Monday, August 27, 2012

Azure Fusion Bistro and Sake

Azure Fusion Bistro and Sake is located at the intersection of Rock Prairie and Highway 6 North in South College Station.  You can find it next door to Luigi's and Honey Baked Ham.

This picture makes it look like it's just a bar. But it's also a restaurant, I swear.
The first thing anyone notices about Azure is the decor.  While it's dark inside, with heavy curtains to keep out the afternoon and evening sun, it's uniquely lit and decorated.  And, true to its name, it's blue.  The menu is far more extensive than any other sushi place in town and includes many, many prepared dishes that are not sushi and not even fish.  They also have an extensive sake menu that includes items not found anywhere else in B/CS.  The review and pictures here are from two separate visits.

The Singapore noodles were actually quite good.  My only complaint is that there were too many onions, which weren't mentioned at all in the menu description.  I ate around them, and the remaining noodles and veggies were good.  It just took a long time to eat because I was picking out the onions.
Soup and salad as part of a meal. Typical of what you find at other sushi places all over the US.
Mixed sushi: nigiri and a California roll.  I was somewhat surprised that the fish wasn't higher quality.  This was what I would call supermarket quality.  The nigiri was all prepared with a sauce, which leads me to believe it wasn't all that fresh.
A friend got the pink panther roll.  He was unable to finish it due to the fishy flavor. I found it also tasted of being supermarket quality. It was not improved by the addition of copious amounts of wasabi.
Given the disappointment with the other entrees the duck was a surprise.  Moist and delicate and served with mushrooms and mashed potatoes. All was perfectly umami and well-presented.
We celebrated a birthday on one of our trips.  This ended up coming with fried green ice cream. I loved the ice cream, but not the exterior breading. Luckily The Lovely Spouse thoroughly enjoyed it.
Non-birthday meals end with sectioned oranges.  Very cute and tasty.
So what are my feelings on Azure?  It seems that the sushi is not the strongest thing on the menu.  From our experiences it seems that it's best to stick with the cooked/prepared foods. So we'll do that on all future trips. The service was good. 

Would I recommend Azure?  Sure.  Stear away from the sushi towards the cooked entrees.

Will we be back? Most likely.  The location is convenient and the duck really was delicious, even if priced for fine dining.  There are other cooked items I haven't tried yet as well.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mongoose vs Cobra?

Believe it or not that's the name of a new bar in Houston that features craft beers.  First thing I thought of was The Bloggess discussing taxidermy. Specifically this post.  Sure enough, the bar is named after taxidermy found within the bar, as was discussed in today's Houston Chronicle here.  No word on whether or not the owners are fans of The Bloggess.  Surely they must be.

Also, Houston Restaurant Weeks have been extended until September 3 in order to include the entirety of Labor Day weekend. Not all restaurants will be participating in the extension so check the list to see if the one in which you're interested is.  According to their website, some restaurants in Montgomery and Galveston Counties will also be participating.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Messina Hof VIP Reception

Image source.

This past weekend The Lovely Spouse and I spent some time at Messina Hof Winery in Bryan, TX.  They have another location in Fredericksburg, TX, but we haven't been there.

Messina Hof is a family owned and operated winery that is very well-known in the Bryan and College Station area.  If you ask around people seem to either love them or hate them.  I'm in the camp that likes some of their wines but finds the pricing to be a bit perplexing.  More on that later.  The marketing, however, is in my opinion, genius.

The parking lot gets rather full during events.
Messina Hof Winery in Bryan includes the production winery itself, fields and fields of grapes, a bed and breakfast, gift shop and wine bar, and restaurant.  Most visitors start at the gift shop and wine bar.  When there aren't special events, the winery offers wine tastings and tours for $10.  It's a pretty good tour of their production facility, which has been growing over the years, and includes tastings of their more popular wines.

The gift shop.
What most other visitors sometimes notice is the brilliant marketing machine at play.  First there are the events.  Two of the most popular ones are the Run Through the Vines 5K/10K that happens in the Spring and Harvest, which happens in Summer.  Right now we're in the middle of Harvest. And people are spending their weekends and $49-$79 a person to pick grapes for the winery. Brilliant! 

The wine bar.
In addition to the two major events the winery has something called a VIP Club. Our memberships were gifted to us, which we greatly appreciate.  Otherwise we'd never know about this.  All levels of VIP memberships get discounts on wines, the bed and breakfast, the restaurant and such, and a red beret, just like the one worn by the gentlement behind the bar in the pict above.  Last year it was nice because there were VIP receptions roughly once a season.  So far this year there's been one reception, which is the one discussed here. Now there are upgrades to the Gold and Platinum levels, which include additional events only for Gold and Platinum members.  And judging by what we saw at this reception, people are buying all of these.  Again, the only word I have for this is brilliant! 

Where the wine tastings are held. This is located within the gift shop.
Anyways, on to the reception.  The invitation stated the reception was 1:30 - 3:30 pm on Sunday.  We arrived a bit late, but still got a taste for the activities.

Real oak barrels for aging the wines.
New for this reception was a Guess the Wine competition.  At a number of stations, bottles labeled 1, 2, or 3 were placed within paper bags.  Guests that could guess the wine based on taste alone won a prize. We were all given a list of available wines, it was pretty long, and the employees were happy to give hints.  They were also happy to indulge the guests who just wanted to sip wine.

Thank goodness for mild, over-cast days in August in Texas!
There were also stations with wine and food pairings. As you can see these were pretty popular.

This was held in one of the winery's event spaces. My only criticism is the noise. It got loud.
I rather enjoyed the Paulo Cab Franc. Jammy with a velvety mouth feel and lingering berry finish.  Also available here was the Paulo Zin which had a stronger velvety mouth with greater tannin content, leading to a stronger red flavor and nose.  The Zin paired well with blue cheeses and sausages, while the Cab Franc paired well with milder cheeses. Both would probably be lovely with red meats and spiced pastas.
There were also tastings in the warehouse. Not very busy at this time because there were announcements being made on the patio. The staff was all wonderful during the event and provided excellent customer service.
Just a reminder that this is a real, working winery.  We could have gotten tours of the production area, but we had been through them before.  If it's been awhile since you've been you'll notice they've expanded quite a bit.
This is just fun. Also another great idea.
The grounds at Messina Hof are lovely.  They have a nice set-up for weddings and other special events.
Special announcements from the Bonarrigo Family.  CEO duties are being passed from father to son.
I like Messina Hof.  And I enjoy their wines.  They have a good selection from wine-geek reds through the sweetest kool-aid varieties favored by many.  The family is lovely and are truly nice people, even when not doing any sort of business with them.  And they are truly passionate about what they do.
Some of the seating in the wine bar.
The only reason I often don't purchase their wines for general consumption is because of the price.  There's stiff competition among the wines available for purchase at your average grocery store (in Texas) or wine bar. The entire Paulo Signature wine series (of which the Cab Fanc above is a member) retails for $44 a bottle. That price puts the wine in my Special Occasion category.  It's rare that I spend that much on a bottle of wine.  I'm more in the up-to-$20 per bottle categry and usually spend up to $10 for a bottle of table wine. The Cab Franc is good...but not enough for me to spend that kind of money on it. I know my folks enjoy the Solera Sherry so I don't hesitate to spend the $30 for a gift bottle for them.  But, again, at that price it's not something I would be buying regularly.  I like the ports, even the not-a-true-port-by-definition Port of Call (available at grocery stores here).  But, again, the $19-$30 pricetags put them out of my every day range, making it more likely that I'll purchase a different brand.  The exception is the G-miner, which is exceptional served with turkey. I usually purchase a bottle to go with Thanksgiving dinner every year.
Additionally, we have tried the restaurant at Messina Hof. The prices and setting are undeniably fine dining.  But the meal, beyond the bread and sampler appetizers (the Paulo antipasto and Texas wine and cheese plate), was forgetable.  There's incredible competion in town from Madden's, Christopher's and The Republic. Forgetable doesn't cut it for fine dining. And we're just not interested in the murder mystery dinners or cooking classes. 
I have been told, however, that they are fabulous for hosting events, including professional events.  Judging by the VIP reception, I believe that. 
As for us, we'll continue to visit Messina Hof strictly for lower key things like wine tastings.  It's also a good place to take out of town guests.

Monday, August 20, 2012

It's all about the flavor. No, really!

I'm Ryan, a.k.a. Static Source, but you know me as Lovely Spouse (I didn't have any say in the nickname).  My wife asked me to consider adding an entry or two to the Cibatarian blog since I'm an avid foodie and cook.  My own blog (Static Source, in case you didn't catch it two sentences ago) is all about making stuff.  Specifically I make... well... stuff.  I make pretty much anything that inspires me, really, and fortunately I also make dinner, so that qualifies.  I'll be adding some of my food based inspirations both here and on my own blog from time to time.  Think of it like those fun cross-over events that were so popular on TV in the '80s where the cast of one show would appear on the set of another and everyone would act like it was perfectly normal while the live studio audience went crazy.  I suppose I need a title, then.  Since I didn't have any say in my nickname I claim full license to select my own title.  From this day forth I shall be known as "Contributing Editor" since I get to contribute... and edit... at least I get to edit what I contribute.
It's over 100 degrees outside, and that can only mean one thing: Hatch Chile Season!  While everyone else in Texas is looking for anything at all to help them cool off foodies in the South are turning up the heat.
I was born in New Mexico, and I grew up in Texas.  My mother was born in Arizona, and she grew up all around the American Southwest.  To put it mildly I grew up with spicy food.  My mother introduced me to the incredibly complex flavor of the green chiles from Hatch, New Mexico in a recipe her mother had taught her when she was young: green chile burritos.  I hadn't seen the chiles since I moved away to go to college in 1992 until a few years ago when I happened, much to my surprise, upon a basket of rather sad looking Hatch chiles at a local super market, and my mouth began watering immediately.  The smell of the peppers is unmistakable, and I took every pepper they had on the shelf.  I roasted them myself once I got home by putting them on my barbecue grill and rotating frequently until the skins were blistered and blackened all the way around.  Since then H. E. B. and the Central Market in Houston have begun annual Hatch Chile Festivals at which they fire roast the peppers by the bushel for you at the store and send them home with you piping hot.  Temperature-hot, that is.  Well also flavor-hot, of course.  Why did we have to use the same word for both in English?  It's so much easier in Spanish where "caliente" means temperature-hot and "picante" means flavor-hot.  Picante sauce therefore just means "hot sauce", and "hot" picante sauce is redundant.  Not that I speak Spanish fluently.  I don't even have any Latin or Spanish heritage.  I just like the food, and growing up in Texas I've learned more than a little Spanish.
The following recipe is the first with which I have ever come up on my own.  It's really simple, which is why I chose to lead with it.  It takes about forty minutes from prep to table, but about half that time is waiting while the potatoes boil.  It's perfect if you happen to be doing other things at the same time.
 - 5 pounds of potatoes cut into 3/4 inch cubes (skins-on is my preference)
 - one stick of butter
 - one cup plus one shot glass of cream (I didn't say this recipe was diet friendly)
 - five to ten minced, roasted Hatch green chiles with the stems and seeds removed (hot or mild,  I like hot)
 - salt and pepper to taste

Boil the potatoes in a large stock pot with a tablespoon of salt and oil.  When the potatoes squish easily between two spoons (about twenty minutes) drain the potatoes and return them still hot to the stock pot.  Add the butter, Hatch chiles, and cream and mash with a potato masher or ricer to the desired smoothness.
If you decide to try this recipe at full strength your first time out (10 hot chiles) have the shot glass of cream right next to your plate.  If it turns out that you've gotten in over your head with the heat of the chiles take the shot and swish it around in your mouth until the flames are extinguished.  The fat in the cream will help dissolve the capsaicin (the naturally occurring chemical that gives peppers their characteristic heat).  I accept no responsibility for the effects you may experience the following day (we've come to call it "afterburners" or "the ring of fire").

Saturday, August 18, 2012

TGI Fridays

Fridays has been around for a long time.  And I feel they don't get any respect as a restaurant.  Probably because they've been around for so long.  I remember hanging out there as an undergrad *cough* years ago.

I'm going to guess they also don't respect for this reason:
Gif source.
Luckily for the restaurant themselves they've changed over the years.  The waitstaff are no longer required to wear so many piece of flare.  And while bits and pieces of the decor remain, the branding has been revamped and the menu has changed.

We went on a night when we were both hungry for carbs so we started with the pretzel sticks in the appetizer menu. Doughy pretzels served with a beer cheese dipping sauce. Bacon is involved so you know it tastes good. [My picts are dark due to the amber-toned lighting in the table seating area.]
Beer's available in 2 sizes. I like that they have Shiner on draft.
I typically order off the "Right Portion Right Price" menu.  Here's a 6 oz sirloin served with steamed broccoli and sweet potato fries.  According to the menu this would be 700 calories with double broccoli. I just really wanted those fries, though. :-)  The sirloin was much futher cooked than I wanted but the taste was there. And it was one of the less expensive items on the entree menu.
The Lovely Spouse got the rum ribs with slaw and sweet potato fries. He said the ribs were sweet, as he was expecting.
Obviously he enjoyed them because there was a caveman pile left over.
We didn't get dessert because we didn't feel the need for it. I'm told the desserts at Fridays are quite good.  We just never bother with them.

Other items on their current menu (it changes seasonally) we've had on other trips that we'd recommend include the Strawberry Fields Salad (with the optional grilled chicken) and their burgers.  During marathon season they have special menu designations for items recommended for training, carb loading and recovery. They're also running a Pick 2 for $10 special. 

The bar area after re-branding. It's a lot more bright than the dark Friday's of years ago. They have nightly drink specials.
The wall decor remains, but there's just less of it than before.
The service is always good.  And the food is generally not perfect but what I've come to expect with a chain restaurant that wants to compete with the many, many others on the market.  The prices are competitive.

So, yea, Friday's is very much the mid-range chain restaurant they've always been. But they've updated with the times and have been smart about keeping up with a changing menu.  I never expect fine dining with them and I don't expect the same kind of experience I find with a mom-and-pop establishment.  But for a casual mid-week night out, there are far worse places you could choose.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Central Market Hatch Chile Festival

Fresh Hatch Chiles
This is actually 2 posts in one.  One for the people who have no idea what a Central Market is and another for the Hatch Chile Festival marketing Central Market.

We live outside a major metropolitan area in Texas, so sometimes it's necessary to drive to a big city to do, see, and buy stuff that's just not available in our home town.  The nearest metropolitan area is Houston.  Moving from Maryland to Texas the one thing I missed more than anything was Trader Joes.  I just loved the stuff I could find there and nowhere else.  Well, for me Central Market has filled that role and more.  Yes, I know a Trader Joes recently opened in River Oaks, Houston.  But I have to say it's too late.  If I'm making the drive I'm going to Central Market.

We visited last weekend to load up on roasted Hatch Chiles and to stock up on other stuff. 

As you can see Hatch Chile Fest has been extended to August 28. The other promotional material stated it will end on August 21. So you all now have an extra week to get your chile fix.
Central Market employees spent hours outside in 100 F temps to roast and sell the chiles.  They even had tasting available.
New for this year are Hatch Chile Ristras.  I learned that these are dried chiles that are hand-tied.  These were originally hung as a display of prosperity because something like this is a sign that the household has food. They're completely edible and last months.  Simply pull off a pepper and add it to whatever recipe you're cooking.  Before seeing these at Central Market I thought they were purely decorative and not edible.  Now I know. 
One thing I really like about HEB and Central Market is that they carry locally made items. These are fundraisers for the FFA.
In case you were unaware it was Hatch Chile Fest when you walked past the tents and roasters, displays just as you walk in the store remind you. And Central Market has Hatch Chiles in just about anything.
A roaster right inside the door.  I suppose so people can see one up-close without it being scorching hot.
One of the items we just can't find at home is...Ghost Peppers.  I'm kind of afraid of what The Lovely Spouse is planning on making with these. He mentioned something about Vindaloo.
Another hard to find item: fresh soft-shelled crabs. $6.99 each. These are lovely lightly seasoned and sauteed. Or breaded and broiled then placed on a sandwich with lettuce and tomato. Nom!
Hatch Chile chocolate truffles.
Not related to anything...I was just fascinated by gourmet, flavored marshmallows.
Just a reminder that Central Market is not your average grocery store.  They have high-end aged balsamic vinegar for sale.
And real truffles. These are not as expensive as the ones you read about in the news because they're small and preserved. The large, fresh ones are the ones everyone talks about.  Still...they're kept under lock and key for a reason.
Another hard to find item.  No, these aren't made from crabs. They're seasoned with Old Bay seasoning, which is used to season steamed crabs in Maryland.
One thing that keeps me coming back time and again: the huge selection of loose tea and spices.
Also a large selection of coffee by the pound. Much of this was roasted in Houston by local businesses.
More Hatch Chile stuff.  This time in the freezer aisle.  There's serious marketing dollars attached to this. And I'm imagining a serious amount of manufacturing and logistics involved.
The Hatch Chile bread is amazingly delicious. Local HEBs are also carrying it.
This picture is posted because it's funny. These are full-sized cakes...and a cupcake.
I don't think you'll enjoy the Hatch Chile brownies as much as you think you will. They just aren't good. No, not at all.
Central Market has an impressive selection of cheeses.
I'll just put this right here... LOL!
They also have an impressive deli.
This is a higher grade of salami than you can find locally.

In case you get a hankern' for some quail eggs....

The most requested items that people ask me to bring back for them are the olives and/or sauces by the pound.
And a slew of in-house-made dishes featuring Hatch Chiles.
Central Market has a dining area. Not a big deal to people who live in large metropolitan areas. But not as common in small towns.
Because this Texas, you can even purchase a chile beer and enjoy it with your meal.
The Lovely Spouse and I purchased the Hatch chile mac and cheese and the Hatch chile crab cake to sample in the store.  In my opinion neither had enough chile flavor to live up to the Hatch chile label attached.  They were good, but not very spicy.  The crab cake was not a Maryland style one, but I don't expect that in Houston. It still was tasty and I might get it again.  I've long since abandoned the expectation that all crab cakes need to be Maryland-style.

I sampled the chile beer, as they had a tasting in the beer and wine section. It tasted like a lager, as it is one, with a mild chile burn. I kind of liked it and it reminded me of the chile ginger ales and sodas that are out there. Not so hot that it'll be unpleasant, but hot enough to let you know it's there.

For those of you reading this from Maryland, yes, I know that Central Market if very much like Wegman's.  Wegman's wasn't in Maryland before I moved to Texas so I never had any association with them.  Trader Joes and Shoppers Food Warehouse was pretty much it for me up there. I'm glad to see there are now more options up there.

[Believe it not I took all these pictures with a cell phone.]