Treat Them Fancy Ingredients With Some Respect, Okay?

Categories: Garden Fresh

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Photos by Troy Fields
One thing Sorrel does right so far: sauteed scallops.
There's a saying in my family: "Just 'cause a cat has kittens in the oven, it doesn't make 'em biscuits." Roughly translated: You're more than just the product of your environment; there are inherent qualities about yourself that can't be changed, ever.

But the phrase also applies to another dilemma, one that I encounter frequently in upscale and semi-upscale restaurants: In order to make something special or worthwhile, you have to put more effort into something than just procuring it.

You can't just call a bunch of kittens biscuits just because you made that mama cat give birth to them in an oven; you have to somehow figure out a way to transform kittens into biscuits (and good luck with that). On a less euphemistic and more applicable level, it means this: You can't expect lavish praise simply for buying quality ingredients if you screw them up the moment you go to cook with them.

Bear with me here.

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Case in point: Sorrel Urban Bistro, which is the subject of this week's cafe review. I really want to like Sorrel. I really, really do. Not only because of its cheerful ambiance and service, but also because it has the potential to be a really strong neighborhood bistro along the lines of Roost (another recent review subject), but with a more white-tablecloth aesthetic and a shorter wait.

Like Roost, Sorrel carefully sources its produce and proteins from area purveyors. The greens in its salad come from Animal Farm, the cheese from the Houston Dairymaids, the meat from Black Hill Ranch. It actually goes to great lengths to incorporate seasonal ingredients like kumquats and fennel, but it incorporates those alongside fun exotics or tried-and-true staples. Sorrel is not an uncompromising ideologue when it comes to eating "local" or "seasonal," but rather weaves a menu that's something like 45 percent local, 45 percent other and 10 percent poly-cotton blend.

But it also takes such a ham-fisted approach to many of those wonderful local ingredients that it's painful to watch, let alone eat.

One night, it was a freshly-caught red snapper filet that had been pummeled into inedibility by vicious lashings of salt and pepper. On top, plump strands of blue crab meat weren't worth eating for all the stray bits of shell I had to pick out. And that was just my plate. My friend's New York strip was so tough, the table shook to and fro with every tug of the steak knife.

On another afternoon, purple potatoes the bright hue of fresh ube inside my roasted quail had been rendered mealy and unappetizing. My friend's beautiful, fat burger was covered with white cheddar and vividly-colored lettuce and tomato, but the bun could barely hold the juicy mess together -- and not in a fun way.

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You're going to want to live at this bar.
Luckily, not all of my meals nor dishes at Sorrel have turned out this way. But it bothered me both times to see such a terrific arsenal ingredients wasted, scattershot. Especially with chef Soren Pedersen in the house both times (you can tell by the TV monitors that provide a rather creepy Big Brother-esque view of the kitchen).

This haphazardness with excellent ingredients was only one of my concerns at Sorrel, but one I don't have is this: The bar still makes an excellent cocktail (try the ultra-summery hibiscus margarita) and pours a very above-average glass of house wine, procured from Vintners Own in the Heights. The wine is on tap, which makes it both economically and environmentally friendly -- and that's something for which Sorrel should be commended.

I hope I'll be saying the same thing about all of its ingredients and foodstuffs someday soon. Until then, it's not enough just to buy the stuff; Sorrel has to make it shine, too.



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Location Info

Sorrel Urban Bistro

2202 W. Alabama, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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12 comments
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Wingding
Wingding

Love Sorrel!! Thanks for reminding me. The pics are wonderful.

sand worm
sand worm

one problem is that several of the chefs commanding kitchens in Houston's newest, "hippest" restaurants have not paid their dues. they have not developed the fundamental understanding that ingredients should be respected; and that premium ingredients should be allowed to shine via simplicity. with the right ingredients, less is usually more.

a few tattoos, a couple of years at the culinary institute and daddy's money do not a chef make.

also, farm to table and local sourcing is pointless in cases where local ingredients are inferior. buy the best, whether it's local or not.

Fenderberg
Fenderberg

Sorta agree with this comment. Some of the young-bloods should emulate a master like Johann Schuster at Charivari; amazing ingredients, consistently done right.

Wuwu
Wuwu

Thought I would chime back in....

Veronica, sorry you are just flat our misinformed, Haven is not doing well and I know this as fact.  Comparing Haven to Fadi's is like comparing James Coney Island to Tony's, very very differt types of presentations, food sourcing and theme. I do love Fadi's and go all the time but again this concept is no mirror of Haven or Sorrel.

Francecso, right on the money with  your comment.  Let's take a look for example of Triniti vs. Sorrel/Haven,, apples and oranges folks...Triniti nails it with almost every dish and the other two miss far and wide!  Chef Hildebrand totally gets what he is doing day in and day out. 

Sandworm, agree some of these new breed guys/gals think they are all the shit and in reality they are serving shit!  Example Underbelly claims to be a tribute to Houston food, they missed so bad its not even funny.  Houston food is built on Tex Mex/Mex first, BBQ second and Gulf seafood third and none of these where shown to me by Chef Chris to be a fair offering of what this great city was builit on. 

Veronica34
Veronica34

 Wuwu, my tiny disgruntled friend, *you're* the one who claimed that Haven and Sorrel 'lack flavor', and that would drive them out of business because it somehow betrays their farm to market roots.

All I'm saying is that Fadi's is a place that serves equally bland food (and I don't mean this in a bad way at all) and it's more popular than ever. So you might want to rethink your flavor-is-everything claim.

Jim Ayres
Jim Ayres

The very word "underbelly" implies the hidden, the off the beaten track. And it's these cuisines that you have to hunt for, they're not high profile, but they're just as important to the character of Houston's food. And Shepherd's tributes to these cuisines are what they are NAILING every night at Underbelly.

Nichtmudejetzt
Nichtmudejetzt

I've been impressed by Sorrel both times I've tried it, but don't doubt your experiences there. Sounds like it's still evolving and hopefully working out some issues with the menu and consistency. Not crazy about the kit-cams either; they are taking the open-kitchen concept one further, which is not good. The kitchen is the kitchen; it's not entertainment, and there's plenty of evidence that talented artistic types do much less well when privacy is stripped away. (See new book: Quiet).

Sorrel is a comfy neighborhood place with cool ideas, and I know the chef has what it takes to make it really great. I'm rooting for them!

John Seaborn Gray
John Seaborn Gray

I'd like to just take a second to point out this fine example of a very reasonable "My experience was different than yours, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're a filthy liar / paid reputation assassin" post. Kudos, Nicht.

Francesco Orodinapoli
Francesco Orodinapoli

This is an article that needed to be written. Chefs with the best of intentions using fine ingredients and producing food that is just "meh" flavor-wise. And don't get me started about the whole "food as art" thing.

ChansonRoland
ChansonRoland

(ok, let us now prepare for the reactionary backlash to locavore, farm-to-table movements)

Wuwu
Wuwu

Sorrel will end up like Haven, closed soon....both places lack flavor...you can only farm to table hype without flavor for so long....this fad is set to be put to pasture soon...

Veronica34
Veronica34

Haven's doing pretty well, actually. Not sure what you're talking about. And there's a place that's thriving in Houston called Fadi's. It's not farm-to-table, but it's fresh and veggie friendly, with lots of fairly bland food if you compare it to Thai or Indian or Sichuan. But it's rockin all ethnicities and all age groups at all times of day. Please explain that.But I do vote for flavor. Various sauces or table condiments are always a good way to let the consumer have a little more choice.

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