Restaurant Review: Pope’s Pairings Protect Plonk
I think I was sitting in Toledo, avoiding study of some law-school related subject, when I first heard about Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. The concept of growing local, buying local, and serving healthy, organic dishes that actually taste good was appealing. So I was especially pleased to learn that Houston had opened an eatery in a similar vein: t’afia since our return.
The brainchild of Chef Monica Pope t’afia promises “coastal Mediterranean cuisine inspired by local ingredients.” That’s one of the things I miss most about Toledo — Mediterranean food is abundant. To me, you can’t find enough good Mediterranean food in Houston — just like you can’t find any enough good Tex-Mex places in Toledo.
t’afia also hosts a farmer’s market every Saturday. Joe and I love local produce markets, so I signed up to receive their e-mail. Every week I get an e-mail from t’afia listing “this week’s friday lunch menu – 3 course local market menu with choices.” (interestingly, nearly everything from t’afia is written in lower case, I assume to emphasize the understated and under-appreciated local ingredients featured in all of the dishes). Because the restaurant is in Midtown with very little parking (valet is available) and I’m chained to an office in another part of town most Fridays, I hadn’t yet made the effort to visit.
So for my birthday dinner with Joe, I decided to check it out. Lucky for me you can schedule reservations with OpenTable, because I absolutely hate to phone for reservations. My past experience in doing so usually entailed waiting through about 20 rings only to attempt to speak to the hostess over the din of the restaurant crowd. OpenTable provides a great alternative. I was able to get a reservation for Saturday at 7 p.m. by booking on Friday mid-morning.
Just for grins I checked OpenTable for Chez Panisse. The only two reservations available in the month of May are the following Monday or Wednesday at 9:15 pm. Nothing else is available via OpenTable past its 29-day range limitation.
I’d read about t’afia in a number of local publications including Houston Press and Texas Monthly a few years back.
Monica Pope’s new restaurant perplexes me no end. Why? Because I can’t imagine how such an ardent chef could choose such an austere setting—think trendy juvenile detention hall—to showcase her striking and original cuisine. But this hasn’t deterred her customers, who pack the place nightly to see what triumphs will emerge through those stainless-steel kitchen doors. Maybe it will be fabulous, meaty whole-duck-leg confit with an intense vanilla-sherry glaze. Or perhaps two little toasty-brown Texas quail brilliantly matched with a garlicky pistachio sauce and nutty barley-and-red-rice pilaf. A whirlwind of energy, Pope sells prepared holiday meals from Thanksgiving through New Year’s (by advance order) and hosts a farmers’ market in the restaurant and its parking lot every Saturday. She also champions regional and natural products, so diners can count on finding things as diverse as B3R hormone — and antibiotic — free beef and local artisan chocolates on the menu. And speaking of the menu, let me dyspeptically voice a final, tiny gripe, which is that I find its layout—with one section for starters and entrèes and another section for more entrèes—puzzling. But one thing about T’afia is crystal clear, and that is the passion of Monica Pope. I don’t know how she does it all.
~ 2005 Where to Eat Now, by Patricia Sharpe, Texas Monthly magazine
t’afia lists quite a few acclaims on its website including:
Chef Monica Pope
Alchemy Award Honoree 2008
James Beard Award Nominee, Best Chef Southwest 2007
Most Creative Chef, O Magazine, 2007
The only Texas woman to be named Best New Chef, Food & Wine Magazine, 1996
Best Sommelier, The Houston Press, 2007
Best Service, The Houston Press, 2006
Best Restaurant, The Houston Press, 2005
Best New Restaurant, Houston Business Journal, 2005
The Hot 50 – Where to Eat Now, Bon Appetit Magazine, 03/05
So with all that love, I was ready to visit. Joe mentioned our plans to his co-worker Gary — who seems to have eaten at nearly every restaurant in town — and got a rather non-committal review: “It is what it is, but I knew that going in.” Since Gary has recommended some fabulous places in the past his rather lack luster endorsement gave us a bit of a pause.
When we arrived at t’afia there was no hostess at the hostess stand – or anywhere in the vicinity. We waited several minutes unacknowledged by any of the waitstaff. Welcome to your typical trendy Houston upscale spot, I thought. However, when the hostess arrived she was very friendly. She noted “birthday” had been included in the reservation comments and said “Happy Birthday!” We were then seated in the middle of a long group of crowded tables with chairs on one side and a very long booth bench that ran down the center of the room. The dining area does have individual tables for two-to-four people. But since we were a little early for our reservation (about 10 minutes initially, but only about 5 by the time we were acknowledged and seated) I assumed that we were just seated at the next available table.
Let me just summarize up front by saying the decor is trendy cafeteria-cool, our waiter was friendly, the food is good, but the place is very loud. And, I wish I had taken my camera, to take pictures of our meal and the decor, but remembered a number of pictures on their website. Joe tends to get annoyed when I’m flashing pictures like a Country Mouse tourist on her first trip to the Big City, so it was probably best I forgot. But alas, it appears the pictures have been moved, because the links, at time of this writing, don’t work for anything but thumbnails.
The “Din” in Dinner
Acoustics in t’afia are not conducive to quiet conversation. At least not when sitting on the long communal bench. I could hear the conversations from the tables behind me and beside me, but could not hear my dinner partner sitting across from me. If it had been a little cooler outside, I might have asked for a table on the patio, because when we arrived at 7 p.m. there was only one occupied. But since I was enjoying the bits and pieces of what appeared to be the conversations of intellectuals, artists and liberals I didn’t mind so much at having to cup my ears or ask Joe to yell at me so I could hear him.
Because I’m married to a fabulous cook, most restaurants have been ruined for me. When you’re paying for something that you could easily have at home, the bar is always raised. The selections on the daily menu sounded and — gazing around the room — looked fabulous. We also learned from our sever that anything on the 5-course Local Market Tasting Prix Fixe Menu ($45) could be substituted with a similar course. The tasting menu also is available with a Texas wine pairing option for an additional $20. Whenever we dine out, Joe nearly always chooses better than I, and I typically prefer his selections to mine. Given our previous experience with Texas wines, Joe chose to order non-Texas wines from t’afia‘s extended wine list to complement his à la carte selections.
I wanted to go for the whole “experience as offered,” and I really wanted to give Texas wines another chance. So, I chose the Texas wine option.
Joe chose his wines wisely.
Amy’s Tasting Menu
second course: sweet potato coconut with jalapeno & ginger
third course: quinoa vegetable salad, lemon & evoo
fourth course:braised lamb, yellow corn grits, cippoline-rosemary pearl onions
fifth course: railean rum-roasted pineapple, mascarpone gelato
Joe’s à la carte selections
appetizer: medjool dates stuffed with chorizo, wrapped in bacon
main course: halibut cheese with sides of buerre blanc and saffron-sherry aioli sauces
side: celery root-potato gratin
Joe chose directly from the Wine Menu an 04 Bodegas Naia Naiades Verdejo from Rueda, Spain to start, and added a glass of 2006 Volker Eisele Gemini, a blend of 72% Semillon and 28% Sauvignon Blanc from Napato pair with his main course. I was left at the mercy of “a texas wine with each course” which included wines from three different Texas wineries, Haak (Santa Fe), Alamosa (Bend), and La Cruz de Comal (Startzville). None of these wines were listed on the sample wine list on the restaurant website, nor do I recall them listed on the printed wine list that was provided at the restaurant. Had they been I probably would have skipped the Texas wine option.
Paired with my courses were the 2008 Haak Blanc du Bois Blue Label (1st); 2004 Alamosa Texacaia (2nd); 2007 Alamosa Viognier (3rd); 2004 La Cruz de Comal Cohete Rojo (4th); and 2004 Haak Texas Jacquez Madeira (5th).
The Dining Experience
Our server was a trendy-looking millennial who, while very friendly, did not seem as attentive or as quick to go from the table to table as the other servers in the restaurant. The name he gave us is different than that listed on our receipt, and he could perhaps have just had a less-than-optimum night, so we’ll just leave his name out.
First course: Served first was the Haak Blanc du Bois, described on Haak’s site as
“made from grapes grown in our vineyards in Santa Fe, as well as from grapes grown in Fulshear, Texas, Cat Spring, Texas, Palestine, Texas, Harleton, Texas and Brenham, Texas. The grapes were crushed & pressed and fermented in stainless steel at 55 F to retain floral and fruit aromas that are characteristic of this grape variety like peach, apricot, pear, green apple, figs and grapefruit. The residual sugar in this wine is 2.5 %, which is considered Semi-Sweet of off-dry.”
I’d had this wine before back in my early days of wine drinking and it was “ok.” My palate no longer thinks so. Standalone it is too perfume-y. But paired with the tiny crostinis and single stuffed olive (not “olives” as indicated on the menu) it worked. Chef Monica’s food actually made the wine drinkable. However, Joe’s Verdejho was a much better pairing.
The medjool dates Joe selected were incredible! While he wasn’t keen on the pureed texture of the chorizo stuffing, I found them melt-in-your mouth delicious. And his pairing with the Verdehjo was excellent!
Second course: Served next was the Alamosa Texacaia, billed as a blend of Sangiovese, Syrah and Tempranillo. I thought it was a little weird to move to what purported to be a “Super Texan” for the second course. While I could taste some Syrah, this was no “super” anything but another thin Texas red. And the sweet potato coconut soup, while tasty, could not even save this mediocre wine.
Third course: Back to white for this course was another wine from Alamosa: 2007 Viognier Texas High Valley Block, Cherokee Creek Vineyard. The folks at Alamosa bill this as “a stunning wine with apricots, honeydew, pineapple. It’s aromatic with a luscious mouthfeel, a long finish and wonderful balance. This fruit came from our neighbor’s vineyard.”
Build a fence, and stop getting anything but sugar from the neighbors. The nose on this wine immediately made me think of those tiny aqua, pink and seafoam green curlers from the 70s when my mother gave me a Toni Home Perm. It even made Joe’s Verdehjo taste more like the Catawba wines from Ohio and Michigan, rather than the refreshing Spanish White. My pairing did make the Texas wine tolerable, and I liked the crunchy toasted quinoa in the salad. I’d previously had only cooked quinoa, a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds.
Fourth course: There’s a reason why Napa cabs are so expensive — the Napa terroir is perfect for growing cabernet grapes. Texas — don’t try this at home. Served next was a 2004 La Cruz de Comal Cohete Rojo, which our server described as a cabernet blend. According to the La Cruz de Comal website, the wine is “a blend of five varietals: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, tannat and alicante bouchet” and “tastes similar to a wine from the Southern Rhone or Provençe.” Only if the “wine” is Welch’s grapejuice. While the wine has a cabernet nose, and an initial bit of Old World flavor, it quickly turns thin in the mouth with a sweet sugary grape juice flavor on the finish. Again, Chef Monica saved made the wine tolerable with her hearty lamb dish. But why should any restaurant have to rescue its patrons from its wine?
I’m not a big fan of Sauvignon Blanc — I’m probably still recovering from New Zealand SB overload from the 2008 Wine Blogger Conference, but enjoyed both the nose and the flavor of the 2006 Volker Eisele Gemini Joe has selected, given it was nearly three-quarters Semillon. For me, though, the food had an opposite affect on his wine. Alone it was pleasant, but pairing it with the halibut cheeks brought out all I don’t like in a Sauvignon Blanc — the grassy flavor and cat box odors. I’m also not a big fan of the “fishy” taste of halibut. The celery root-potato gratin, however, was awesome!
Fifth course: The final Texas wine was the 2004 Haak Madeira Jacquez, something I’d enjoyed when I visited Haak Winery a few years back. Alas, the dessert wine club from Bacchus & Venus, as well as the sauternes at the Grand Cru Tasting earlier this year has ruined Haak Madeira for me. Not even the rum-roasted pineapple could save it.
Again, the food is good, even if it tends to lean more toward the chic and semi-vegan appeal. For a more manly cuisine, t’afia lists a sister restaurant called “Beaver’s” (the name alone ought to appeal to those more testosterone-infused Houston foodies.) I appreciate the concept of trying to incorporate local ingredients, or as it says on the t’afia menu “Eat Where Your Food Lives.” That said, there’s a limit to what a Texas venue can do when it comes to Texas Wine. “All local” is an easy thing to do if the restaurant is located in the San Francisco’s Bay Area as is Chez Panisse, because Alice Waters’ wine lives in nearby Wine Country.
But Texas is an entirely different matter. It seems that Chef Monica Pope is handicapping her talented cooking by forcing her local tasting menu pairings with Texas Wines. Not so at another Midtown eatery we reviewed. While not as fabulous as Feast, I’m not ready to write off t’afia altogether. But I would like to see the local market tasting menu with an optional non-Texas wine pairing to add a little diversity. I’d also like to check out one of the Green Plum cooking classes offered each Saturday morning at the Farmer’s Market. And perhaps visit again at a time not typically as crowded (if one indeed exists).
But if and when I do visit again I’ll be thinking along the same lines as Gary, “It is what it is, but I knew that going in.”