of jalapenos was a mixed-bag for me. It seemed to overpower the other components of the dish. The best part of the doro wot is the flavoring of the stew, which was a spicy red-pepper sauce. I also thought the whole egg thrown in was pretty neat. I was unimpressed by the portion of chicken in this dish though. I expected to get way more than one chicken drumstick in this entree for my $12. Next time maybe they can tell me this chicken leg was certified 100% organic free-range poultry. That would help cheap me feel more at ease with this order.

As far as the honey wine, we loved it! We were surprised to find out from our waitress that it is entirely homemade. Tej was definitely unlike any drink we’ve had previously and has a very unique taste and after-taste.

Conclusion

As a cultural learning experience, I’m glad we got to try Ethiopian cuisine at Blue Nile. It was definitely new and eye-opening. Dining with our hands was unexpected but cool. I wish they provided table-side hand washing (I read about this custom after the fact) because that would been good in this type of environment but what can you do.

I bet most vegetarians would love this place as that part of the menu seems to be a strong suit. I’d definitely recommend Blue Nile for that regard and would try the vegetarian combo myself next time. The dishes we did order this time around were good. Like I said, Ethiopian food definitely reminds me a little of spicy Indian food. My only complaint is that portion-wise, it filled us up, but still a little light for the price on dishes such as the doro wot.

All in all, Blue Nile was a unique dining experience and I’m glad I tried Ethiopian for the first time. Seek out this place for yourself and chalk it all up to cultural discovery.

Houston Foodie Review: Calliope’s Poboys

July 9, 2009

oysterpoboyHaving eaten in New Orleans-style eateries ever since I moved to Houston from New Jersey, I thought I had a good handle on what constituted Crescent City cuisine. I knew what gumbo was… I’ve had many Po’Boys… But little did I know that I had been missing the key to good NOLA food all along.

You see, ole boy, it’s the intricate details that distinguish good New Orleans-style sandwiches from the rest. And despite the fact that I named the Po’Boy as one of America’s Top 10 Greatest Sandwiches prior to this review, I never really had one that truly captured my taste buds in such a way as it did about two weeks ago.

It was then that DNC Attorney-At-Large and our resident Bourbon Street expert, Eric Junker, wanted to pick me up for lunch in downtown Houston. Eric said he had something specific in mind, as he had been meaning to try out a Po’Boy place by the name of Calliope’s (pron: cal-eye-oh-pees) for quite some time. You see, Junker is a true foodie when it comes to Cajun / Louisiana-style cooking. I would even go so far as to call him a snob in that respect. So I knew he would be highly critical in judging this place afterwards.

We both agreed that we discovered at Calliope’s was nothing short of what is likely to be, without a doubt, the best Po’Boy place in Houston. And not only are their ingredients fresh and high-quality, but the portions at Calliope’s are significantly larger than what you’d typically get at your typical Cajun sandwich place. I think both Eric and I were very impressed with this unassuming little shop in the warehouse district. Personally, I loved the gumbo. The oyster in there was really key.

While we were eating, Eric questioned the owner, Lisa, on just about everything from how long they cook their red beans to who makes their bread. (they do.) She even shared a little of their history with us. It turns out that they’ve had a long time to perfect their unique brand of New Orleans cuisine. Calliope’s journey actually began right in the heart of New Orleans and they’ve taken it to Hattiesburg, Mississippi before the disastrous Hurricane Katrina landed then in our space city of Houston, TX.

Co-owner Lisa Carnley had this to say about Calliope’s on their newly-formed Facebook fan page:

“We are the first in Houston of a 20 year tradition of Po’Boy shops run by our family. Our food is great because the recipes have been tweaked and polished through years of experience.

Our vision is to bring an authentic New Orleans Po’Boy to the city of Houston. It all starts with fresh cooked french bread. New Orleans style french bread has a distinctive look and texture that was particularly difficult to duplicate in Houston. Like any sandwich we are only as good as our contents. Our seafood is fried and battered to perfection. We also feature a very authentic sloppy roast beef po’boy with homemade gravy. We are confident that you won’t find a po’boy in town that can compare to ours.

Calliope’s opened in Houston on 3/24/2009. We hope that you can take the time to stop by our neighborhood, located on the edge of downtown, and check it out.”

n90240906778_780My Final Verdict is that this place is best New Orleans-style eatery in Houston. But I’m probably not the authority you should ask. I’ll leave it to Junker to give our readers his final summation of Calliope’s…

“The red beans and rice are authentic New Orleans. Hands down the best in Houston.” Says Eric. “The key is in the bread. It’s as close to anything at Mother’s or Johnny’s in the French Quarter as you’ll find. The attention to minute details sets them apart.”  – Julius Eric Junker, Attorney specializing in Estate Planning, Probate, and Wealth Management in Richmond, Texas.

Additional Information on Calliope’s:

  • Address: 2130 Jefferson, Houston, TX 77003
  • Phone: (713) 222-8333
  • Hours: Mon-Sat 11:00 am – 8:00 pm
  • Houston Press Review of Calliope’s.
  • Diner Reviews from Yelp.

Houston Restaurant Review: Jonathan’s The Rub

June 5, 2009

OssoBuccoIf you are a the kind of diner that values high-end comfort food and restaurants with a “New York feel”, I would highly recommend checking out Jonathan’s The Rub, located in Houston’s Hedwig Village off I-10 and Campbell on the west side of town.

Jonathan’s The Rub is the creation of restaurateur Jonathan Levine, who has been a private chef and caterer in and around the Memorial area for many years after moving to Houston from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Going off the recommendation of many of his clients, Jonathan finally decided to open The Rub about two years ago. The customer list has grown considerably since then but it’s excellent that the ambience and cuisine remain the same.

In a recent interview with the Houston Press, Jonathan shed some insight on how “The Rub” came into existence: “Because of the catering, I found out what everybody around here likes, and since I can cook anything, I created a menu of the favorite foods that my customers like,” he says. “All of my food is familiar food. My customers don’t want to look at the menu and have to ask what’s this and what’s that, and they certainly don’t want to look at their plate and try to figure out what’s what…One example is a dish we recently added to our menu. It’s a blue cheese broccoli casserole. Nothing complicated, but people are really going nuts over it. All of my beef is Angus beef, and I marinate my steaks in olive oil and then use a special spice rub. We have a BYOB policy, and everybody has a good time.”

Walking into the Rub on any given night, you’ll hear the sounds of the city, like Tony Bennett to Luciano Pavarotti, as you get seated and comfortable with friends and/or family. The management and wait staff, which include Jonathan’s own daughter Jessica, are all very welcoming. This is not a surprising fact given that they are used to serving a plethora of regulars, most of which they consider as almost an extended family. Diners from Hedwig Village and surrounding areas fill this spot nightly. In fact, on one of my own visits last week, I was marveling the fact when I noticed our waitress, Jessica, checking on other tables besides ours while calling every patron by name. They all knew hers as well and it just made me feel so very at home while feeling like I was on a getaway back east.

Apart from the excellent food, which I’ll get to in a little bit, a lot of the appeal of dining at Jonathan’s The Rub is due truly to the ambience. I mentioned New York before and Jonathan’s definitely has that “it” that goes along with the city. And just to let you guys know, I was born and raised around New York for more years than I’ve been in Texas so I know what I’m talking about.  Jonathan’s is small, yet intimate, with décor and a patio reminiscent of the Italian side of famed Canal Street. It’s not unlike sitting at any other spot in New York except without the hustle and bustle surrounding you. One can tell by the sights, sounds, and smells that Jonathan’s The Rub is the heart of its quaint little neighborhood. This ambience makes the diner feel like the star of the show and the beauty of it all is that Jonathan’s allows its’ customers to bring their own wine, etc. which is a treat considering that they only charge a very small corking fee.

While the ambience is truly worthwhile, what really sets Jonathan’s The Rub aside from other restaurants in Houston is Jonathan Levine’s own brand of hybrid Northeastern/Southern cuisine. The Rub features an open kitchen with Jonathan Levine cooking personally, nightly.  It’s an exciting feeling to smell the aroma of the kitchen see Jonathan back there as customers walk in, if for no other reason other than the anticipation of an excellent dining experience.

I haven’t had the chance to review the entire menu just yet but what I can tell you is that the restaurant focuses on using only the highest grade ingredients, from the meat to the produce, everything is produced local and is always fresh. Don’t let me fool you. I call it comfort food because of the considerable portions and the ambience but everything I have ever ordered there is truly high-end. From everything I’ve had, I would recommend the Baby Lamp Chops (full rack), Smoked Chops, or the Chilean Sea Bass. If you want New York Italian, try the Osso Bucco or Seafood fra Diavolo. And if you want to catch the restaurant at lunch, they have excellent 9oz. burgers as well as sweet potato fries. And last thing I’ll say is that they have the best gumbo in Houston. Truly – I challenge you to find a better one.

My Final Verdict: Jonathan’s The Rub is impressive all around. From the staff to the ambience to the excellent dishes, Jonathan’s is simplistic enough to be a comfortable casual dining experience for me, whether alone or with friends. It also has enough flair and New York appeal for me to bring a date there. In fact, it’s perfect for those occasions because you can bring your own bottle of vino and Jonathan’s daughter Jessica will remember you by name and make your guest feel at home as well. Jonathan’s The Rub has all its bases covered. 10/10!

 

Jonathan’s The Rub
9061 Gaylord St 
Houston TX 77024
713.465.8200

Hours: Lunch 11-2:20 Monday thru Friday Dinner starts at 5:30 and we stay open in response to demand. Sunday is our day of rest.

Health Considerations: Low Carb, Low Fat, Sugar Free, MSG Free, Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Lactose Free Dairy, Vegetarian

Chef’s Suggestions

  • Appetizer: Chesapeake Crab Cakes or Meatballs
  • Soup: Chicken and Sausage gumbo
  • Salad: House with our homemade House Dressing
  • Entree: I cook everything with LOVE. – Chilean sea Bass!!!
  • Sides: Blue Cheese Broccoli, Mac n 5 Cheeses
  • Dessert: Italian Lemon Cream Cake

Message from Jonathon’s The Rub
Chef John Levine
Seafoods, Steak & Chops
Full Service Catering

Jonathon’s The Rub is a small, upscale restaurant and caterer in Hedwig Village that has developed its own meat rubs and offers foods from an open kitchen to regulars and first-timers. Chef Jon Levine changes the menu slightly every day, featuring seafood, Italian specialties and steaks and chops. Dine in our small and intimate dining room, reminiscent of New York City, with an open kitchen where the owner Chef Jonathan and Chef Julio prepare your meal right in front of you. Our customer favorites include our Chilean Sea Bass to our incredible nine oz burger. Try our Seafood Fra Diavolo, teeming with tender lobster, fresh mussels, scallops and shrimp and a portion generous enough to enjoy the next day. We offer fine full service catering throughout the Houston area. The Rub is BYOB, so bring a bottle of your favorite wine or beer. Jonathon’s The Rub is open Monday through Saturday.

Restaurant Review – The Grove at Discovery Green Park

November 9, 2008

You want the short version? This place is awesome. Go try it now.

Long version of our experience below.

I selected The Grove upon the recommendation of several colleagues. I actually took a look at their menu/website on line as well and decided to make a reservation for Saturday night at 8:30pm.

Reservations, Seating, and Parking

This was very easy. Utilizing the Open Table system on the site, I was able to schedule reservations in less than five minutes for my desired time. Had that not been available, the system gave me earlier and later times as well.

Seating was equally convenient. We let them know of our reservation upon arrival and were promptly seating within no more than a minute.

Parking beforehand was a little more of a challenge. They do have affordable valet $8 but being that we had to cash on hand, we ended up driving up and around for a few blockd before finally parking on the other end of Discovery Green Park. No big deal but I could see how this could be an issue on busy event nights downtown. Fear not though, there is paid parking in several garages in the area, including the Hilton, George R. Brown, and Toyota Center a few blocks over.

Ambiance and Location

Probably the most pronounced reason to dine at The Grove. Overlooking Discover Green Park near the George R. Brown Convention Center, Minute Maid Park, and the Toyota Center, this restaurant offers the most wonderful view on downtown Houston.

The downstairs dining area is spacious and well-lit. The booths are lined with pillows. And looking out on the rest the floor, it is easy to people watch without feeling crowded or crowding others.

Upstairs on the deck, The Grove offers a truly wonderful view of Houston. The noise is well disipated with music barely playing in the background so its really a nice place to enjoy a bottle of wine and talk the night away.

Food and Drink

The Grover offers a menu of gourmet dishes of American Cuisine priced at $20-$40 a plate. They also offer a decently expansive wine list that offers CA, Spanish, French, and Italian wines.

I  would the food as 7/10. Simple but not awe-inspiring. Our party ordered Gnocchi for an appetizer followed up with Braised Veal, Colorado-grilled Lamb, Sea Scallops, and Duck for dinner. We also enjoyed the butterscotch flan and Pie Duo (key lime, pecan) for dessert to complement our meal’s worth of 2 bottles of Cabernet.

Like I said, I was definitely impressed with the presentation. The taste was passable but not spectacular. For that, I would recommend Mark’s in Houston in the genre of American Cuisines.

Overall Impression

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I would have to say that I recommend The Grove, especially for first time visitors to the city or Houston itself. The ambiance is the number one reason to visit so it makes for a good date place as well as a nice location for an evening business meeting with out-of-towners. Just be careful and try to spill red wine all over yourself like I did and you’ll be pleased with an enjoyable dining experience!