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.