Archive for March, 2010

Rise Bakery

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Rise Bakery is located on the access road of Highway 1604, in the Waterford of Stone Oak Shopping Center, between Hardy Oak and Stone Oak Boulevard. I have been eyeing Rise Bakery for about the last month; and for months before that, curiously anticipating what would be in the space with the huge “Opening Soon” banner. I finally had an opportunity today to go in. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. The customary fragrant aroma of fresh baked breads and confectionaries, warmly greeting you as you walk into most bakeries, was strangely absent at Rise. The space was also rather stark with high industrial ceilings and concrete floors. The seating, minimal and utilitarian, was pushed along the walls and windows leaving the large central space, and me, feeling…empty. I had planned to stay and get a cup of coffee, but the arrangement did not welcome me to do so. Not to be deterred, I ordered cinnamon rolls and unexpectedly struck up a conversation with the owner, Chris, who I originally mistook for another patron since was sitting at one of the tables in front of his laptop talking to another patron.

The made from scratch baked goods selection was limited, but all reasonably priced. Scones, biscotti, sweet and savory Kolaches, blueberry muffins, sugar cookies. Noticeably missing – bread. Although everything looked really good, my choice came down to the cranberry orange scone or the cinnamon roll. The cinnamon roll won and it was a happy victory for me and my taste buds. While it was a bit on the dry side, a little zap in the microwave would have rectified that in an instant. The flavor was really good, with strong cinnamon throughout and not overly iced. I am sorry now that I did not order a coffee, which word on the street says is very good and done well with properly made cappuccino and espresso. Since I feel that a proper review is lacking without having done so, I will be back – curious to also see what will come of this promising bakery. Hoping on my next visit the atmosphere is more of an invitation to stay awhile (they do have free wi-fi), so that I can sit there and enjoy a hot cup of coffee or mocha, with a scone or biscotti, while doing some work or reading the newspaper comfortably.

Chris is much friendlier than his surroundings. He told me that Rise has been open since November, but only recently got its signage installed. He has taken things slowly, trying different offerings and getting a feel for what his customers may want, including various breads and light lunch options, which he indicated he’d like to start soon, but would limit to four or five differing chalkboard specials daily. Also coming soon are smoothies which I believe will well suit his customers who drop in for to-go orders on their way to work.


Rise on Urbanspoon

Gristmill River Restaurant and Bar

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

I have to tell you – I just love the atmosphere at Gristmill in Gruene, Texas. On a beautiful Texas day, there are very few better places to eat. Gristmill has outdoor seating on its many decks looking out over the woods and river. But you don’t have to eat outside to enjoy the scenery or the pleasant weather. The indoor seating is much like eating on a covered patio. On nice days, Gristmill opens the windows, letting a nice breeze run through the dining area. On the Sunday we went, we ate inside right next to one of those open windows – you could hear the leaves rustling and the river rushing (thanks to the many rainy days prior – very nice to hear and see after the months long drought). http://gristmillrestaurant.com

As it advertises, Gristmill is located beneath the Gruene water tower in an old cotton gin overlooking the Guadalupe River and is considered on the most unique dining spots in Texas. I cannot argue with that claim. It is one of the most unique restaurants I have ever eaten at. Gristmill has character in spades. The place is steeped in history and is endlessly interesting. You can almost feel the presence of the Texans who made their living there in the aged brick walls, the only remaining portion of original structure, scarred by the fire that brought the mill down in 1922. Despite its expanse, Gristmill feels warm and familiar with its hand hewn wide plank wood floors and huge beams and countless pieces of memorabilia. Our server was sweet and friendly, attentive and quick, which only added to the welcoming atmosphere.

But frankly, while the atmosphere is original and distinct, the entrees are rather average and ordinary. On the day we went, I had the Chicken Acapulco, a marinated chicken breast grilled then topped with a homemade pico de gallo and sour cream. The chicken breast was well seasoned, but small, and the pico de gallo was less than fresh. The entrée also included one side, a choice of Pinto Beans, Homemade Mashed Potatoes, Gruene Beans, Steamed Fresh Veggies, Potato Salad, Hill Country Cole Slaw or “Gristmill Fries” Original Round Cut Fries. Anything else would have been better than my choice of the “Gristmill Fries” which were more than a little disappointing. My side of “Gristmill Fries” amounted to nothing more than a single potato sliced moderately thin, lengthwise, fried and dusted with cheap seasoning salt. They were limp and unappealing. As disappointed as I was, double that if I had actually purchased them a la carte for $3.49. In my opinion, $3.49 is too high a price for any side of fries. But if I ordered fries for that price and been presented with what I received, I may have actually sent them back, something I think I have done maybe twice in my entire life and once it was for a bug in my food.

My Mr. ordered the Chicken Fried Chicken with a side of the homemade and homestyle, skin-in, mashed potatoes, and white gravy. The mashed potatoes were good and, thankfully, plentiful so that I could share. I only wish they were a bit hotter in temperature, salted a bit more and the gravy a little more peppery. The chicken fried chicken was perhaps the smallest I’d ever seen in Texas. In fact, it was so small that my husband ate it before I even got a bite, which is unheard of – I always get a bite. Although he did eat it all, he ranked it low in taste and texture, and explained his empty plate with his incredible hunger.

On a high note, my parents both ordered the Gruene Bros. “Best” Wurst, links of Falls City, Texas, Polish wedding sausage, served with BBQ sauce and spicy mustard, which they really enjoyed. I thought it was a bit dry, but had great flavor. The side of Hill Country Cole Slaw was a particular standout, with its fantastic vinegar base and crisp cabbage.


Bottomline on Gristmill. Go for the atmosphere on a blue sky day (have lunch/dinner early – the crowds and the wait grow pretty quickly, especially on a nice weather weekend), order the sausage, a burger or one of their tasty sandwiches (I have had the Grilled Chicken Sandwich and Gruene Country Club Sandwich on previous visits and was absolutely pleased with both. I have also heard really good things about the Beef Tenderloin Sandwich, although I have never tried it). Skip the fries. Have a cold brew, sit back and relax. And you will have a great dining experience. Then head over to Gruene Hall, the oldest continually operating dance hall in the State of Texas, for some great music, more amazing atmosphere and another cold brew. You just can’t beat that for a fun-filled afternoon (or evening).

Gristmill Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Auden’s Kitchen

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

Auden’s Kitchen is the latest restaurant from the James Beard nominated Bruce Auden who has garnered much success and acclaim through his fine dining restaurant on the San Antonio Riverwalk, Biga on the Banks. Although Chef Auden obviously brings his enormous skill and taste to Auden’s Kitchen, Auden’s Kitchen is decidedly different. Tucked away in an upscale shopping center on the south edge of Stone Oak on Sonterra Boulevard east of Stone Oak Boulevard, Auden’s Kitchen is a neighborhood restaurant, with laid back style, approachable food and reasonable prices. I was initially skeptical of this location, wondering if saccharine suburbia was the right match for a restaurant from a chef whose previous neighborhood digs were in an cozy old house on a tree lined street. But it works. While I never made it inside, the day too beautiful and my child too uncooperative, the outside eating area is pleasant and one forgets pretty quickly that essentially you are sitting in an extension of the parking lot.

My only complaint about Auden’s Kitchen was the service. Despite being friendly, our server was very green. He was not familiar with the menu, had a difficult time explaining the specials, went back into the restaurant twice to have questions answered and was a little less attentive than I like. To his credit, he did everything with a wonderful smile and nice demeanor. A little more training to eliminate the awkwardness and he’ll be dangerous. A notably good thing about the service at Auden’s Kitchen was the visible presence of the general manager, Keith Ludwick, who was interacting with the patrons, genuinely interested in their feedback.

Unlike the service, no skill is lacking in the food at Auden’s Kitchen. My friend and I both started our lunch with a mixed green salad with a few chunks of fresh mozzarella and tossed in flavorful balsamic vinaigrette. It was very good, the fresh mozzarella a nice touch. My main dish, the Vegetable Wrap, was excellent. The vegetables were well marinated, but still retained their firmness and the romaine lettuce added a great crisp bite. The sundried tomato basil wrap was really tasty and was not soggy, gummy or chewy as sometimes wraps can be if they are old or wrapped well in advance of serving. The quinoa salad side was perhaps the best I have ever tasted. Loaded with apples, dates, and red bell pepper and dressed with balsamic vinaigrette, the salad also included a generous chopping of cilantro, one of my favorites. So good!

My friend, who is vegetarian, ordered the Artichoke and Asparagus White Pizza (which originally included salami, but was kindly and without hassle eliminated upon request). The crust was very good. The asparagus was firm and crisp, the artichokes perfect, the fontina cheese mild and creamy. My friend felt that it was a little under-seasoned, lacking salt, but that can be easily explained by the exclusion of the salami. In my opinion, it was sufficiently salty even without the salami. For those of you who are also vegetarian, you will very much enjoy Auden’s Kitchen. Many of its menu offerings speak directly to you, not merely as an afterthought or tangential to the culinary conversation as the vegetarian items on other restaurant’s menus seem to be. Rather, the vegetarian offerings at Auden’s Kitchen are an essential part of the overall vision of the restaurant, which is refreshing even for this omnivore.

I will be happy to eat at Auden’s Kitchen again. The lunch menu is full of many appealing items – the Gnocci with pulled pork and kale, Linguini and Clams made with Spanish chorizo and albarino wine sauce and the Lamb Pasta with green peas and roasted pearl onions sound especially good. I will also have to make a trip for dinner, knowing dinner is a very different dining experience. And while they apparently have a decent wine list, with a corkage fee of only $15.00, you can bring in your favorite without too much pain.

http://www.audenskitchen.com/

Audens Kitchen on Urbanspoon
 

Cochineal (Marfa, TX)

Friday, March 12th, 2010

I find it incredibly uncomfortable to say something negative about a restaurant having as favorable a reputation as Cochineal. For most highly esteemed restaurant owners (as the owners of Cochineal are) the food they serve is personal, and means something more than a product sold for profits. Knowing this has made writing this post particularly difficult. But I also feel no one will respect your opinion that something is good, if you cannot frankly state when something else is not. So, I have to say I was mostly disappointed by Cochineal. Prior to eating there, I read many reviews raving about the food, stating it was excellent, even spectacular. That is not at all what my husband and I experienced.

While we enjoyed the modern, yet inviting, setting and feel the wait staff was welcoming and friendly, our entrees were uninspired, ordinary and plainly lacked finesse. Essentially, we received standard steakhouse fare in a modern arthouse setting. Many things may explain this, including that it was February in Marfa and we were the first diners of the night, but if you are going to charge $30 for an entrée, it should be something special regardless of the time of year or the time of day.

My Mr. ordered the Wood Grilled Rack of Lamb served with Rosemary Sauce on Cannellini Bean Puree with Grilled Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce. The well underdone lamb chops, as well as the grilled asparagus with hollandaise sauce, were indicative of both poor execution and lack of imagination. The rosemary sauce listed on the menu was a complete no show on the plate. Perhaps, this missing element would have elevated the dish, but we will never know. The bean puree was gummy and bland; and therefore was left mostly uneaten. Coincidentally, the night before at Café Cenizo at the Gage Hotel, our jumbo shrimp appetizer included a white bean puree and I had a lamb entrée. We could not help but make a comparison, but really there wasn’t one. Both the white bean puree and lamb chops were exceptionally better at Café Cenizo. (If you are interested, I have posted my thoughts on Café Cenizo. See Café Cenizo post dated March 4, 2010)

I had the Black Pepper Crusted USDA Ribeye Steak with Herbed Butter and a Classic Caesar Salad which was highly recommended by our server. Although the steak was prepared perfectly to order, it was thin and lacked flavor, the pepper sparse. The herbed butter, rather than being on the steak enhancing the flavor, it was melted on the plate and into the Caesar Salad. At this point most people would wish that they had ordered something else. But there were only five choices total on the menu (yes, five); leaving a crispy skinned roasted boneless young chicken served on sautéed spinach and rosemary mashed potatoes; sautéed baramundi with lemon buerre blanc and toasted almonds served with shredded Brussels sprouts on French green lentils; and a wood grilled loin of pork with Dijon mustard source served with Japanese white rice (white rice – really?) with garlicky broccolini. Most of this I can make on a weekend night at home – not exactly what one would expect from a place this pricey.

Unfortunately, the entrees were not the only disappointment of the evening. Shortly after we were seated, we were presented with the wine list, as is customary. The wine list was extensive and probably had some wonderful, reasonably priced (by that I mean in the $50-$60 range) offerings, but there was no one there to educate us or make a meaningful suggestion; we were essentially directed to the Wines by the Glass, of which they had four, one each of White, Rose, Red and Sparkling. And the winner was….the Red…a feeble Bordeaux. At every fine dining establishment I have ever been to, the wait staff has been trained extensively on the wine offerings and pairings. Cochineal might be known for its wine list, but I found it unbearably patronizing that no one at Cochineal would graciously assist us in deciphering the list and ease us into a choice suited to the meal, our individual taste and comfortable price point. You have a four page, single spaced wine list and have no one to confidently make a recommendation. At these prices, service should include more than the expected attentiveness and a friendly smile.

I will say that the bookends of the meal were good. The starter – the appetizer of crab cakes on roasted red pepper with lemony mayonnaise was heavy on the crab with a breading light and golden; the flavor of the mayonnaise was bright with citrus notes, accenting the crab cakes nicely. Our dessert was the delicious Rich Flourless Callebaut Chocolate Souffle with a Warm Chocolate Center, complimented by the wonderfully rich, perfectly brewed coffee. If there was a highlight, the coffee and dessert was it. So at least we ended the meal on a high note.

It is interesting to me that the relatively inexpensive street food from a walk up food truck out in the open in the center of town, served far and away superior tasting food to the pedestrian food served at the hard to find (the restaurant is tucked away off the street and the wood sign in front is so worn rendering it practically unreadable), sleek and expensive Cochineal. Too bad Food Shark doesn’t serve dinner. One of the gallery managers said that she likes having dinner at the new Marfa Table. Maybe next time – since we will not be going back to Cochineal.

Cochineal on Urbanspoon

Starbucks

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Running late this morning – no breakfast and not enough coffee so a trip to Starbuck’s was definitely in order after I dropped off little man at preschool. Normally, I get a low fat blueberry muffin in this situation, but the spinach egg white and feta whole wheat wrap with sun dried tomato spread sounded pretty good so I decided to give it a try. Good thing. It is really pretty good! It looks and eats a lot like a Hot Pocket, but tastes exponentially better. Move over Egg McMuffin, Starbucks is offering some great choices for breakfast on the go!

Food Shark (Marfa, TX)

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

 On a recent trip to Big Bend, while staying in Marathon at the Gage Hotel, we decided to take a day trip to Marfa, a long overdue excursion. We had heard many things about this quirky town, from its history and architecture; to the artists inspired by the natural beauty of the west Texas landscape and its quiet peace beckoning creativity; from the city transplants and the galleries; to the new age enthusiasts seeking redemption and spiritual clarity from the sacred Native American ground and the Marfa lights. We had even heard that one can get some really great food in Marfa. What we hadn’t expected was that the food from a well worn and worked, funky and fun, food truck parked in an open air pavilion near the railroad tracks in the center of town would be the highlight of our jaunt. But that is exactly what the food at Food Shark delivered. http://www.foodsharkmarfa.com/


Prior to our trip, we were given a tip from a fellow foodie to check out Food Shark; the tipster also offhandedly said he had also heard that Lance Armstrong of Tour de France and LiveStrong fame eats there when he’s in town. Well, that is cool, but it is also the last reason to eat at the Food Shark. What I mean is, don’t go because Lance Armstrong eats there; rather eat there for the reason I am sure he eats there – because the food is fantastic! In fact, after eating the perfectly named Marfalafel (a large flour tortilla filled with falafel balls*, fresh romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, tahini*, yogurt and harissa* sauces with hummus), I am now officially a full-on falafel fanatic. As I confided to my husband and a friend who loves falafel, I am now craving falafel in the same way I craved things while pregnant (for those of you who know me, relax, take a deep breath. I am not pregnant!).

I have never before tried falafel, a bit weary of the major chickpea component which is not my favorite ingredient. But it was terrific – chock full of flavor, these amazing fried balls have a wonderfully hard crunchy exterior and moist slightly textured center. And although I have no basis for comparison, I imagine this falafel is exactly how falafel should be done and is done where it is a common street food, like Egypt. Enhancing the great flavor of the falafel were the three excellent sauces drizzled on top: tahini, yogurt and harissa. With each crackling bite, you tasted the toasted nuttiness of the tahini, the creamy coolness of the yogurt, and the warm spiciness of the harissa. DELICIOUS!


Throwing caution to the wind, I ordered the side of hummus (I know…I’m crazy like that. But again, it’s the chickpea thing.) Anyway, the hummus was really good. It was garlicky and slightly course, a nice dip for the remaining portion of my tortilla. While I am not a complete convert, anyone who likes hummus would really enjoy the Food Shark’s take on what they appropriately call the “Mediterranean bean-dip”. Really the only disappointment (minor and quickly forgotten) was the tortilla which seemed store bought. I suggest substituting it for the flatbread for a buck more.


My Mr. ordered the Salpicon Salad (Warm Shredded Brisket, with Romaine and Herb Salad, Queso Fresco, Guacamole and tortilla strips) off of the Daily Specials chalk board, which they kindly converted to two brisket tacos and a side salad. The salad was pick-from-your-garden fresh and crisp, the queso fresco tangy and good. The shredded brisket was in a fantastic spicy sauce topped with beautiful avocado wedges (rather than the guacamole as advertised – not a bad thing at all, just saying). Not advertised was the side of fresh salsa included, which was just superior. Light and accented with what I think was Siracha, it complimented the greasiness (again, not a bad thing) of the brisket really well. YUM!

Frankly, we both walked away wishing there was Food Shark in San Antonio. I know such a prayer is rather unholy since food obviously made with such soul can not and should not be franchised or mass produced. So I am crossing my fingers for another trip soon to Big Bend and Marfa with a fabulous lunch at Food Shark.

*For a more detailed explanation of each of these items, check out the daily menu at Food Shark with this link: http://foodsharkmarfa.squarespace.com/storage/newestFOOD%20SHARKmenu9-2009.htm

Cafe Cenizo (Marathon, TX)

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

In the middle of nowhere, in the blank interior of the triangle formed by Big Bend National Park, Alpine and Fort Stockton, Texas lies the small ranching and oil town of Marathon. In that town sits the magical Gage Hotel. Originally constructed by Alfred Gage in 1927, the hotel also served as the ranch headquarters for the 500,000 acre ranch owned by Gage, a transplant from Vermont. The hotel then sat unoccupied for many years, the commerce of Marathon no longer able to support it. That is until an oilman and Son of Texas, J.P. Bryan, bought it and took on the decades long restoration process to restore the hotel to its old glory. With that mission accomplished and, new hacienda-style rooms, Los Portales, added, the Gage Hotel is now a destination not to be missed. The Gage’s beauty and mystique is matched equally by its restaurant, Café Cenizo. The painstaking attention to detail and the authenticity to culture and lifestyle found throughout the property are also most certainly found at Café Cenizo and in the food it serves. http://www.gagehotel.com/

We began our evening at the White Buffalo Bar (the White Buffalo also a transplant – this time Wyoming), the intimate and authentic Texas bar adjoining Café Cenizo. And while it serves up a wide array of specialty tequilas and margaritas, I decided on a fine Pinot Noir, the Mr. ordered a Cab, and we sat back with our son enjoying the warm atmosphere and toasty fire before our meal. Once seated, we again were treated to a decidedly relaxed, comfortable atmosphere where the only outward indications of fine dining came with the quiet, candlelit setting and the white table linens. No pretention here.

The same holds true for the food. But don’t equate lack of pretention with ordinary or uninspired. Rather, the food is sophisticated and imaginative, while honoring the ingredients and flavors of the southwest. Appetizers include Grilled Quail with black currant veloute sauce, persimmon bread salad in apple vinaigrette, Pan Seared Sweetbreads, Scallop Cocktail with a red pepper sorbet, Duck Risotto, Braised Shortribs with a green chile polenta, Ginger Sweet Potato Soup, Chipotle Dusted Jumbo Shrimp with white bean puree, avocado mousse and tortilla crisps. Entrees include Mole Rubbed Tenderloin with mashed potatoes in a poblano cream sauce and chayote squash, Crispy Skinned Adobo Rubbed Chicken with a cilantro rice and refried white beans, Duck Enchiladas, Pan Seared Scallops with a roasted sweet corn chowder, Grilled Lamb Chops with herbed couscous, tomato and pearl onion confit, in an orange-coriander demi-glace, Wagyu Ribeye with oregano roasted potatoes, ranchero sauce and sautéed kale, Chicken Fried Steak, Pepper Crusted Venison with potatoes au gratin and a truffled mushroom demi-glace.

As you can imagine it took some time to order. No matter, we just continued to sip our wine leisurely. The server checking in occasionally, not rushing or pushing, answering questions about the menu, at which he was obviously uncomfortable or untrained. We are still unsure of whether the venison my Mr. ordered was local axis, as another server indicated to the patrons sitting beside us, or shipped in from eastern New Zealand as our server told us. My Mr. ordered it anyway and it was excellent (more on that a little later). Decisions made, we started with the Chipotle Dusted Jumbo Shrimp with white bean puree, avocado mousse and tortilla crisps. Visually, the dish was beautiful, the taste…incredible. Not usually a big bean fan, it is amazing what a lot of butter can do to change one’s mind. The bean puree was creamy and silky, with none of the usual chalkiness. The richness of the beans played wonderfully against the heat of the chipotle on the perfectly cooked shrimp and in the chipotle sauce drizzled on top. Not tangential, the rich avocado mousse rounded out the flavor by adding a touch of sweetness. The tortilla crisps while mostly decorative brought some crunch to the dish, which I always appreciate. Needless to say, the plate had not a spot left on it – we used the remaining bread served earlier to literally wipe the plate clean.

For my entrée, I ordered Grilled Lamb Chops with herbed couscous, tomato and pearl onion confit, in an orange-coriander demi-glace. The dish, an obvious nod to traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, was delicious. While one of the chops was slightly undercooked and fatty, the other was cooked to a succulent medium rare. Both chops had a good sear on the outside and great overall flavor. The herbed couscous was a delightful and appropriate side. I particularly enjoyed the tomatoes and onion confit, sweet and fun as some of the tomatoes had not burst in the cooking process, so I got to “pop” them in my mouth. Bringing the dish together was the orange-coriander demi-glace. Not in the least overpowering, the sauce scented and accented the dish nicely. As with our appetizer, this entrée was a complete experience for your palate; there was no lingering feeling that something, somehow was missing.

In keeping with Texas, the portions are substantial at Café Cenizo. Not wanting to be wasteful, I ate the last of my lamb by dipping it into the extraordinary, wildly addictive, truffled mushroom demi-glace served with my Mr.’s entrée. As said before, his Pepper Crusted Venison with potatoes au gratin and a truffled mushroom demi-glace was excellent. The venison grilled to a spot on medium rare. The potatoes au gratin were very well done – the potatoes fork tender, the sharp cheese sharp matching well with the strength of the pepper and venison, and the top fabulously golden. But the star of the show was the definitely the sauce. Once I finished the lamb, I was still looking around for things to dip into it.

Finally, not wanting to skip dessert, but having no more room and barely able to move, we ordered a Chocolate Blueberry Peanut Butter Tort to go (which the kitchen did with absolutely no problem, even including cloth napkins and silver) and we rolled back to our room. After some time to settle, we dug into the dessert, which was only average. The chocolate glistened, but the other elements were disappointing. I am glad the dessert experience was separate, in both time and place, from our main meal since the dinner was so wonderful.

This is not the first time we have eaten at Café Cenizo and it will not be our last. The Gage Hotel holds a special place in our hearts; and we are not alone – we met a couple who have been going there every year since 1983. The Gage is also incredibly popular – it was completely booked. We would come to the Gage regardless since it is a wonderful place and makes a perfect one night layover before heading into Big Bend National Park for a few days. The fact that one can get amazing food here as well is just a cherry on top.

Cafe Cenizo on Urbanspoon