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Brewed the hard way: Budweiser's beef with craft beer

(02/11/15 4:08am)

Among ads of cute puppies, human Pac-Man games and stampeding Clydesdales, Budweiser aired a new commercial during the Super Bowl proudly titled “Brewed the Hard Way.” The ad heralds Budweiser as “proudly a macro beer … not to be fussed over.” Bud drinkers are juxtaposed with glasses-wearing mustachioed men, who represent Budweiser’s take on microbrewed beer’s finicky hipster crowd. The ad continues by stating that Bud is “brewed for drinking, not dissecting,” and shows yet more hipsters before finally proclaiming, “Let them drink their pumpkin peach ale, we’ll be brewing us some golden suds.”The ad is a direct smear on microbrewing and craft beer’s surging popularity, and it doesn’t come from a struggling brewer desperate for sales, but from the producer of America’s most popular light and regular beer. So why pick on the little guys? It doesn’t take an analyst to see how the craft beer revolution has transformed our country’s markets. Just like California put American wine on the map, microbrews have completely changed the perception of American beer. Once loathed for its cold fermentation and use of corn to add alcohol content without flavor, American beers are now every bit as lauded as the historic beers from Germany, Holland and Belgium, and not without reason. American brewers have pioneered the malting and fermenting techniques that created some of the world’s toastiest porters, creamiest milk stouts and most aromatic pale ales. Other beer giants like Samuel Adams have used the craft beer trend to their advantage. A 2014 commercial for their beer asks people off the street how many styles of beer Sam Adams brews in a year. The people in the ad, one of whom is also a mustachioed, glasses-wearing hipster, reliably named four or five beers before exhibiting shock at the 60 different brews that Sam Adams makes in a year. It’s a commercial that celebrates the ability of serious American brewers and the diversity of their beers. It sends a message that Sam Adams supports them, even if its main source profit is its “macro” Boston lager. Instead, Budweiser offers its viewers a message that there can be only one way of making good beer, and if they don’t agree, they must be pretentious. Perhaps the oddest factor in Budweiser’s choice to run a $9 million Super Bowl ad slamming craft beer is that, in many ways, Budweiser also supports craft beers and microbrews. Anheuser-Bush, the owner of Budweiser and all its breweries, also owns 10 different small craft beer breweries. Widmer Brothers, which merged with Redhook Brewing as part of the Budweiser-owned Craft Beer Alliance in 2012, has released over 65 types of beer, most of which are limited-release microbrews. Elysian Brewing Company, acquired by Budweiser in January 2015, ironically makes a pecan peach pumpkin ale of the exact sort that Budweiser’s ad claims is fundamentally incompatible with the type of people who like Budweiser.So Budweiser: Why the posturing? As a company that already has the largest share of its U.S. market and is managing to profit off the craft beer boom anyway, isn’t slamming the hard work and popularity of talented microbrewers kind of biting the hand that feeds? Budweiser has always run ads that play to its strengths as a straightforward everyman’s beer. But stabs like “[Budweiser] is brewed for drinking, not dissecting. The people who drink our beer are people who like to drink beer brewed the hard way” don’t seem to sell anything. They make Budweiser seem tasteless, people who care about taste snobbish and beers that aim for a more complex flavor tedious. It’s fine if Budweiser doesn’t want to invest in brewing lines of more flavorful complex beers like Sam Adams, but it could at least leave those who do care about improving taste well enough alone.

TBO Fusion bring hip Japanese cuisine to Houston

(01/28/15 4:11am)

Since its opening in November, Tea Bar and Organic Fusion, also styled “TBO Fusion,” has made it clear that the operative word in their name is “Fusion.” The hip Westheimer location has a tea bar, and it does serve an extensive list of tasty milk teas and smoothies, but the real reason to visit is TBO’s affordable and creative takes on sushi, ramen and other Japanese specialties. The menu is dotted with unconventional and trendy additions like Taiwanese popcorn chicken, sous-vide short rib and sashimi with honey wasabi aioli and truffled ponzu sauce. Many of the experimental dishes are imperfect, and unfortunately, some of the menu’s most interesting inclusions are best left unordered. Nonetheless, the food at TBO Fusion makes for an exciting and eclectic meal.The best of TBO’s fusion cooking manifests in the inventive and addictive appetizers. The lemon garlic popcorn chicken is flash-fried in a surprisingly light batter made from Japanese potato starch that compliments the sour and zesty seasoning. The tako yaki, or battered octopus, is perhaps the best plate on the menu. The octopus fritters have a warm, eggy filling, and are topped with sweet barbecue sauce, tangy Japanese mayo and shredded smoked tuna, which give the dish a flavor reminiscent of both a Texan barbecue pit and a Japanese seaside. Moving even further from traditional Japanese, the 72-hour sous-vide short rib uses the French sous-vide technique to achieve a much more tender product than the tradition grilling method. Perhaps the most eclectic of the appetizers, the Taiwanese sausage dish can be ordered with salsa and queso fresco in a nod to Houston’s Hispanic influence that balances the sausage’s saltiness with the creamy cheese and fresh tomato salsa. Despite the success of the appetizers, the sushi bar seems frustratingly inferior. The problem is not that TBO’s chefs aren’t well-trained or that the fish is not fresh. On the contrary, the fish in the unseasoned sashimi plates is lush with delicate and fresh saline flavor. The problem with the sushi lies in the chefs’ tendencies to over-sauce. In the black-and-white roll, the dominant taste is not the snow crab, avocado, peppered tuna, green onion or honeyed wasabi the menu advertises, but mayo, a shame considering how many great ingredients went into the roll. The worst instance of over-saucing is in the truffle hamachi. The truffle and hamachi, known for being among the most decadent ingredients in European and Japanese cooking respectively, simply mask each other. The truffle’s earthiness obscures the hamachi’s buttery fat, and the sour yuzu and sea salt used to round out the dish clash with the smoother flavors of the truffle and the fish.Some of the sushi chefs’ overbearing tendencies also carry over to the entrees. The ramen and the rice bowls are generally very good but tend to have too much onion, which again clashes with the natural flavor of the dish’s protein, be it short ribs, chicken or the wonderfully fatty pork belly. The seasonings on the meats themselves are far improved. The pork belly has interesting flavors of raw ginger and soy, the short ribs are marinated in sake and grilled with woody Korean spices, and the chicken’s teriyaki sauce is accented with nori and a yuzu sesame dressing. One common problem with nearly all the main dishes, however, is the addition of a cold soft-boiled egg, which can be quite off-putting and which many may prefer to have left off their dish.In spite of its numerous problems, TBO Fusion is still a standout in a city of far too many bland Asian fusion restaurants. It is a very young restaurant, a fact that is hard to ignore as the menus are still printed on stapled printer paper. Although TBO needs some fine-tuning, problems like over-seasoning and cold eggs can be easily remedied. Combined with the friendly staff and deliberately hip vibe, the exciting food at TBO Fusion makes it a restaurant not to be passed over. 

Houston chefs battle it out for prestigious Eater blog awards

(12/03/14 3:49am)

The national blog Eater announced the winners of its annual Houston restaurant awards this past Monday. The awards honored restaurants and chefs in six categories: Restaurant of the Year, Chef of the Year, “So Hot Right Now” (recognizing restaurants with a high level of trendiness), Bartender of the Year, Saddest Closing and “Stone Cold Stunner,” recognizing restaurants with especially impressive decor. Nominees were selected by local food critics and the final winners determined by votes from the blog’s readers.This year’s biggest winner was chef Ryan Pera. Pera won both Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year for his newly opened Italian/American restaurant, Coltivare. Though new this year on the Houston restaurant scene, Coltivare has already topped more than one “Best of Houston” list, named Houston’s top new restaurant by the blog Thrillist earlier this month. Pera, who opened Coltivare after serving as a partner at Revelry Market, specializes in pizza and locally-grown ingredients. The menu at Coltivare changes often but is known for its inventive use of fresh local ingredients, many of which are grown in Coltivare’s house garden.Tout Suite won the “So Hot Right Now” award over Pax Americana, which failed to win any awards despite being nominated for three. Tout Suite, opened earlier this year, took advantage of the make-your-own-dish model popularized by chains like Chipotle to become one of downtown’s most popular spots. Especially popular among the health and price conscious, Tout Suite is known for its fresh custom salads, killer sandwiches priced as low as $6 and its outstandingly creative brunch menu.Bartenders of the Year Leslie Ross and Sheddan Harvey seemed sure to win as soon as their plans for expanding Triniti’s bar into its own entity came to light. Their new bar, Sanctuari, which has been open separately from its parent restaurant, Triniti, for less than a month, has emerged far ahead of its time in its approach to cocktails. Ross and Harvey’s menu incorporates Campari ice filters, lemon pollen, Thai chilies, rose petals, fish sauce, real smoke and more into its drinks, which have been received as the most beautiful, inventive and delicious cocktails in Houston. This year’s Saddest Closing was awarded to Van Loc. The owners of the beloved Vietnamese and vegetarian restaurant decided to retire and close Van Loc’s doors in mid-October. As news of the closing spread, patrons flocked to the Fourth Ward location in such large numbers that Van Loc was closed three days early afterrunning out of food.The final award, “Stone Cold Stunner,” went to KUU restaurant. Helmed by chef Addison Lee, the elegant Japanese restaurant in Memorial City has had a remarkable year, winning accolades for its fresh sushi, notable wine list and delicate presentations, as well as its decor.

Album Review: Taylor Swift's "1989", D+

(11/05/14 3:22am)

Taylor Swift has been on the pop scene for nearly a decade, making her a staple of radio music since elementary and middle school for me and many of my peers. Her new album, 1989, is named after her birth year. That makes Swift nearly seven years older than the average Rice University freshman. But I still think of her as the seemingly perennial teenager that burst on the scene in 2006 with songs about the overwhelming emotions associated with high -school romance. And her country-tinged, guitar-rock ballads are at least partially responsible for the introduction of country into mainstream-pop radio, although her detractors will call those tunes ‘country pop’ or just ‘pop.’ To put it bluntly, 2014 Taylor Swift sounds nothing like 2006 Taylor Swift in some of the worst ways possible. Rather than expand on her sound, her current collection of synth and percussion-heavy, voice-modified pop tracks strip away any remaining uniqueness formerly present in the singer. Instead, she is relegated to the role of anonymous female pop star singing meaningless songs while her producers try in vain to craft the next Pure Heroine.Opening track “Welcome to New York” is an unevolving bit of dance pop that sounds like it could have been written for anyone. Swift’s once-distinguishable alto is synthesized into ambiguity as it shouts cringeworthy lines. Former Swift singles highlighted quirky details the singer remembered about lovers, such as “the first time when I didn’t kiss him and I should have.” But the lyrics on 1989 sound half remembered and half cliché, such as “moving the furniture to dance / like we stood a chance / two paper airplanes flying!” from second single “Out Of The Woods,” a song that tries so hard to sound anthemic it ultimately collapses.Swift was a beloved pop singer for being relatable. Rather than the cheerleader that wore “short skirts,” she wore “t-shirts” and resided “on the bleachers.” When her high school years were behind her, she managed to connect to fans of her own age with 2012’s “22” and party alongside her college-aged friends with the dubstep influenced “Trouble.” 1989 finds Swift emulating the new wave of pop stars, losing all of her originality and, subsequently, credibility and resonance. “Wildest Dreams” sounds like a cheap Lorde impression, with Swift echoing herself over spacey beats that have become a hallmark of ‘minimalist pop,’ while “I Wish You Would” includes the ’80s shotgun drums and funky guitar flange that sister-band and 2013 breakout group Haim have repopularized. In fact, if the song didn’t descend into the void of over-produced pop grandeur on the coda, it could actually pass for a Haim B-side. So how does 1989 hold up on the catchiness front? If you look no further than lead single “Shake It Off,” the answer is ‘excellently.’ I’ve heard the song making the rounds at Rice parties and pre-games since it was released, firmly ensuring the seal of approval from what I would guess is Swift’s target demographic — 19-year-old females. But for a pop album, the rest of the record is disappointingly stale. The dance tracks are repetitive and don’t find the grooves that recent pop singers like Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande have locked into — no doubt with help from collaborations with artists like The Weeknd and Drake. The four-chord country-pop is completely absent, with an acoustic guitar failing to make an appearance until track 10. Ultimately, 1989 will be regarded as Swift’s ‘pure pop’ album on which she delved further than ever before into synth- and computer-based production. The impersonality of the songwriting and vocals are huge detractors, bringing the singer a solid step backward after eight years of incremental improvement. However, Swift’s eye for detailed lyrics still shines from time to time — the “long hair, slicked-back, white t-shirt,” the “hands in my hair, clothes in my room,” the spoken word diss on “Shake it Off” — these moments still manage to evoke the old Swift we know and love. But, unfortunately, they don’t work to put together cohesive feelings from each song, with each chorus and song title sounding like it was pumped out by some sentimental phrase generator. The end result is one song (“Shake It Off”) that will be a staple of parties and impromptu dance sessions for years and another dozen utterly forgettable pieces of 2010-era generi-pop.

Willy's Pub debuts varied beer menu

(10/28/14 4:04pm)

Oktoberfest may be winding down at bars across Houston, but Willy’s Pub is just getting started. Unveiling a new menu, Operations Manager Gavin Cross described Pub’s goal of offering beers suited to the student body’s diverse taste.“We try to have a range of different beers in different styles to satisfy all the types of Pub customers,” Cross said. “There’s a set of ales, some of them are unfiltered, some of them are lighter. We have IPAs, fruit beers, dark beers like stouts, lagers, which are easier to drink, wheat beers and malt beverages likeMickey’s.” The new menu design places all of Pub’s bottled selections on a spectrum, from light and accessible to heavy, hoppy and high-alcohol beers. The light end of the spectrum offers many recognizable lagers like Heineken, Corona, Shiner, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Dos Equis. The heavy end, labeled “tastes like twigs” on the menu, offers heavily-hopped IPAs like Dogfish Head’s infamous 60-minute IPA and smooth, dark beers like the Left Hand Milk Stout. Pub’s General Manager Chynna Foucek spoke of Pub’s commitment to offering beers diverse in both taste and price.“We try to hit all the demographics,” Foucek said. “We have undergraduates, but we also have MBAs that come. MBAs have more of a refined taste, whereas undergraduates have a budget.”With Bud Light and Shiner Bock as cheap as $1.50 on draft, it’s easy to see Pub’s appeal to the student on a budget. At $4 a bottle, Mickey’s malt liquor is another popular choice among undergraduates and, in terms of relative price, it’s the best deal at Pub. For the more discerning drinker, Pub still offers great value on its higher quality beer. Golden Monkey, a spicy tripel style ale with a hefty 9.5 percent abv., is another student favorite that sells for only $3.50, a great deal compared to off-campus bars that price it at $7 and up. The newest brew on tap, Leprechaun, is a locally-brewed cider with a light, semi-sweet taste. Cross discussed the range of local brews available at Pub, which are often from companies with special ties to Rice.“We have a lot of local offerings,” Cross said. “We coordinate frequently with Buffalo Bayou, which is founded and run by a Rice and Willy’s Pub graduate. A beer that Pub had custom made for Willy Week last year is now a big part of the Buffalo Bayou lineup, so that will be on draft in our wheat-beer line.” The new menu also features two beers from Saint Arnold’s, another local brewery founded by Rice graduates. The Lawnmower, Saint Arnold’s flagship brew, is a crisp Kolsch-style beer with citrus notes. The Saint Arnold’s Santo is also brewed in the Kolsch style, but the addition of Munich black malt gives it a darker and maltier flavor than its cousin.Beyond releasing the new menu, Foucek plans to host a series of events for students looking to expand their knowledge of beer this fall. “We really want the undergraduates to be able to try different types of beer, so something we’ve been pushing is Keep the Glass events,” Foucek said. “Distributors will have glasses for us with their breweries or logos on the glass. So you come in, you pay $5, and you get to keep the glass. We did that with the Leprechaun cider, we’re doing that with the Bridgeport, we’re going to be doing one with Saint Arnold’s and Karbach will be doing one as well.”Pub’s new menu is in effect now and will add an additional Buffalo Bayou brew homecoming weekend.

Etoile: classics with a certain je ne sais quoi

(10/22/14 7:53am)

When our waiter described the night’s special as salmon in beurre blanc, a typical and often unexceptional mainstay of French cuisine, I had my misgivings. It seemed like a waste of a special to add such a common dish to a menu that already contained escargots, foie gras, coq au vin and beef au poivre, to name only a few of Etoile Cuisine’s most traditional plates. But while Etoile specializes in the most common of French dishes, chef Philippe Verpiand’s meticulous preparations make the food uncommonly good. The coq au vin, often boiled into oblivion by less savvy chefs, is simmered to a succulent tenderness and served with enoki mushrooms, which lend the dish a lighter feel than the usual cast of cremini and portobellos. Even the profiteroles are freshly baked and delicate, a testament to Verpiand’s attention to detail.A look at Etoile’s past shows its success is no accident. Though it may be Verpiand’s first venture in Houston, his history includes graduating top of his class at the Avignon Culinary Institute, multiple stints at Michelin-starred restaurants around France and running the acclaimed Cavaillon Restaurant in San Diego, California until a year before its close. Verpiand’s wife, Monica Bui, handles front-of-the-house operations, maintaining a charming atmosphere in the rustic Uptown Park location and a wait staff that is astute and attentive without being overbearing.The entrees range from solid and ordinary to superb displays of French cuisine, with the occasional misfire. The Saint-Jacques scallops are paired awkwardly with beef ravioli and brussel sprouts. The flavors definitely clash, but the handmade beef raviolis, tossed with truffle oil and cabernet syrup, are so good that it’s hard to consider the dish a complete failure. Other classics of French cuisine like the lemon sole and duck magret are executed with clinical excellence. The sole is well cooked and served with a medley of peas, potatoes, roast cauliflower and slivered almonds that almost outshine the fish. The duck holds a perfect balance of warm, well-cooked meat to crispy fried skin. The meat’s savory flavors are matched with an incredible mousseline of butternut squash, enoki mushrooms and pomegranate seeds. The additional option to order any entree with pan-fried foie gras for only $12 contributes to the richness of an experience that suggests that even though the food isn’t cheap, Etoile doesn’t overcharge by a dime.The hors d’oeuvres match the entrees in tradition and quality. Among the more familiar dishes, the lobster bisque is a standout, boasting a thick creamy broth that doesn’t skimp on the lobster and nuanced flavors of tomato and tarragon. The Serrano ham tart is also highly recommended. The ham is served draped over arugula, warm figs and caramelized onions, held in a flaky crust and tossed with an impressively subtle mixture of garlic, red wine and truffle honey vinaigrette. The wine list is well balanced, with a good selection of new- and old-world-style bottles and exceptional Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Burgundy and Bordeaux available by the glass. Even the desserts impress. The praline crepe souffle lives up to its name, managing to be three desserts at once: a warm, eggy souffle, folded in the shape of a crepe and crusted with a thin layer of praline smothered in hazelnut anglaise. The oft-overlooked cheese plate is a must try for any cheese connoisseur. The plate complements a creamy brie, pleasantly nutty petite basque, pungent blue, and tart goat cheese with dates, walnuts and wonderful black cherry jam. It’s clear Verpiand has a good thing going with Etoile, and with his remarkable consistency, the quality won’t be going anywhere. Anyone looking to celebrate a special occasion or simply craving spectacular French cooking in the Galleria or Uptown area should consider Etoile a must-visit.

Rice Players' dreamlike Paganini elicits range of conflicting emotions

(10/08/14 3:57am)

Some plays strive to make audiences laugh, some try to invoke tears, others try to foster deep and insightful thought. The Rice Player’s production of Paganini boldly attempts to achieve all of the above throughout the play, but risks leaving viewers uncertain of how to feel. While the exact time period in which Paganini takes place is vague, the production, set in various European cities, is about a young, once world-renowned violinist whose soul belongs to the devil. Paganini has somewhat of a dreamlike quality throughout, making it difficult at times to distinguish what is real and what is not.The play, directed by Aaron Garret (Rice ’12), opens with the introduction of Nicolo Paganini, a poor, hopeless man who was once a famous violinist but had to sell his violin due to debt. A stranger gives him a high-quality violin, free of charge, on the promise that the stranger will be repaid. The remainder of the play follows Paganini through, as the Rice Players describe it, “a series of depraved adventures in love and music.” He finds himself in a slew of sticky situations, including, but not limited to, a jail cell populated with crazy men, a somewhat psychedelic clock shop, the operating table of a kooky quartet of singing doctors, and a jealous fit of rage upon finding out that his lover is cheating on him. The mood of the play varies greatly: some scenes are dark and almost scary, while others are lighthearted and comical. Throughout the story, Paganini is trapped in a continual attempt to decipher which actions will lead him to salvation and which to damnation.As emotionally confusing as Paganini is at some points, the play is largely redeemed by the talent and passion of the actors and actresses. Jones College freshman Rob Katz, who plays the troubled musician Nicolo Paganini, convincingly represents the whirlwind of emotions his character experiences. Throughout the entire two-and-a-half-hour production, Katz remains energetic and engaged, which is quite the feat considering how animated his character is. Conveying a believable performance of someone losing his mind is no easy task, but Katz’s acting approximately reflects how his character is feeling.In addition, multiple members of the supporting cast do a phenomenal job playing multiple roles, such as Baker College senior Alyssa Dugar, who portrays many characters ranging from a poor woman selling apples to Paganini’s mother to a washed-up, desperate call girl to a “professional” singer whose singing could be better described as screeching. While each of these roles is very different, she conveys each one with just as much passion as the last, giving the audience reasons to both laugh and cry.Another standout character in the Rice Player’s production of Paganini is Baker sophomore Paul Dingus, who plays three completely different fatherly figures. In one role, he appears as an old, hunched-over man: a slightly crazy clockmaker and father to one of the multiple girls whom Paganini becomes obsessed with. This scene takes on an especially dreamlike quality, enhanced by Dingus’s representation of a charismatic and outlandish clockmaker and creator of eerily lifelike wind-up toys. He also does a remarkable job playing both an ignorant father who does not care for his daughter’s well-being and a cruel but stupid father who abuses his daughter.One enjoyable feature of the play that helps clear up some of the time period and scene location ambiguity was the quick monologues from the supporting characters before specific scenes about how Paganini entered their lives. These short speeches clearly inform the audience of where exactly the scene is happening, especially because the exact location and situation tend to change quite rapidly throughout theproduction. The Rice Players make great use of the stage, quickly transitioning between scenes and bringing out new and elaborate props, including ones from which members of the cast emerge, surprising the audience. While the lighting does a great job highlighting what is happening on stage without being too over- or underwhelming, it seems as if some parts of Paganini were heavily accented by a musical soundtrack, while others were surprisingly quiet. For a play that is centered around the life of a world-famous musician, it would be nice to have a heavier emphasis on the musical aspect.While the play is a bit lengthy, the entire cast of Paganini does an excellent job portraying a tumultuous cycle of emotions and situations. However, some scenes portray a little too wide of a range of reactions and feelings, which have the potential to confuse the audience as to what, exactly, the scene is trying convey. Paganini is being performed by the Rice Players Oct. 9-11 in Hamman Hall at 8 p.m. Student tickets are $5, faculty, alumni and senior citizens are $8 and general admission tickets are $10.

Going meatless at Houston's top meat shop

(10/08/14 3:54am)

Since opening in 2012, Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly has arguably been the quintessential Houstonian restaurant. The menu, which boldly proclaims, “Houston is the new American Creole city of the South,” even won Shepherd a 2014 James Beard Foundation Award for its seamless integration of Houston’s many ethnic influences with traditional southern techniques. Shepherd is perhaps best known for his butchering and charcuterie which, at Underbelly, are embodied by an entire aging room and back-of-house butcher’s shop devoted to butchering, curing and aging the house meats. Shepherd’s expertise is nearly unquestioned in the realm of pork, beef and all things red meat. But in light of the growing number of gourmet diners and chefs moving away from the heavy use of red meat, I wanted to sample the menu without any la viande meats to see if Underbelly’s appeal could be as broad as its influences.Underbelly does have a significant amount of fish and poultry on the menu. There are even a few vegetarian dishes as well, but the restaurant is by no means vegetarian friendly. While some of the veggie plates — like the crispy market vegetables and spiced okra — are surprisingly good, other dishes — like the crusty slow dough bread with fig butter (which at most restaurants would have been complimentary) — are fairly unremarkable. Even the popular market vegetables, which tend to linger on the menu as other dishes are rotated out, are prepared with caramelized fish sauce, meaning they have to be specially prepared for vegetarians with a key ingredient omitted.For those simply looking to avoid red meat, however, there are a few more options. Though the menu frequently changes, there’s always at least one family-sized fish plate, usually a large portion of crispy-fried bycatch, and four or five smaller dishes centered on poultry and fish. The bycatch platter, a generous helping of three whole-fried snapper with eggplant and corn on the night I visited, was undeniably delicious but lacked anything to distinguish it from the other great fish platters that can be found around Houston for $30 instead of $60. Over-seasoned and salty, the triggerfish was even more disappointing. The seared snapper, on the other hand, surpassed even the pork dishes my party ordered, spiced with an excellent blend of southern seasonings and served with okra that was far better than the okra I’ve come to expect from creole establishments. The duck was also a surprisingly good example of Shepherd’s genre-bending abilities: the meat was cooked in the classic French confit style and served with not just candied pecans, but southern-braised collards that paired exceptionally well with the duck fat.Not surprisingly, Underbelly’s extensive wine list has many options, both red and white, that pair well with their lighter dishes. Although the sign at the door declares it “Riesling season” at Underbelly, the hard ciders and light red wines are far more complex and pleasant than the off-dry Rieslings, which pair poorly with even the lightest dishes. The French ciders’ crisp acidity is a perfect match for the greasier plates, like the bycatch and duck, and the light, fragrant Grenaches and Dolcettos, both available by the glass, are especially well suited to the other fish and vegetable plates.  All in all, the meal was quite good even without Underbelly’s star ingredient. Shepherd may be a world-class butcher, but his menu proves that he’s a cook first and capable of serving some remarkable, if inconsistent, seafood and poultry. While Underbelly may still be a pork lover’s haunt, it can certainly deliver a satisfying dinner to those looking for something else.

Menil Collection to launch Bistro Menil with cask wine

(10/01/14 4:27am)

The Menil Collection will open its namesake restaurant, Bistro Menil, just north of Richmond Avenue by the end of this month. The bistro aims to be Houston’s first large-scale cask wine bar and will also serve craft beer, along with a range of familiar European and American dishes. Greg Martin, former chef of Café Annie and Taco Milagro, will lead the kitchen, while Sean Essex, who previously worked with Jackson and Company Catering and City Kitchen Catering, will head the craft beer and cask wine programs. The beer program will focus on local Texan microbrews, while the wine list will center on classic European and Western American regions, which will showcase the strengths of the cask storage method.“We had to pick something at some point,” Martin said. “Sean’s developed a really elegant wine list, focusing on Italy, France, Spain, a little Germany, California, Washington and Oregon.” Cask wine, also referred to as “wine on tap,” is simply wine stored in metal kegs. Although, in the past, cask wine has been likened to keg beer and box wine as a low quality and unfashionable beverage, interest has surged recently due to its low environmental impact. “The movement in Western Europe and the United States for the last 20 years has been to make all wineries biodynamically sustainable, and in California, Washington and Oregon there’s been a real boom focusing on how we can make the greenest product possible, and the greenest way to get the product to the guest is in casks,” Martin said. The casks are made of steel similar to the tanks that many wines are conditioned in and hold 26 bottles worth of wine for up to 60 days, inserting nitrogen into the cask as wine is removed to preserve the remaining wine’s freshness. Because the steel casks maximize crisp characteristics in wine, the wines will be mineral, fruit-driven and receive no oak aging.The bistro will feature a daily happy hour named “This is not a happy hour,” a nod to the famous René Magritte painting, The Treachery of Images, formerly housed in the gallery. Martin explained that, since high-profile museums like the Prado, Centre Pompidou and Museum of Modern Art began adding restaurants to their campuses, museum bistros have become a worldwide trend benefiting both restaurateurs and museum directors.“We have a unique location in a park-like setting, and there’s not a whole lot being offered [in that area] right now,” Martin said. To fill that void, Bistro Menil plans to offer entrees ranging in price to accommodate multiple types of dining experiences.“We want something that’s really approachable for the casual diner, so on our lunch menu we wanted to have sandwiches, flatbreads and salads — very approachable, more economic fare,” Martin said. “At dinner, we expect people will have more of an entree driven experience, you can come in with that someone special and split a half bottle of the house rose with a Caesar salad and a pizza and be out for under $40, or you can come in for a special occasion and have a much bigger experience.”As opening day approaches, Martin said he remains confident that the restaurant and its cask wine system will become important fixtures in the Houston restaurant scene. “I think Houstonians are suffering from something I call $12-a-glass Chardonnay fatigue, and I think they want a break from it,” Martin said. “They want to be able to go some place and get a good six, seven or eight dollar glass of wine, and this is the way to do it.”

Music Review-SBTRKT, "Wonder Where We Land"

(10/01/14 4:26am)

In retrospect, it’s easy to label what each year sounded like in music. 1969 was psychedelic rock music; 1977 was disco; 1985 was new wave (and Bruce Springsteen); 1991 was grunge; 1999 was teen pop stars; 2012 was dubstep. It’s much more difficult to describe what the “sound of today” is. For one thing, each year brings more genre crossover than the year before it, from Taylor Swift featuring dubstep production to Avicii featuring a folk ballad. Additionally, as streaming and MP3 downloading become more and more popular, to the point where far more students listen to Spotify than the radio, popular taste becomes divergent as individuals develop keen, eclectic tastes. So that’s why listening to the excellent second album, Wonder Where We Land, by British electronic musician SBTRKT should both amaze and confound listeners; it’s composed of everything popular now but still carves out its space as an album unlike any other released this year.  SBTRKT, also known as Aaron Jerome, released a couple of EPs in 2010 before dropping his self-titled debut album in 2011, bringing him to the center of the electronic music scene as well as some radio play in the form of the single “Wildfire,” featuring Little Dragon (and later remixed by Drake). That album was an up-tempo, dance-focused electronic collection heavily featuring frequent collaborator Sampha on vocals. With fast-paced, vocal-heavy tracks, it arrived perfectly at the center of a summer full of electronic pop music dominated by Rihanna, David Guetta and Calvin Harris.In the three years since then, we’ve seen a delicate movement toward slower, more abstract, R&B-focused projects. Newcomers James Blake and Frank Ocean rewrote the book on what R&B could sound like and what stories it could tell, while pop musicians and rappers alike made a collective move toward the smoother, slower, sultrier side of music (see Drake, Lorde and Pharrell, who were featured everywhere). SBTRKT’s new album is an exercise in electronic abstraction. It is most certainly not a dancey album, the trait that made his debut so irresistible to begin with. Such a drastic change in style could spell doom for many musicians, but luckily SBTRKT has moved in the exact direction the rest of the world has.The opener and title track “Wonder Where We Land” features Sampha once again, but rather than pitting him against a flurry of breakbeats, he is instead backed by sparse bass notes and bright piano chords before a flurry of falsetto voices, sped up and played backwards, breaking the minimalism of the song wide open. “Higher” features rapping by Raury and is chock full of lush synth production, but the slow boom-bap of the bass and snare never breaks tempo, with SBTRKT instead choosing to increase volume on the high-pitched, scream-like synths, creating the song’s climax. The track also features descriptive lyrics with clever wordplay, a treat in the oft-overlooked lyric sheet of the electronic music genre: “Use a fake ID to buy some cigarettes from the bodega / ate a pack of bad karma didn’t pay for now and laters / but my life is full of sufferings that happen now and later.”“Look Away” combines all the tricks of the modern sample-heavy electronic game, with soaring, zithering theremin-like synths, blaring siren horns, backwards drums and haunting, tinkling pianos all graced by the soprano vocals of Caroline Polachek. All this building and climaxing in the first half of the album leads to an unexpected drop in energy on the standout track “New Dorp. New York.” Featuring Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on vocals, this is a song with a distinctive theme and story to tell, that being old money in the neo-gothic New York City, with Koenig’s smooth delivery perfectly enunciating playful alliterations and assonance in lines like “Flags flappin’ in Manhattan” and “Gargoyles garglin’ oil.” The downtempo track, nearly all drum and shaker, stands against the lavish production found throughout the album and serves as a breakthrough in style for SBTRKT.Other highlights include the emotion-drenched piano and vocal crooner “If It Happens,” as well as the intriguing closing track “Voices In My Head,” which takes a dark, noir jazz band through the electronic washing machine into the future and features notable New York rapper A$AP Ferg as he eerily brings the song to coda with the repetition of “Voices in my head, voices in my head.” The dense texture of the tracklist and numerous guest vocalists (including Jessie Ware, among others) make this an album ripe for repeated listening. While nearly none of the songs are simple, the mood is: swanky R&B brought to life with spooky synths, either very high or low in the register, and spacious, unpredictable rhythmic patterns. That SBTRKT was able to take components from all faces of current pop music and still create something that sounds both surprising and infective is a testament to his ability not just as a DJ and producer, but as a songwriter.

Review: alt-J, "This is all Yours"

(09/24/14 4:49am)

The sophomore album from a young, successful band is often the most important to their career arc and for good reason: The sophomore slump is a very real thing. Countless upstart indie bands, from MGMT to The Strokes to The xx, have received some degree of critical backlash for their second LPs, typically because they either changed nothing about their formula or they changed it too much. This is the stage set for alt-J, the Leeds-based folk and electronic crossover band that came out of nowhere in 2012 to win the Mercury Prize, the award given to best British LP of the year, for their debut album An Awesome Wave.    alt-J made a name for themselves by playing a style of music that sounded completely alien despite being made up of familiar parts. The signature, unmistakable singing style of Joe Newman sits as the dynamic manifestation of the band’s sound.  The drums, heavily reliant on floor toms, give the songs their consistent tribal feel. The synth parts, all worked out on Korgs and Mac applications, loop strange, buzzing tones together in strange rhythmic patterns. The lilting guitar lines sound like mandolins played by traveling minstrels. All of this combines to make alt-J’s music sound like it is decidedly not of this century, and it certainly struck a chord with listeners. Like them or hate them, there is no confusing alt-J for any other band. The row-your-boat style round-singing on their most well-known track, “Breezeblocks,” was one of the biggest moments of 2012 in music and sealed alt-J as an eclectic act and a band to watch. So how does sophomore record This Is All Yours stack up? Pretty well, actually. Like on An Awesome Wave, we begin with a largely instrumental intro, featuring ‘LaLaLa’ nonsensical singing. “Arrival in Nara” pits a solemn piano and subtle string arrangements against Newman’s softly cooing voice. “Nara” is classic alt-J, starting soft with slowly buildingdrum and synth parts, high ethereal harmonies rising from the back like a church choir into a crashing, anthemic breakdown. None of these tracks would have been out of place on An Awesome Wave.Then we get to fifth track, “Left Hand Free.” Reportedly written as a joke in response to the age old record-company-asking-for-a-catchy-marketable-single story, we get very traditional drumming, funky, bluesy electric guitar riffs, silly lyrics about picking up a girl in a bar (‘O-M-G gee whiz girl you’re the one for me’), and gimmicky horn and keyboard parts reminiscent of The Doors. In short, it sounds nothing like any other alt-J track. It is also one of the strongest songs on the album. Sharply turning away from their traditional style, making a goofy troll-song, these guys have managed to put together a catchy, inventive take on an American brand of music better than just about anyone else has this year.  That’s because alt-J’s most common pitfall is attempting to be taken too seriously. Newman’s lyrics are difficult to discern, to say the least, a combination of his strange delivery style as well as his choice of words and syntax, but after consulting the lyrics sheet, we learn the songs are really about nothing.  They work better as parodies of the nerdier Led Zeppelin songs, spinning medieval themes into electronic arrangements. There is no deep emotional catharsis, no political stance, no inventive storytelling. alt-J could take a lesson from fellow European weirdos Sigur Ros and sing in a made up language, and nothing about the band or why they are liked would change. So when they say the content of this song is a joke, it implies the other songs are supposed to be solemn, sobering affairs. But how seriously can one take lead single “Hunger Of The Pine,” which prominently features a Miley Cyrus sample (shouting ‘I’m a female rebel!’) alongside deeply wound, ultimately substanceless metaphorical lyrics like ‘Bedding with me you see at night / Your heart wears knight armour’? alt-J is a band about textures. They layer vocal harmonies better than anyone else out there, and they’ve managed to be coined by critics as a ‘folk’ act despite featuring synthesizers as their main instrument. But they are not a lyrics band. That isn’t to say the listener cannot feel deeply when listening to alt-J music, but it comes rather from the beauty of the arrangements.This Is All Yours is a consistent release with occasional high points. The female back-and-forth vocals on “Warm Foothills” are marvelous, the perfect center to a song that showcases numerous alt-J talents. The starkness of acoustic strummer “Pusher” makes you wish the group did more minimalism and held back on the over-produced, complex-to-a-fault tracks like “The Gospel of John Hurt.” Other moments are equally annoying, but they are few between an hour’s worth of typical alt-J fare, which is still pretty interesting music these days. The group certainly dodged the sophomore slump, but it’s unlikely the same formula will be as effective on a third LP. “Left Hand Free” suggests the group can maintain their identity while pushing the boundaries into other genres. So long as they don’t take themselves  too seriously, I think we’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Pax Americana Proves Inventive, yet Inconsistent

(09/24/14 4:47am)

When I asked our waiter whether he preferred the lamb or swordfish, he told me, “That’s like asking me to pick a favorite kid.” Then, as only a father could, he described every last detail of the two dishes to help me make my choice. At Pax Americana, the new modern-American restaurant on Montrose, the passion and talent is evident. The entire wait staff has an exhaustive knowledge of the quickly-changing menu and Chef Adam Dorris (formerly of Revival Market) brings an adventurous approach uncommon for a restaurant touting itself as “American.” However, that’s not to say the food isn’t full of typical American flavors: Corn, pickles and “root vegetable mash” steal the spotlight from the menu’s more glamorous ingredients like wagyu beef and blue crab. Dorris displays a singular talent for pairing his most American ingredients like barbeque sauce and house-made pickles with elements like unfiltered olive oil, which lends the pickles an Italian flair, and charred garlic, which minimizes the sweetness of the barbeque sauce to a mole-like taste.The beverage program, lead by pastry chef Plinio Sandalio, offers a comprehensive selection of cocktails, beer and New World wines. Most of the beer is sourced from Texas, and the wine list is exclusively domestic, focusing on Washington Pinot Noirs and classic California Cabernets. Sandalio’s desserts match Dorris’s penchant for unique pairings: The hazelnut financier is paired with a scoop of remarkably good foie-gras ice cream, and the flourless cake is infused with negroni and topped with gin fizz foam and Campari gelée, making a wonderfully boozyparfait. The food’s most significant problem is that, while it’s never boring, some of the flavors can clash and detract from otherwise superb dishes. The same hazelnut financier that paired so well with the ice cream was also served with a duo of roasted figs that could have added to the dish’s flavor, but because of an odd choice of seasoning (salt, pepper, and cilantro) were better left off the plate.The edgy pairings that tainted some of the otherwise incredible dishes seemed indicative of Pax’s other problems. The food itself is truly innovative, but showcasing it on the menu, which at times sacrifices substance for trendiness, seems to be a bigger challenge for the restaurant. The strong focus on fresh and local ingredients undoubtedly improves the quality of the dishes, but also necessitates the menu be frequently changed, which can be a disappointment to those looking to have the same great dish they had on their last visit. Our waiter also informed us that the menu was centered on small plates that were meant to be shared. The “land” and “sea” portions of the menu, though, can be quite hard to share and are certainly not priced at levels that suggest small plates. Pax also offers a secret menu, which customers are told of after their first dinner. It’s another interesting addition, but given that the menu only offers 15 choices between dinner, dessert and appetizers, it’s a wonder they don’t make the additional options better known. The food at Pax Americana is good enough that most will find it worth a visit despite the frustrating trendiness and high prices. If the menu’s kinks are worked out, Pax could even rise to the level of big names like Underbelly and the other elite of the Montrose food scene. Dorris and Sandalio clearly have the talent: They just need to concentrate less on what’s fashionable and more on what’s flavorful.