Saturday, October 8, 2011

Macondo Latin Bistro

There was a breakthrough in the brunch hunt this week.

It being Saturday, options were a bit limited for brunch, but Macondo came up on the ol' Google search, open at a yawn-inducing 7 am and serving breakfast until 2 pm. So we decided to check it out.

There was limited information online — a brief search didn't bring up a menu, and the website is the restaurant's Facebook page — so I was sortof expecting a hole in the wall. I was still hopeful, and when we came upon the Latin bistro on Travis Street, it was an immediately charming, inviting place. First of all, there were actually PEOPLE inside. We've been so used to dining literally alone at the past few restaurants, it was such a welcome site to see other diners enjoying their meals and making conversation. There was also light music playing that gave the place a joyful vibe, and the walls had intriguing, colorful art on them.

Grabbing a window seat, Stephen and I decided to take advantage of Macondo's coffee bar, and ordered the cup du jour — a pumpkin spice latte. It being October, pumpkin shows up pretty much everywhere this time of year — beer, cookies, pie, of course, and coffee. Given that the weather was a muggy 88 degrees today, it was a nice reminder that it is, indeed, fall. And the cup that waited us was a warm, sweet blend, with barely a hint of spice. I would have been fine with them just calling it a pumpkin latte.

The mysterious menu wound up boasting plenty of breakfast standards, including a nice special on pancakes and every meat imaginable, as well as Mexican specialties. I opted for the Colombian Breakfast ($8.25) — it reminded me and Stephen of an English Breakfast, with its hodgepodge plate, but this time I at least had an idea of what I was eating (someone please tell me what black pudding is). This didn't disappoint, coming with perfect servings of rice and beans, arepas, eggs (your choice), chorizo, and something called fresh cheese. It was like a less crumbly and pungent feta cheese, and was delicious with the arepas, which was oh-so-lightly crunchy. The chorizo was juicy and flavorful, too, and came in a fun, spiral shape, like a screw. The rice and beans were fine, but something was off — it was a little too plain, I think. But all together, it was a filling meal that offered a wonderful variety of tastes and sensations.

Stephen wasn't turned off from his first encounter with huevos rancheros down here to try Macondo's offering ($7.75), which is quickly becoming his standby. And what a world of difference it was. This plate was heaped with cheese, beans and a side of tortillas to put it all together with. Unlike the latte, the meal was  spicy, but not overwhelming. In fact, it was the "perfect kind of spicy," according to Stephen. And the tortillas were memorable — fresh and warm and unlike anything you'd ever find in the bread aisle of the grocery store. I wish I could have tortillas like that every time.

Verdict: Given our recent, unenthusiastic brunch outings, this gave me hope again. The service was quick and attentive, the prices were right, and the food was, simply, great. We both cleaned our plates, and not just because we were hungry. Since we have a few more options waiting in the the wings, the brunch hunt will be back next week with a new contender, but suffice to say, I can't wait to go back to Macondo and see what else it has to offer.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mia Bella Trattoria

The downtown brunch hunt brought us to the playland that is the Houston Pavilions — House of Blues, Lucky Strike Lanes, and, for our purposes, Mia Bella Trattoria.

The Italian restaurant can be found at several locations in Houston — including two in downtown alone — but we decided on the San Jacinto  location because it was, simply, closer, and afforded us a nice walk through Discovery Green on our way there.

Mia Bella is big on two things, if you judge by its advertising — unlimited pasta on Sunday nights, and, on the weekends, unlimited drinks (well, for $9.95, you get refills for .25 cents, which is practically free).

Feeling in the mood (or maybe it was the fact that I was surrounded by alcohol, thanks to Mia Bella's plentiful wine bottles lining the walls), I decided to start off with the drink special, choosing the Bloody Mary. It came with three olives (luckily, I, like half the population it seems, am an olive fan). There was also, intriguingly, salt lining the rim of the glass. I've only seen this with margaritas, so this was an unexpected touch. But I gave it a go, and was pleasantly surprised. The mix of salty and spicy (and, of course, vodka) was a nice jolt to wake me up this lazy Saturday. Unfortunately, as I soon discovered (spoiler alert!), my brunch was in for more salt than desired.

The menu offers more combinations of poached egg dishes than I thought possible — your classic eggs Benny, as well as poached eggs with chicken and mushrooms; poached eggs with spinach and artichoke hearts; poached eggs with proscuitto; poached eggs with crab meat over polenta. I could go on.

I opted for the latter ($9.95) — I've never had that variant of eggs Benny before and, armed with my very strong Mary, was feeling adventurous. The dish came with a couple strips of potatoes and a healthy offering of fruit. I tackled the fruit first, since the hollandaise sauce was running into the fat slice of watermelon, making it less appetizing by the second. Then I worked my way through the stack of polenta, crab meat and poached eggs. The more I ate, though, I couldn't shake the shear saltiness of it all. It was so overwhelming — and this is coming from someone who puts salt on McDonald's French fries. I couldn't tell where it was coming from (the sauce? Crab meat? Where!), so I isolated each element, and the clear culprit was the polenta. It was like a bed of crystallized salt and olive oil, and, like too much of a good thing often does, just ruined the whole meal.

With my permission, Stephen ordered my signature dish — the eggs Benny ($8.95) His dish was nearly identical to mine — the side of fruit, strips of potato, and a poached egg stacked high atop its meaty mound. Stephen was a big fan of the potatoes, but he would have liked to have seen more of them (at least three strips isn't asking a lot). The eggs Benny was fine, but just average — for self-described "upscale Italian food at affordable prices," they got the prices part right, but the food is no better than what you'd find at a run-of-the-mill diner.

With my bottomless drinks still in effect, I decided to go with a bellini towards the end of the meal.  And I'm glad I did. In lieu of a fatty, guilt-inducing dessert, the peach puree-heavy cocktail was a light, sweet, refreshing treat — with alcohol! I enjoyed it so much, I enjoyed another, and proceeded to pass out the second I got home from all that booze.

Verdict: Mia Bella Trattoria is easy on the wallet, but the food is more miss than hit. I'd be back for the bottomless drinks, and keep the bellinis coming.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Chez moi

No, that's not a restaurant (though it would make a great name for one). A few factors (bills, mostly, and some wining and dining on Friday) prompted us to forgo our usual brunch this weekend and opt for a breakfast at home. And it finally allowed me to break out and appreciate my French press in all its full glory.

Early on in our relationship, breakfast at home most likely would have meant buttered toast, or plain old cereal. Sometimes without the milk. Just  dry cereal. So sad. But as we've gotten older, we've gotten less lazy, and are cooking actual, nutritious meals.

A favorite weekend breakfast is pancakes, but we already had pancakes earlier this week (breakfast for dinner is such a happy occasion), so we decided on breakfast burritos.

That colorful concoction above is our eggs, cheese, peppers, onions and bacon all sitting pretty in the frying pan. So. Much. Bacon. We were big into turkey bacon for awhile — it's significantly cheaper, cooks faster and is, frankly, better for you — but nothing beats the taste, or even just the smell, of real, greasy, fatty bacon. I may never stray again.

During the cutting and beating and stirring of all that goodness, I got to work on the coffee. Our apartment complex has one of those fancy (and free) coffee machines, which can whip up a plain cup, a latte or cappuccino with a few pushes of a button. But this was our brunch, so I wanted to forgo the fast, convenient and free route, so it was time to break out my French press.

There she is.
More than a year ago, I purchased a Bodum model. Truth be told, I didn't get it much for the taste of dark coffee — I just loved it when restaurants brought out the press, and you got to filter the coffee yourself. It's so hands on! But, I soon realized, there's more to it than just the purchase of the press, and I've always found myself unprepared.

First off, I simply never quite had the right coffee grinds to use it — they were always too small and would find their way through the filter,  So, on my first food shopping trip here, I was smugly cautious of that, and, seeing the French roast label on my Starbucks bag, figured I was in the clear. Except that they were whole beans, and I needed a coffee grinder — something I also didn't have. O mon dieu!

Rather than simply buy ground beans, I figured I would take the fate of my French roast into my own hands. So this week, when I found myself at Target, I picked up a cute little Mr. Coffee grinder, and I was finally good to go. (Note to self: this little guy is really effective! After a few seconds in there, my beans are just the right size for the French press. A nanosecond longer, and they would have been too fine, and my pride, and patience, would have faced a possibly debilitating setback.)

When our food was ready, we wrapped our egg, veggie and meat mix in a few warm, whole wheat tortillas, during which we realized our wrapping skills still need a bit of work. No matter how many times I've watched a burrito get made at Chipotle or Freebirds (and it's been many), I'll never quite grasp how to make it all stay together without one end coming undone and ruining it all. Still, served with some OJ, French roast coffee, and this week's "Community," it was a pretty perfect meal. And that French roast? I still need to get the ratio of grinds to water right, but it was already such a richer experience than anything from the coffee machine.

But don't worry, we're not going to count on ourselves every weekend for a tasty, hearty brunch, and our hunt continues next week. Til then!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Table 7 Bistro

Attached to the Club Quarters Hotel, Table 7 Bistro (720 Fannin at Rusk, (713) 227-4800) is the elegant member of the District 7 family, standing out thanks to its sleek, arty setting and slightly higher prices compared to the more casual EaDo and Midtown restaurants.

Brunch, thankfully, is not too pricey an affair, with mimosas clocking in at only $4 and the most-expensive item on the menu, understandably, the pork chop, at $17.

If you adhere to the Fannin Street address, you find yourself at the entrance to Club Quarters, which is a bit off-putting if you're not expecting a dark, empty hotel lobby (because, frankly, who does?). At 11:30 am on a Sunday, the restaurant was equally empty, and Stephen, his friend Ben, and I had our pick of the place. We opted for the window seats, because the pillows looked cozy, and the nearly floor-to-ceiling-length windows provided the most light in the dimly lit space. The consistent, bordello red decor of the bistro probably sets the mood at night, when there are candles on the table and you're sipping a cocktail before heading upstairs to your room, but before noon on a Sunday, not so much.

I ordered my usual coffee, hot this time, Stephen his diet Coke, and waters all around, which, on close inspection, were served with dry, dirty-looking lemons that did nothing to flavor the water. How could lemons even get dirty? They're picked from trees!

Even though it was before noon, we were given the lunch menu, which had nary an egg dish in sight, and so we had to ask for the brunch menu, which had a healthy choice of specialty items, eggs, meat, and bread dishes.

The migas breakfast ($10) looked promising — a tortas-based meal that was served with mozzarella, pico de gallo, country potatoes, and bacon and sausage. Oh boy!

When I got it, served on a clean white plate that I'd actually love to have a few of at home, everything was cold. The eggs, the potatoes, the meat. All of it. Granted, I delayed my first bite by a minute to take the requisite photo, but still. It would need to have been placed in front of a mighty fan to cool off so quickly.

It's a physiological fact that hot food simply tastes better than cold, so I wasn't surprised to also find the eggs, the potatoes, even the bacon and sausage flavorless, but this was just blah. No amount of salt was going to make those potatoes tasty. Not even the addition of the pico de gallo — served, along with ketchup, in its own plastic container, which I couldn't decide was tacky or thoughtful — could dress up the eggs. I even forgot there was mozzarella in the migas until reading the brunch description. And the bacon, advertised as crispy on the menu, was more on the chewy side.

Stephen had a similar disappointing experience with his French toast (found under the rather adorably named "Add syrup" section of the brunch menu, along with the Belgian waffle and stack of pancakes).

At only $11, the platter seems rather generous — you get four pieces of French toast, two eggs any style, and country potatoes, though only bacon or sausage this time. For no extra charge, you can get fruit and whipped cream, which is nice, but seems cheap since you have to ask for it. Also cheap? Four pieces of French toast turned out to be two slices, cut in half. Stephen also had asked for the whipped cream, which never came. He found his "crispy" bacon to be more on the fatty side, as well. And, yeah, all of it was cold (the fruit, of course, only naturally).

Ben ordered the fried egg sandwich ($9), which comes with two eggs over easy, tomato, onion, and pepper between a white bun, country potatoes, and a choice of bacon or sausage. To be honest, Ben had to run before I could discuss at length his experience with the sandwich, though he said he enjoyed it. And the toast did look mouthwateringly buttery, even if the rest of the presentation was truly messy (that lettuce looks literally thrown on the plate, extra points if it actually lands on the sandwich?).
Throughout our meal, the place picked up only a bit, and just as we were settling our bill, music came over the speakers (some throwback Lauryn Hill). That would have been a nice addition during our meal, to at least add some atmosphere.
Verdict: As the in-house restaurant for the Club Quarters Hotel, Table 7 Bistro isn't a horrible option, the brunch is just too safely bland for us to pay it a second visit.

Looking forward to November

That's because Georgia Farm to Market, the grocery store and cafe off the Katy Freeway, known for its all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet, is expanding downtown.

That's right. According to the Chronicle this week, owners Georgia and Rick Bost will open a larger version of their famed farm to market and table shop in early November at the corner of Main and Prairie, called, appropriately, Georgia's Market Downtown. The space was previously occupied by another market, Byrd's, that closed in July.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner will be served, and the Bosts' meats, vegetables from local farmers, and locally made beer, wine and coffee will also be available, according to the Chronicle.

The original location boasts a $12.50 weekend brunch that the Houston Press named it the best all-you-can-eat buffet last year, so here's hoping the new location will feature a similar concept.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ziggy's Bar and Grill

The Brunch Hunt kicked off with Ziggy's Bar and Grill (702 Main at Capitol, (713) 527-8588), a small, colorful cafe on Main Street that's just a 15-minute, leisurely walk from our apartment (it was 97 degrees out here today). Its shtick is healthy comfort food in a casual setting, and not too long ago it worked that philosophy on a weekend brunch, served Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am to 3 pm.

Now, the thing about downtown Houston is that, during the week, it's a bustling center thanks to its thriving business district. On the weekends — not so much. There's even an eerie ghost-town feel, thanks to several closed businesses. So when we entered Ziggy's and were the only customers at noon on Saturday, we weren't too concerned.

I'm a big coffee drinker at brunch, but being it was such a hot day to begin with, I ordered the iced variety, which, even though it's not a regular menu feature, the waitress was more than happy to accommodate. Stephen got his caffeine fix with some diet soda, which was refilled more times than I could count.

My brunch standby is the eggs Benedict —I'm always amazed at the creativity that the combination of meat, eggs, toast and hollandaise sauce can bring — so it was a natural for me to order here. It came with a choice of turkey bacon or sausage, two poached eggs over challah toast, and a choice of fruit, sweet potato hash browns or black beans and brown rice.
The meal was a disappointment. The hollandaise sauce was unmemorable, the turkey sausage I decided on looked unpleasantly like a small hamburger and was charred, the poached eggs had the consistency of hard-boiled eggs, and the "challah" it all was slopped on was basically whole wheat toast. The sweet potato has browns I chose were a minor bright spot, crispy and salty, though stringier and less together than I'd prefer.

Stephen went with one of his standbys, too — huevos rancheros. At Ziggy's, that means two eggs on corn tortillas with salsa and queso, honey pepper bacon and apple turkey sausage, and a side of black beans and brown rice.

The first disappointing sign was when the blue plate the meal came out on peeked through from between the food. The presentation was avoided to the point where the food was swimming in a teal sea. Stephen pushed forward, though he was a bit confused how to tackle this beast. Though it varies, we're used to the beans, rice, tortilla and eggs being all happy together in a tasty stack, so this was just unusual and he wound up adding the rice and beans to the tortilla, making for a sloppy mess. The turkey sausage continued to draw comparisons to a mini hamburger, and tasted as dry as it looked. And that little dipping sauce you see in the plastic cup was just plain bad.

Hungry as we were, we managed to pick at our food, but we were not happy. Endless glasses of diet Coke were not enough to make up for these sad, sad plates. The meals weren't as heavy as they can be, which was a nice change of pace, but were not nearly as flavorful as they should have been. That the cafe saw one other couple the time we were there this slow Saturday did not add to the atmosphere.

Verdict: Bad presentation, boring ingredients and overall tasteless healthy options will make us think twice about revisiting Ziggy's for brunch.

Top photo: Flickr/Ziggy's Bar and Grill.

Welcome to The Brunch Hunt

So this is the part where I make the introductions.

My boyfriend, Stephen, and I recently moved to Houston from New York (there we are at our first Astros game, just like the locals do it). Coming from the city of brunches, we were big into the midday, love-it-or-you-hate-it tradition, dining on the weekends at our favorite restaurants and greasy spoons, or just making pancakes in his Park Slope apartment.

We're excited to continue the tradition here, and Houston in its own right boasts plentiful brunch options. I'm already eager to check out Tiny Boxwoods, Baby Barnaby Cafe and Cadillac Bar, to name a few. Only catch? We don't want to have to drive there. We live downtown, and would rather stroll to the restaurant and back and attempt to walk off our heavy mid-day meal, like we often did in New York.

Is that so much to ask? Given the limited local brunch options and downtown's weekend slowdown, maybe, but we attempt to find out with The Brunch Hunt — a weekly saga to find our favorite new weekend spot — ones that serves classic brunch dishes like eggs Benedict and huevos rancheros and piping hot coffee. And a decent Bloody Mary would be nice, too.