July 31, 2022

Riel Restaurant in Montrose - Upscale Dining

 An enjoyable meal with a diverse and interesting menu. Named after a Canadian politician, Louis Riel, who (apparently) did many good things for Canada. We took the advice of our neighbors who had been previously and ordered: cauliflower tempura, a bannock style soda bread, mushroom empanadas, pierogi, kim chi carbonara, grilled fish, eggplant, sticky toffee pudding. Recommended. Not cheap, but an impressive dining experience with great waitstaff.

Copenhagen Restaurant on Mason Road - A John Nechman Discovery


John Nechman Writes:

Back in the 1980’s, I visited Copenhagen at least 10 times, mostly stopping for a day or 2 en route to or on return from the rest of Scandinavia. This was pre-Noma and a time when I traveled by backpack, often budgeting under $1 per day for food. So I lived on loaves of rugbrød (super dense dark rye bread), and when I could afford it or found someone willing to buy it for me, I’d get smørrebrød (that same bread topped with butter, cold cuts/fish/liver pate and garnishes) or my favorite snack food of all, pølse (bright red boiled hot dogs sold all over town). In those days, I never had the chance to learn that there was much more to Danish food than that.

How wrong I was! And now, the world, too, has discovered the delights of Denmark. Copenhagen is home to several of the world’s most coveted reservations, in addition to René Redzepi’s remarkable Noma. And finally, Houstonians don’t have to board a 9 hour flight to enjoy Danish food because Copenhagen European Kitchen and Bakery (981 Mason Rd.) has come to Katy!

In a space once occupied by a spot serving mediocre Mexican-inspired pizzas, Copenhagen features a pan-European menu with several dishes of Danish roots. Richi loved his peppery goulash. I tried the chef’s mother’s homemade ham pie, consisting of a super-buttery and flaky puff pastry filled with chunks of sweet ham, a savory cream sauce, and tons of melted gruyere. Both were served with a tasty mixed salad and boiled potatoes in a bland cream sauce.  We also split an order of frikadeller (a formed meat patty) that would have benefited from a sauce but that still tasted delicious with the rødkål salad served with it.

The best part of the meal is the sensational coffee and the display of desserts. We chose a classic kransekake. Our sweet server looked at me like I’d blurted out an F-bomb when I pronounced it the way it would be pronounced in Norwegian—I had no idea the Danes pronounce “kake” the way Americans say “cake;” Norwegians pronounce it more like the Spanish slang word for poo poo. The appearance is totally different as well—in Norway, a kransekake looks like a towering Christmas tree, but the version here is a mini-kake though scrumptious nonetheless.  It features a chocolate base and a filling that approximates one of my favorite of all foods—marzipan.

Copenhagen Restaurant

A Taste of China Restaurant - A Michael Shum Discovery

Michael Writes:

"Thanks to the recommendation of a friend and a most talented chef herself, we had lunch with another couple on a nice spring Saturday at Taste of China for the first time.
My guests were excited immediately upon seeing the menu, taking charge of ordering, relieving me of the responsibility.
The NanJing Style Salted Duck was their first pick as a cold dish appetizer. It has a clean presentation with the duck chopped into precise pieces by a skilled person. The taste is subtle, with a mild saltiness. The meat is tender and the skin is softened.
My favorite is probably the Dried Bamboo Shoot with Roasted Pork Belly. The dried bamboo shoots are imported from China; fragrant and slightly salty. They infuse the soy sauce that's used to roast the pork belly, resulting in the lean part of the protein being super flavorful and the fatty part of the belly satisfyingly melting in your mouth.
We were going to skip a dish that turns out to be a crowd favorite, thanks to the insistence of our waitress. The Diced Beef Tenderloin in Black Pepper easily is a must-order dish, with fatty and tenderized beef cubes, prepared in an umami sauce with the right amount of pepperiness, resting on a generous bed of vegetables.
I personally could not pass on the Xiao Long Bao, which we all like, and these may belong to the top-tier level in Houston. Seeing my elderly Chinese guests skillfully scoop up and devour those tiny dumplings filled with soup is a sight to behold; showing how they are accustomed to this dish.
The only dish that packs some heat is the Stir-fried Preserved Chinese Bacon with Bamboo Shoots and Dried Tofu. The spiciness comes on two fronts, the initial spike from the chili oil and then a slow burn that builds up after.
Our guests, who went through the Cultural Revolution back in China shared with us life experiences of dire hardship and threat of survival. They worked so hard to finally immigrate to the US because of their academic achievements and hard work at the University. We felt fortunate to listen to them, sharing their special life stories.
Taste of China is a hidden gem right in Sterling Plaza, the heart of Bellaire Chinatown. My Chinese clients assured me that the food is on par with what they had in China with the bonus of safer and cleaner ingredients. I will come back for this authentic Chinese restaurant that serves delicious and unique regional Chinese dishes. When you want to take a break from American-Chinese food and sample similar dishes that are served in China, this is a place you should consider."

John Nechman writes: " The quality of Asian food in this city continues to stagger, and near the top of the list is a spot in Bellaire's Asian District called Taste Of China (9888 Bellaire). Of course, Mr. Bellaire himself Michael Shum first reported on this spot, and today, my brother Scott and our friend Jay P. Francis enjoyed a fabulous lunch feast, ordering most of Michael's recommendations.
Here's the blueprint for a stellar meal:
1. Bamboo shoots with roast pork. The dish arrives looking almost like a dessert, resembling a mound of German-style red cabbage studded with blocks of shiny caramel. The base is actually seasoned steamed bamboo shoots with an almost smoky, slightly sweetened and salty flavor, and the candy-lookalikes are actually braised pork belly chunks, about 2/3 lucious pork and 1/3 glorious fat. We all fell in love with this dish.
2. Diced beef tenderloin in black pepper sauce. The beef chunks ae juicy and expertly-cooked in a dazzling black pepper sauce with an assortment of different colored peppers, onions, celery, outragesouly-flavorful and chewy mushrooms, and garlic. Pretty much every other dish you've ever seen on other Chinese menus that sounds like this one will pale in comparison.
3. "Spicy chicken." Ok, no style points for names here. But this was one of my favorites--expertly-fried and surprisingly tiny chunks of chicken cooked in a glistening oil with tons of sliced fiery red chili peppers and peanuts--the chicken had a flavor that hinted cumin and Sichuan peppercorns though I didn't see any in the dish. I could not stop eating the chicken and the peanuts.
4. Xiao long bao--spectacular Shanghai soup dumplings. Michael places them near the top of his Houston list of these soup-packed delights. 'Nuff said.
5. Stir-fried baby bok choy with yuba (tofu skin)--a vegetarian stunner. The yuba pulls a flavor from the sauce that makes it almost taste like morel mushrooms.
Our server Cammi took wonderful care of us, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that we experienced some unforgettable flavors and dishes today. We look forward to many returns.

Miri Persian Kitchen - Memorial Drive

 A new and wonderful Iranian restaurant has opened inside the loop. A group of us enjoyed a wonderful familly style platter of classic grilled meats. But, we also shared the fesenjan (one of the best I have had in Houston), a thick yogurt dip with dry shallots (I learned about this from an Iranian friend. The best are a type of wild shallot harvested in Iran. An Iranian grocery store ( iran-iranian-bakery-and-grocery-store.html ) on Wilcrest does sell big bags of dried shallots and I've bought from them for making this at home), hummus and a plate of radishes, parsley, basil, white cheese. That fesenjan though. I'm already dreaming about going back.

Still, I have an allegiance to the wonderful Avesta on Wilcrest as well, and I will have to split my visits between both of these. As Avesta is wonderful, also. 

John Nechman writes of our lunch today:

"Another piece of Houston’s beautiful puzzle—one of the largest Iranian populations in the country, and that translates into several sensational Iranian restaurants. Based on lunch today, Miri’s Kitchen Persian at 5801 Memorial Dr. near the entrance to Memorial Park, is my choice for the best of them all ( https://www.miriskitchen.com ).

And what a treat to share a meal there today with some of Houston’s foodie elite—Bellaire-Asiatown Mayor Michael Shum, Mr. Chowhound Jay P. Francis and his wife Irene, and Coffee-teur Allen Leibowitz, co-founder of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s beloved Zingerman’s. Being a large group meant that we were able to try the best of the menu.
The restaurant is welcoming and airy with soaring ceilings and lovely plateware. The choice of background music (Dan Fogelberg’s greatest hits?) could use some work, however. We started with a respectable hummus and the obligatory plate in most Persian establishments of herbs, radishes, and feta-like cheese served with flatbread, perfect for rolling the healthiest tacos in town. But then, the kitchen really started to show what it could do.
A vibrant, minty shirazi salad, sort of like a Turkish farmer’s salad, paired perfectly with a scrumptious kashk bademjan (eggplant dip), which we were all fervently attacking with the gusto of a child given honors with the leftovers of granny’s buttercream frosting.
And then our delightful Kazakh server Aseeya cleared the table to make room for a plate she had suggested for us, the size, scope, and beauty of which left us all gasping and drooling: a family-style silver platter designed for the 5 of us but looking like it could feed Cyrus the Great and a couple of his platoons. Heaping mounds of saffron-gilded rice and baghali polo were festooned with juicy, top-quality sultani kebabs, lamb kebabs, dainty quail, lamb chops, 2 types of marinated grilled chicken, and chunks of filet mignon that you would expect to pay a fortune for at a pricey steakhouse. A combination of colorful sweet and spicy roasted peppers and tomatoes completed the picture. We also added a fessenjan (whole pieces of chicken drenched in a dense, exotic sauce of walnuts and pomegranates) that left us all stunned with awe. And one of my favorite dishes was one of the simplest—a bowl of creamy yogurt blended with dry shallots, which feature prominently in many Persian dishes, Jay Francis informed us.
For the quality and quantity of the food, this feast is a remarkable bargain, and the restaurant is willing to size up the servings according to the number of diners partaking. The menu also features a remarkable number of vegan dishes, and while they await a liquor license, Miri’s is BYOB with no corkage fee!
I already have the perfect Texas red blend in mind to enjoy the next time we dine here, which will be very soon. "

Rice to Meet You Cantonese Restaurant- A Michael Shum Discovery

 Michael writes:

“ The bustling crowd is chatting lively in my native tongue of Cantonese, the aroma of familiar food permeates the air, this place makes me feel like I've returned to one of my childhood places.

The Ginseng Chicken Soup 花旗参炖竹丝鸡汤 makes its grand entrance, it comes with the Special Combo Clay Pot Rice 双拼煲仔饭 that we ordered. The slight bitterness of the herbal root tickles my tongue, reminded me of homemade Soup that takes time and patience. The proper Dark-skinned Chicken is not spared to make this nutritious soup, believed by my culture to nourish the body, and in this case, warm my soul too.

The sizable bowl of Spicy Beef Brisket Noodle 牛腩汤面 comes out next. In my constant search for the ideal bowl of Beef Noodle Soup, I have missed digging into my own roots, shame on me. The waitress helped us pick the right broth, this one has just the right amount of spiciness. The noodles are so smooth and slurpable, I wonder what magic this is. Needless to say, the Beef Briskets are "forking tender", nice to bite on, yet fall apart easily, this is mainly due to the skill of an experienced Chef. The Bok Choy and Pickled Mustard Greens are like little jewel trinkets on this fantastic bowl of high-quality noodle soup at a super value. 

I dare to nominate their Popcorn Chicken 盐酥鸡 as the best version of this dish. Fried with clean oil and in precise crispiness and texture, these Chinese-style Karaage deliver to my mouth the taste of saltiness, pepperiness, sweetness, to summarize in one word, Umami. I challenge anyone to not order this again upon the next visit. 

The name of the restaurant is Rice to Meet You 煲来饱去, their plat de résistance is Clay Pot Rice 煲仔饭 with a wide range of selection.  It's not the type I had back in Asia, where actually Clay Pots with burnt bottoms, cooked in Charcoal burning stoves, and I would be a complete dick to expect that at a restaurant in a shopping strip within the city limit. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's get down to business. 

You must read and follow the instruction conveniently stationed at every table to fully enjoy the Clay Pot Rice. Once the sizzling pot is put down, the squeezable red bottle of special soy sauce should be ready to be deployed. Drench the hot steaming rice generously, and I do mean, generously, with this low sodium soy sauce, and quickly give it a mix. Stop now and sit back, let the scorching surface of the Clay Pot, the Rice that has been infused with flavors, and all the ingredients and proteins work their magic to please your mouth in a few minutes. If the God of Clay Pot favors you, you'll be blessed later for your patience, with the reward of crispy rice stuck to the pot called Fan Jiao 饭焦. Be polite and share those treasures with the table, don't kung fu each other for them.

The choice of protein is easy, at least for me, I must have the Cantonese Cured Pork Belly that also comes with Chinese Lap Cheong 腊肠, it's blasphemy to not have it in a traditional Bo Zai Fan. These Cured Meats diffuse all their aged flavors, juices, and fat into the White Rice, making every bite an enjoyable exploration of complex flavors. We pick Mushroom Chicken 香菇滑鸡 as the 2nd choice of this Combo Clay Pot Rice. The Chicken has a silky smooth texture and the earthiness of the Chinese Mushroom enhances the whole clay pot of rice. 

I don't really like to type this much, but the love of my Cantonese heritage compels me to share this joy I have today at lunch. Cantonese food is more subtle in flavors, we like to have ingredients as natural seasoning instead of heavy salt or spices. I appreciate this type of cooking because I feel I need to participate in detecting all the delightful nuances in the food instead of overwhelming seasoning that forces me to taste. For the time my wife and I spend enjoying this Cantonese-style lunch, I feel like I am back in my childhood home.

Miyagi Sushi - A Houston Treasure

The lines form around 11:30 for the opening at noon. There are only 12 tables and the restaurant is staffed by the sushi master and his wife handles front of the room. 

The food is fantastic and I will let the photos tell the story. There is a lunch menu from which we made our choices. Recommended: the curry udon soup ; and the salmon salad; but everything here is great. 

On most days Sushi Miyagi is open only from 12 to 3 (see photo of business hours). I can't recommend this place highly enough. A Houston institution.

(Kinjo and I waiting for the doors to open at noon)

Egyptian (and Lebanese) - On Mason Road

Alrawshe Mediterranean Grill.

A new discovery and one that I will be returning to often for the lamb shank. But today we went for an Egyptian dish called kochari. Ultimate comfort food. Lentils, pasta, rice. Like an Egyptian version of the Kraft Dinner. It's some kind of delicious.

John Nechman writes:  "It's always an awesome experience going out on a food exploration with Jay who let me choose from my never-ending list of places to try in the 8 county metro region, and I chose a Guatemalan spot I'd seen on Mason Road called Los Celajes. Alas, we'd waited too long--Los Celajes (which means "the clouds") appears to have passed on to Foodie Heaven.

But that didn't deter us on what has become one of my 3 favorite food streets in Greater Houston--Mason Road. Several years ago, Jay foresaw the rise of Mason in an article he wrote on his wonderful food blog ( https://www.houstonfoodexplorers.com/.../mason-road... ). On this amazing stretch of Katy concrete, I've eaten everything from Iraqi to rarely seen freshly-baked Korean walnut cookies to 2 of our favorite breakfast spots in town (including the best Venezuelan and Colombian breakfasts) to a spot whose menu is half Venezuelan, half South African. Today, we visited a fabulous Lebanese spot (and in true Mason Road form, located next to a Trinidadian spot I adore, a Mexican taco spot, and right around the corner from another Colombian bakery about to open) that took over a spot once called Tito's Egyptian and that specializes in the best of Lebanon and Egypt.
Jay has lived in the Middle East, and I have traveled extensively there. In Egypt, I fell in love with the national dish, koshary, a hearty combo of rice, lentils, chickpeas and pasta topped with a cumin-tomato sauce and crunchy fried onions, with vinegars, oils, and a spicy sauce to add as you wish. It's absolutely glorious, and only a few places in town sell it. The kind Lebanese owner informed us that after he took over Tito's, he kept several of the Egyptian dishes on the menu, including the koshary. The servings are massive, and neither of us could finish it all. Jay impressed me (he always does) by whipping out a 4 level Indian tiffin set to store his leftovers.
I added an order of tender zucchini stuffed with spiced rice with beef, as well as grape leaves containing the same. These came with more of the savory cumin-scented red sauce and a creamy labneh.
The owner brought us complimentary cups of an intensely purple hibiscus tea and shared with us massive dates imported from Saudi Arabia. He told us that on a return visit, we must try the lamb, particularly the lamb shank and the lamb shawarma. This place is well worth return visits.

Sao Lao - Laotian Cuisine in Houston


I first heard about Sao Lao on N. Shepherd, just a little bit north of the B&W Meat Market in early 2022 through the Houston Heights Foodies food group on Facebook (I'm a member). 

The photos of the dishes looked fantastic, and, in February, I had my first opportunity to check it out. Wow.

A small menu, and that is a good thing. A lot of attention to each dish. The chef told me that she started with some family recipes for the Boat Soup, but then kept working and working on it until she was satisfied. A lot of spices, prepared in a way that none overwhelmed the others. Just a fantastic broth with rice noodles pork meatballs and tender ribeye steak slices. A hyper-intense slightly sweet broth of chilis, lime, celery, Thai chard, galangal root, five spice, medium rare ribeye pieces, pork rinds [Yep, from the bag. Delicious] and house-made (I believe) noodles underneath ($15.00). Cannot emphasize enough the perfectly rare, perfectly tender ribeye pieces.

To begin, order the jerky, which comes with sticky rice and a sauce and lettuce and have them show you the way to eat it. 

Next, go for, well, based on our experience, just about anything on the menu is going to be fantastic. But we had the boat soup, and the crunchy crispy Laotian rice. And we had dumplings.  

I have a gut feeling that this place is going to become incredibly popular so go before the crowds discover it.

John Nechman writes: “ Our friend, foodie and expert on all things fried chicken and Mexican,  Jay P. Francis, was sweet enough to pick up a jar for me of something I've been trying to hunt down for a long time--mayhaw jelly. I've had a crazy work schedule but wanted to meet up for lunch (and to get my jelly!), and to be able to include Richi, who was anxious to see Jay, we needed a place between the school where he teaches in the North End and the Galleria, where he had some serious shopping to do. We settled on Sao-Lao Thai Café (5013 N. Shepherd), a place Jay highly recommended.

Though humble in size and appearance, Sao Lao more than makes up for it in flavor.  I went full-on Lao, ordering the house-made Lao beef jerky with a traditional spicy tomato sauce and sticky rice.  It put to shame anything I've bought at Bucee's.  

As my imagined/imaginary Laotian grandmother would likely tell me--WASH YOUR HANDS! Little pouches of sticky rice come with just about everything--the idea is to pinch off a portion, roll it into a ball, and dunk it into the omnipresent sauces while eating whatever they come with.  Richi ordered what was described on the menu as sliced filet ignon but which was actually a Laotion specialty that appeared to be a beef tartare made with ground tripe and served with lettuce leaves to make "tacos," along more of that sticky rice. He scarfed down every bit of it.

I had the Nam Khao, which looked like a large bowl of paella adorned with lettuce leaves. The rice was crispy fried and cooked with a red curry sauce, dessicated coconut, cilantro, green onions, spices, peanuts, and ground fermented pork. It is served cold, but I enjoyed its unique and complex flavors. Jay spoke glowingly of the beef boat noodle soup, which looked like a Louisiana gumbo rich with roux. It must be great--Jay ordered it on his first visit as well.

We ended the meal with a mango sticky rice and thanked the sweet server at the register who we all thought was Lao but is actually El Salvadoran. Like us, she appears to really love the food at this delightful little spot. “