Friday, September 5, 2014

Odd Duck in Austin

I recently celebrated a birthday, and on a wild hare decided to spend an extended weekend in Austin to celebrate it. So the Lovely Spouse and I made the trip.  So where in Austin will a foodie such as myself decide to celebrate?  At the much lauded Odd Duck, of course.  I didn't make the choice on the accolades, although those don't hurt, but because I've been waiting for this restaurant to open ever since visiting their food truck a number of years ago.

Image source.  Where it all began.
Odd Duck started out as a farm to table concept food truck along Lamar.  The food was sourced from local farms and served up in such a way to highlight the ingredients. The dishes were what you would expect to find at a modern food truck, but with a noticeable improvement on technique.  How many food trucks do you suppose sous vide ingredients for a slider?  Maybe all of them do where you live, but this was novel for someone living in College Station. Therefore I was thrilled to find out they would move on up to a restaurant.

Where they are now. If you go, the valet parking is complementary, but tips are welcome.
A few days before we went I made reservations from their website. It's a good thing I did. Each night was fully booked, however I managed to find a 5 pm reservation.  When we got there the restaurant was already bustling.

Much of the seating at this time was at the bar, however there were tables in the dining room and on the outdoor terrace.

Bar seating looks right into the kitchen.  You can talk with the kitchen staff while deciding which delicious item to order. 
We started with pre-dinner cocktails while perusing the menu.  I got a very nice Moscow Mule made with in-house-made ginger beer, lime, and vodka.  The Lovely Spouse got a melon margarita. True to the name it had a distinct melon flavor.

The menu is designed around small dishes, therefore it is recommended that people order 3-4 dishes each. When making my reservation I mentioned a food intolerance and requested only to be informed of which dishes would be heavy on a certain ingredient.  The service and kitchen staff were absolutely amazing at assisting me. Truly above and beyond what I expect any time I eat out.

The Lovely Spouse started with onion bread served with house-made butter. I didn't eat the bread, but the butter was sweet, creamy and delicious. 
I started with pretzels filled with ham and cheese. Whipped mustard bechamel on the side. 
My next course was the heirloom tomato salad.  I love tomatoes. This salad was light and highlighted the great heirloom tomato flavor. 
The Lovely Spouse got the smoked boudin served with arugala on a saltine. Nice smoky flavor. It tasted like a very refined boudin. Good spice mixture and clean finish. Not at all like the greasy (albeit also tastey) boudin you find at the state fair. 

Next The Lovely Spouse got, would you believe it, tater tots.  These are the most refined and out-of-the-box tater tots ever. Served with smoked chicken, cheese, and green chile sauce.  He didn't share even a bite, so it must have been awesome. 
This looks like another salad but is actually a pasta course. This is house-made ricotta cavatelli served with chanterelles, apples, walnuts, and hot sauce (on the side).  Unexpectedly bright and fresh. I decided on the spot that I now want chanterelles in All The Things.  There was a nice blend of sweet, creamy, and fresh, although none was too much so. 
This was a special occasion so we had to get dessert.  If you visit you will absolutely want to do the same.
The Lovely Spouse opted for the seasonal sorbet.  Shown here are basil sorbet on the bottom and lemon sorbet on the top. Both were perfect in every way.
I opted for the most refined birthday cake ever: the Kouign-amann croissant.  Kouign amann are pastries made by much of the same technique as croissants but typically baked in ring molds or cupcake pans, giving them a different shape and texture. This one was topped with St. Maure goat cheese, apples, honey, and micro greens. I love the combination of soft cheese and fruit - the creaminess balances out the sharpness and sometimes overly sweetness of the fruit, and the fruit balances the fattiness and funkiness of the cheese. 

Prices?  They were reasonable for fine dining in a major metropolitan area. Each dish averaged $6-12 each, times 3-4 per person. Drinks ranged in price from $4 for a draft beer (great selection) to $18 for a barrel aged Manhattan.

We didn't make it to their brunch, but I heard wonderful things about it from a variety of people.

Will we be back?  I hope so.

If you go: make reservations. Get there early and enjoy a cocktail. If you drive valet is complementary but limited.  Save room for dessert.  The menu changes regularly.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Nutella + cupcakes = Yum!

To borrow a phrase from The Bloggess, this isn't really a post.

I found something A-MAZE-ING in Houston: Nutella Cupcakes.  I just had to share.

Nutella cupcake (moist, but not too moist), with Nutella buttercream, and Nutella filling. Absolutely divine. 

Where to find said divine cupcake. Evidently they have a "cupcake palace" in the Heights as well. 
On top of all this awesomeness they were also really nice people.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Return of Cafe Eccell

And they're baaaaaaaack!

Cafe Eccell has returned. They're now located in the former Luby's location on Texas Avenue in Bryan. On first glance Luby's cleaned up very nicely. The floor to ceiling windows are beautiful. The stained cement floor now looks distinguished. And there are decorator touches all around that bring the look together. The new incarnation looks nothing like a cafeteria. As an added bonus, the new Cafe Eccell now has a bar area with daily specials. [Tuesdays = $5 tarts!]

The windows from the original restaurant!
So how's the food?  Simply put, it's the same food with a slightly higher price point and a few new menu options. Both The Lovely Spouse and I ordered items we had not previously tried at the original Cafe Eccell.

New appetizer.  These look like chicken wings but are actually pork cooked on the bone. Served with a vinaigrette dressed salad.
Half chicken street tacos, half pork street tacos.  The pork was a bit tastier. A dish for lighter appetites. 
Blackened fish sandwich served with roasted veggies.  The sandwich fell apart and had to be eaten with knife and fork.  It was delicious, however.  The veggies were so-so. 
Now, most importantly, what about the desserts?  All of the original Cafe Eccell desserts are still there, with additions.  I didn't have room for dessert however The Lovely Spouse ordered his favorite.

Chocolate Amaretto Mousse Bombe. Exactly as described. My favorite part is the dark chocolate ganache on the outside. 
Cafe Eccell was a College Station institution and is now a Bryan one.  We'll most definitely be back.  Especially so that I can try that new fig and banana tart. It sounds delicious! I predict long lines now that football season has started up again in Aggieland therefore I recommend reservations during times that would be expected to be busy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Hay Merchant

When I was a kid I hated beer. It's hard to believe but it's true. Part of this was the fact that, at the time, almost all beer on the market and the stuff my parents drank was typical American mass-produced lagers. Truth be told, I still don't particularly care for that style of beer.  It wasn't until I drank Guiness, followed by craft and specialty beers, such as Belgian tripels and real German beers, that I liked beer.  And this was right about the time that American craft beers were just starting to become popular. And I, for one, am happy to see the rise of this particular industry. 

The Hay Merchant in Houston honors the rising craft beer industry by featuring craft beers from around the country. They also offer an interesting menu.

The Lovely Spouse and I were interested in trying some craft beers that we can't try at home. So he tried one of the barrel aged selections (I don't remember the name) and I tried the Vampire Slayer from Clown Shoes. At 11% abv these were not beers for people who don't like strong beers. But they were delicious.  Barrel aging adds a bourbon and vanilla flavor to the beer, and the Vampire Slayer (not barrel aged) was rich in coffee and chocolate tones with a smooth finish. 

There are many, many different beers to choose from, both on tap and in bottles. All drafts are poured in glassware meant to augment the beer drinking experience. Does it make a difference?  I'm not sure, but it's pretty cool. 

The Hay Merchant also offers food. There are a variety of different appetizers and entrees including pig ears, wings, sandwiches, and pork buns.  We started with the pig ears, because we just had to try them.

Pig ears served hot, sweet, and spicy. Interesting flavor with just a hint of barnyard funkiness. But surprisingly addictive. 
A turkey sandwich sounds simple, however this one was one of the best I've had. Roasted turkey breast with bacon and tomato jam. Served with in house made potato chips. 
The Lovely Spouse got the pork buns.  Asian style steamed buns served with BBQ pork, onions and cilantro. He enjoyed it so much he learned how to make the steamed buns at home. 

I also tried the Cucumber Wit from Buffalo Bayou Brewery.  Kind of odd to combine cucumber with beer but it was both interesting and refreshing. 

 If you go, there's a daily happy hour before 6:30 pm with $3 selected drafts.  Parking is a bear in this part of Houston but The Hay Merchant shares a couple lots with Underbelly and a couple other restaurants.  Outdoor seating is available and sporting events are projected in the main dining room. 

If you drink, please designate a non-drinking driver. Get home safely.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

There's a National Museum of Funeral History? And it's in Houston?

This past weekend The Lovely Spouse had work that he needed to do in Houston.  It was the kind of work that only takes maybe an hour to accomplish. Well, it's a 2 hour drive so I couldn't leave well enough alone, I had to add something to the trip to make it fun. And by something I mean we just had to use this as an excuse to visit the National Museum of Funeral History (the website looks MUCH better on mobile - coincidentally they told me they're hiring for a new web designer, if you're interested). Why did I have to visit the NMFH?  Well, because it's consistently rated as one of the most unusual and interesting things to do in Houston. This is a city that has an Art Car Museum and beercan house, and this is the most interesting thing? Sign me up!

Located just off of 45 on the North side of town, the NMFH is not a pretty building by anyone's standards. In fact it looks like a 70s era warehouse, which it probably is.  The entrance is equally underwhelming, however you do get to enter through a cute little give shop.

After you enter there's no guidance and you're just free to wander around as you please.  Pictures are allowed.  It's not like I was hiding the camera under my shirt or anything. Much of the museum is an open area filled with hearses through the years and a number of notable caskets. There are some explanations to things, but no real flow to the museum.  That's not necessarily a bad thing.

Just in case you were wondering about taking it with you, this casket has over $650 embedded within it. 

I thought this casket was really cool.  It's entirely glass, with metal fittings.  The color comes from the fabric lining.  Evidently the lid is so heavy it has to have special shock absorbers to prevent it from cracking when closed.
Hearses used to double as ambulances. 

And I found out the origin of the phrase "basket case". Click on the picture to enbiggen.
This vehicle has a very interesting story, below. Well they tried to solve a problem, but things didn't quite work out as planned.

This hearse is notable for the exquisite hand-crafted woodwork and wonderful restoration. 
All of these were horse-drawn.  Traditionally white was a color indicating a child was being mourned. 
What's interesting (to me) is how hearses resemble the classic auto stylings of their times. The grey on on the right here is the hearse used to transport Grace Kelly to her final resting place.
This hearse came from 1970s Japan.

Extreme detailing inside and out.
A little warning in case you get a little too curious.  There were a lot of very interesting caskets and I can imagine the impulse to peer inside can become overwhelming to some. 
In addition to the hearses and caskets there were some interesting exhibits. Alright, this first is more caskets, but I believe the also count as folk art.

There was also an exhibit on funeral cards.  These are small cards and/or programs given at funerals.  The exhibit contained funeral cards and memory books for famous people.

This one is for Rodney Dangerfield.
There was an exhibit on the history of embalming. Not as informative as I would have liked. It didn't really explain very well the process of embalming, however it did cover an historical account of how US Americans mourn through the years. 

A large, well-planned and more modern exhibit is on the funeral of Pope John Paul II.  I was in the airport getting ready to board a flight to Rome when I found out the Pope had died. The following 2 weeks, The Lovely Spouse and I saw much of the funeral proceedings and beginning of the Interregnum.  It was an experience I hope I never forget.  The exhibit at the NMFH fills in details that those of us in the general public would not have seen, and many that we might not have known. Some of the items are originals, but many are obviously reproductions.

Seals for Papal apartment and the silver hammer to destroy the Papal ring.

Mannequin Pope laying in photograph St. Peter's Basilica with mannequin Swiss Guards.

Recreation of the Papal coffin lid. 

Recreation of the 3-layer coffin.

Recreation of the JP II crypt under St. Peter's Basilica.

Aaaaand....the Popemobile. 
The final exhibit detailed the funerals of the Presidents and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

A reliquary containing President Lincoln's hair.

The hearse that transported President Reagan around California. 

The uniform worn by the soldiers standing (and marching) watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

And, to wrap up the museum, a funeral card/program from George Washington's funeral. 
In all it was an interesting museum to visit.  The entirety of the museum does not stand up to modern museum standards, however, on the whole, the museum is worthwhile to visit for historical value. You don't have to have in-depth knowledge of the funeral industry to understand everything and you don't have to be an emo-Goth to enjoy the visit.  The museum is not morbid.

Admission is only $10 and as you exit through the gift shop you can even grab a rootbeer.