Celebrating the Seafood Tower at Reef

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Photo courtesy Reef
A sample of the ever-changing 3rd Bar Plateau at Reef.
When I think of seafood towers, I think of overly elaborate presentations that will arrive before me with the same pizazz as the excitable cartoon food in Beauty and the Beast's "Be Our Guest." Shrimp and crabs will be practically jumping off the top tier in anticipation, and clams and oysters will be fluttering their shells wildly.

The name implies grandeur and decadence, as well as something a little staid, a little stuffy. Have seafood towers been at all popular since the mid-'90s? I remember seeing a lot of them in Corpus Christi growing up, but I hardly ever find a seafood tower on a menu these days.

Which is why I was both pleased and surprised when I noted the 3rd Bar Plateau, "Reef's grouping of all things salty and raw," on the menu at Reef, Bryan Caswell's Midtown seafood joint. It's not a new addition, but it was new to me, so with an extra eater in tow, I set off to vanquish the mighty tower.

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Latin Bites Introduces Five New Cebiches for National Ceviche Day

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
National Cebiche Day in Peru is every day, but here in the United States, it's June 28.
Nothing says summer quite like ceviche, especially when you're eating it while lounging on a warm beach with a Pisco sour in one hand. OK, so the closest beach here is Galveston, and it's not exactly a tropical paradise, but there is definitely Pisco and ceviche to be found in Houston, and the best of it is at Latin Bites.

Chef Roberto Castre is celebrating National Ceviche Day, June 28, all this week, Monday through Sunday, with five new ceviches on the menu. At Peruvian restaurant Latin Bites, ceviche is spelled the Peruvian way, "cebiche," and that style of the dish is almost always served in a milky leche de tigre sauce.

Rita Castre, sister of Roberto and part owner of the restaurant, explains that leche de tigre is so named because it's so strong that it can cure a hangover. I wouldn't want to waste any of these wonderful cebiches on my alcohol-numbed taste buds though. These gourmet versions are best enjoyed in the coolness of the restaurant.

OK, and maybe with a Pisco sour.

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Where to Get Crawfish in Houston Right Now

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Photo courtesy LA Crawfish
The mudbugs are getting bigger and better every day!
Last time we wrote about crawfish here on the blog, we had mixed emotions.

On one hand, we were exited to welcome mudbugs back to our plates and bellies for the season after an unusually cold winter. On the other, we were somewhat flabbergasted by the prices and the short supply of our favorite springtime indulgence. Due to the chilly weather that kept the crawfish from growing big and strong (and juicy), many local restaurants were selling them for higher-than-usual prices and were running out at an alarming rate.

Following various restaurant Facebook pages is a good way to find out if a certain spot is out for the day, but who has time to call and shop around for the best deals?

Actually, we do. And we realize that this list isn't exhaustive, but it represents a good cross-section of all the city has to offer, from Vietnamese to Cajun and hole-in-the-wall to fancy-schmancy.

Here's the rundown on some of your favorite crawfish spots, now that the costs are smaller and the bugs are bigger.

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Boheme's New Lobster Pizzas Are Unlike Any Pies You've Had Before

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Some pie: The Lobster-ita, left, the Lobster Verde.
Since Rishi Singh took over as executive chef at Boheme, the food has gone from microwaved bar fare to truly top-notch. The inventive chef is constantly dreaming up ways to elevate the cuisine at the space that's better known for being a bar than a restaurant, and he's doing it all from a food truck.

That's right. Boheme still doesn't have a kitchen. Singh and his crew are able to feed as many as 600 people on busy nights exclusively out of a food truck parked behind the bar, and the quality of what they put out under those circumstances is pretty darned impressive.

Take, for instance, the lobster pizza. Singh recently replaced the crab and shrimp pizzas on the menu with ones specifically designed to highlight the flavor of lobster claws. 'Cause go big or go home, right?

The pizza menu now features four different lobster pies, each one totally unique from the others. They're all served on Boheme's signature lavash crust, which is so thin that it mainly serves as a crunchy vessel to get the gourmet toppings from cardboard platter to hungry mouths.

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100 Favorite Dishes 2013: No. 42, Fried Oyster Po-Boy at Goode Company Seafood

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
From this angle, it looks like a normal po-boy, but dig beneath that lettuce for the good stuff.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of MenusĀ® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

Yes, part of the reason I'm enamored with Goode Co. Seafood on Westpark is that I can eat in a real passenger rail car while sitting on silver and teal bar stools and being served by people who call me honey (in a non-creepy way). I love the old-school diner feel of that spot, but what I love even more is that the food is far better than your typical diner grub.

Take the fried oyster po-boy.

True, po-boys are essentially sandwiches, and it's pretty hard to mess up a sandwich. But it's even harder to make a sandwich that's truly crave-worthy like the fried oyster po-boy, a dish I keep going back for lately, anticipating that one of these days it'll just be another boring sandwich. So far, Goode Co. has proved me wrong.

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Oysters and Tuna Tacos: First Look at Caracol

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Photo by Mai Pham
The ostiones asados, or wood-grilled oysters, at Caracol will knock your socks off.

"I could come here just for this," I thought to myself as I sampled the unbelievably tasty ostiones asados, or wood grilled oysters, topped with chipotle butter at Caracol. The first of several dishes I tried during my first visit to Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught's new coastal Mexican seafood restaurant in the BBVA Compass builiding on Post Oak Boulevard, it is without a doubt their signature dish, the one you have to order every time you go.

Not only were they mouthwatering to look at, but the taste and textures were incredible: Each slurp of silky-smooth, molten, hot oyster tasted of mild oceanic salinity that ended with a great crispy, buttery, spicy finish. Parmesan-grilled oysters can be commonly found throughout Latin America -- from Mexico to Peru and Chile -- but Caracol's non-cheesy version is simply outstanding. I polished off six oysters by myself (and could have easily scarfed down a few more).


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Hugo Ortega's Caracol Opens; Expect Crowds

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Caracol, the newest member of the Ortega/Vaught mini-empire, is open for business.
For those who speak Spanish, the word caracol is instantly evocative of seafood. It translates to conch, or shell, and in addition to rolling off the tongue, the word has special meaning for Hugo Ortega and his wife, Tracy Vaught, of Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe.

"Hugo's brother used to be the chef at Victoria House Hotel in Belize," Vaught explains. "We went down several times to visit, and Hugo really wanted to learn how to make the ceviche de caracol. Down there they have a lot of conch. We watched a wedding on the beach and they lined the aisle with conch, that's how much they have. It's sort of a nice memory for Hugo, making that dish with his brother."

Now, the two-time James Beard Award-nominated Ortega has opened Caracol to showcase his skill with seafood and bring a different type of Mexican cuisine to Houston. The new space officially opened on Monday, December 16, and has already been drawing crowds eager to try Ortega's takes on seafood from all three of Mexico's coasts.

"We've done a lot of travel over the years, and we end up eating a lot of seafood in Mexico," Vaught says. "We've been to many, many coastal towns, both touristy and off the beaten path. We love researching that and learning about the dishes that are traditional in each region."

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Fugu Is Back at Kata Robata, While Supplies Last; I Tried It and Lived to Tell the Tale

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Various cuts of fugu (excluding the poisonous ones) on display before they're turned into masterpieces at Kata Robata.
Every December, puffer fish get even, well, puffier, as they pack on fat to survive the chilly winter. And that's when we snatch them up and eat them.

In Japan, blowfish, puffer fish and globefish are all called fugu, and their meat is a delicacy available only during the winter months. The delicacy comes with a price, though, in more ways than one: Fugu is rare, and therefore expensive, and oh yeah, it could kill you.

Blowfish is generally considered the second-most poisonous vertebrate in the world (after the golden poison frog), and as such, chefs must be certified to slice and dice it. The poison is mostly found in the fish's organs -- especially the liver, eyes and ovaries -- and chefs must be careful to slice around these and not contaminate the knife with poisonous tetrodotoxin.

Chef Manabu Horiuchi (affectionately known as Hori) of Kata Robata is one of only about a dozen chefs in the U.S. certified to filet blowfish. Unfortunately, U.S. law does not allow whole blowfish to be delivered to restaurants, so Hori gets his fish already cleaned from purveyors on the east coast, even though he knows how to clean them himself.

Kata Robata just received some blowfish, and chef Hori will be preparing it for brave diners this week, while supplies last. Here's a sneak peek of what he'll be offering.

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Head to Danton's for Gulf Oysters and More

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Find the best of the ocean's bounty right now at Danton's.
November is the perfect time of year to indulge in seafood. It's warm enough that you can still sit outside if you want to, and cold oysters will still be refreshing, but it's cool enough to make you crave a steaming bowl of gumbo or baked oysters Rockefeller. Oh yeah, and nearly everything is plump and fresh this time of year.

Oyster season officially started on November 1, but forecasters aren't expecting it to peak for a few months, meaning the juicy bivalves will just keep getting better and better. We're just reaching the end of blue crab and rock shrimp season, but flounder and mackerel are ideal throughout the fall.

What better month to eat all the seafood you can get your hands on than November, while all of these differing seasons are overlapping? And where better to satisfy a seafood craving than Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen, which we named the best seafood restaurant in Houston this year?

"Everything is pristine right now," says Kyle Teas, who co-owns Danton's with his childhood friend, Danton Nix.

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Oyster Season Opens on Nov. 1, and Houston Restaurants Are Ready to Get Shucking

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Oysters are best served raw with just a hint of acid to help their flavors shine.
"He first selected the smallest one ... and then bowed his head as though he were saying grace. Opening his mouth very wide, he struggled for a moment, after which all was over. I shall never forget the comic look of despair he cast upon the other five over-occupied shells. I asked him how he felt. 'Profoundly grateful,' he said, 'as if I had swallowed a small baby.'"
According to a companion, William Makepeace Thackeray uttered the above in 1852 when presented with a half-dozen 6- to 8-inch oysters, a common size at the time

"As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."

Ernest Hemingway, "A Moveable Feast"

Men have long waxed poetic about the oyster, and why not? It's one of the few foods we eat while it's still alive, and we eat the entire creature, entrails and all. Oysters don't hunt; they wait for the ocean currents to bring food. They produce objects we wear as jewelry, and research has confirmed they possess aphrodisiacal properties.

Oh yeah, and when plucked from the ocean in its prime, an oyster -- delicate, plump and ever so slimy -- will taste of briny sea water and rich butter and will sensually melt on your tongue.

With oyster season officially beginning on November 1 (though, as some will argue, that date is completely arbitrary), I've been thinking about fresh, raw bivalves for weeks now. I got the scoop on the upcoming season from local oyster experts and chatted with a few chefs and restaurateurs to find out where you can get fresh oysters straight from our gulf waters.

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