At Aji Peruvian Café, Dining Is a Battle Between Expectations and Reality

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The causa limeña is like chicken salad, potato salad and deviled eggs all rolled into one casserole.
Aji Peruvian Café is a bit of a conundrum. Just when you're about to write the place off after a few deeply freezer-burned orders of empanadas, your waiter shows up with a glass of fresh mango juice so utterly brilliant that it takes your breath away. Bright and sunny, yet with a keen edge of turpentine and a lovely black-pepper bite, it's a simple and elemental thing, and completely arresting. Of course, those empanadas were arresting, too, but for far more felonious reasons.

Even setting aside the stale, musty taste of poorly frozen pastry, the empanadas were a grave disappointment. Small, scantily filled and under-seasoned, they felt like highway robbery at their $4-$5 price point. The pot roast filling tasted strongly of grease; the potato casserole version (the most interesting-sounding of the bunch, with its offer of iced Peruvian potatoes mixed with fried pork, peanuts, onions and garlic) was dry and mealy, with only punctuations of red bell pepper to perk it up a bit; ordered out of a sense of obligation, a sort of Peruvian picadillo version fared better on a subsequent visit, absent the freezer burn but still lacking in flavor and with an overly cake-like texture to the pastry. The empanadas make up an entire section of the menu here. I have no idea why.

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Stick to the Fish and Pizza at True Food Kitchen and You'll Be Fine

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The pink grilled steelhead salmon is paired with red quinoa laced with caramelized onion and crisp, fresh mizuna salad strewn through with cubes of beets in the deepest burgundy.
True Food Kitchen does a good job with fish dishes. Even a carefree gourmand could visit this diet-conscious establishment, order the moist, pink grilled steelhead salmon and be pleased with the experience. It's paired with perfect companions: red quinoa laced with caramelized onion and crisp, fresh mizuna salad strewn throughout with cubes of beets in the deepest burgundy.

The salmon is not the only great fish dish on the menu. The miso cod filet is also good, even if the same could not be said of the unseasoned bok choy that accompanied it or the weak attempt at dashi. The cod was mild, deeply seared on top and included enough brackish miso paste to give it just the right amount of seasoning.

True Food Kitchen did not commit the culinary crime of cooking either fish to dryness. Both were still blissfully tender and moist.

Instead, other offenses are committed here. Some of the dishes served are so, so bland or wrongheaded that diners will struggle to find their redeeming qualities. The individual ingredients are of good quality, but the overall combinations sometimes result in poor mockeries of the classics.

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Main Kitchen Has Much to Recommend It, but the Devil Is in the Details

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The prize in the center of the guajillo short rib tacos is the rich, chopped beef.
The guajillo short rib tacos at Main Kitchen in the JW Marriott hotel are lovely to gaze upon. Pale crumbs of cotija cheese barely hide under a generous sprinkle of delicate cilantro microgreens. Underneath, dark pink and purple hues of pickled onion slivers and cabbage shreds peek out. The prize is deep in the center of the corn tortillas that encase it all: warm, rich, chopped beef.

Unfortunately, the tacos also exemplify how little details really make the difference between a dish that crosses the finish line as a winner and one that stumbles just before the end. The tortillas were barely warm, and the accompanying lime wedges were so dried out that barely a drop of juice could be coaxed from them. Fresh ones were requested, and a squirt of citrus proved to be the crowning touch.

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BCN Taste & Tradition Does Well When It Follows Its Own Best Practices

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
Textures dominate in the bacalao entrée of poached cod topped with saffron aioli and a neatly diced ratatouille alongside.
BCN Taste & Tradition's trio of breaded lamb chops are artfully laid, bone over bone, atop a golden swath of slightly lemony sabayon. A bite through the breading reveals a bit of succulent fat that has been allowed to remain on the outer edge. A second bite seems even meatier when swiped through the sabayon. Propping up the chops are strips of roasted red bell peppers with rounds of zucchini, all of it anchored by a base of thinly sliced potatoes. A flag of rosemary adds a touch of scent and deep-green background color.

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Museum Park Cafe Needs to Take More Chances to Become the Restaurant Patrons Expect

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The roasted heirloom beet salad was delicious and the most memorable item we sampled on our first visit.
Looking at the dinner menu, it feels as if something's missing. The à la carte portion on the stiff, pale gray paper, printed on the left, is shockingly brief, containing all of five starters, three pasta dishes, four mains and four side dishes. To the right, underneath the words "Kitchen Menu," a chef's tasting menu is offered in six courses for $72.

"Is that it?" my dinner companion asked, turning the menu over only to find a blank page. A short menu can be good thing. No need to spend lengthy minutes perusing a congested list of what usually turn out to be average dishes, trying to divine which are the ones worth ordering.

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Moderno Tacos + Tex Mex Needs to Flesh Out Its Dishes to Be Truly Top-Drawer

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The large, tender beef fajitas with charro beans have a nice char.
It might be a fair statement that the merits of a Tex-Mex restaurant can be roughly gauged by the merits of its margarita. For better and for worse, this is certainly true of Moderno Tacos + Tex Mex, a bright, endearingly casual new spot on the western banks of Beltway 8. Bolstered by freshly squeezed lime juice -- the press is proudly displayed behind the bar -- the margaritas here could easily make a short list of the city's best, if they didn't run so perilously close to over-sweet. For a few dollars more, you can opt for a better class of tequila to be shaken into yours; it's nice to see quality offerings such as Tapatio sitting alongside the usual suspects. You might even opt for a nicely woody reposado from Tequila Ocho for a duskier spin on the classic. Perhaps you can persuade the bar to strain yours over fresh ice -- the better to control melting and dilution -- rather than unceremoniously dump the contents of the shaker into your salt-rimmed glass. It's one thing to laud the charming casualness of the gesture, but another entirely to let the drink suffer, even if ever so slightly.

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Tierra del Fuego Proves You Can Have Too Much Meat and Not Enough Seasoning

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The chimichurri sauce made a welcome addition to the rib eye.
When you're walking up the sidewalk to Tierra del Fuego in Sugar Land Town Square, the first thing that hits you is the smell of roasting meat. Most of that smoky scent wafts from a glass-encased rotisserie at the front of the restaurant, where big hunks of outside skirt steak and slabs of ribs are sizzling and popping over the fire. It's not just cooking -- it's theater.

Tierra del Fuego is an Argentinean restaurant that wants to entice diners with its beef-centric menu and, once they're inside, seduce them completely with its sexy, dark dining environment. Down the aisles and between the tables, sleek tango dancers execute their intricate, silky moves unobtrusively across the floor. In the open kitchen, flames do their own dance across the grills and make the meat sizzle and pop.

It almost works. It's easy to join in the dance and order the parrillada gaucha, a meat-fest "for two" that includes sweetbreads, short ribs, Argentine sausage, blood sausage, chicken and bife de fuego (outside skirt steak). Then the platter arrives and the mistake becomes obvious. It's about five pounds of meat, most of which doesn't have much seasoning.

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The Best Bet for Novice Diners at Taiko Is to Stick to the Basic Menu

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The shrimp tempura is wispy light, incredibly crisp and a work of art in its own right.
The tempura at Taiko Japanese Restaurant is wispy light and incredibly crisp at the same time. It doesn't matter if you order the shrimp, the vegetable or the bakudan (which means "bomb"), a big ball of vegetable tempura the size of a small football. Each bite, dipped into the scratch-made tempura sauce steeped with freshly grated daikon radish, is delectable, an explosion of texture and flavor.

The shrimp tempura arrives in a small bamboo basket with a peep-through lattice-patterned lid, giving a glimpse of what's beneath. This attention to presentation, this small artistic touch, is just one of the things that make this restaurant so special. The fact that it's owned and operated by first-generation Japanese who have been working in the restaurant industry for more than 20 years is another.

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Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar Successfully Mines the World for Oysters and More

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Chuck Cook
The oyster assortment may be pricy, but these are not your typical Gulf Coast oysters.
There is a lot to love about Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, and at the top of that list is the gumbo. There's rich, lingering flavor from duck confit, stock and dark roux. Meaty Gulf shrimp and delicately fried oysters rest on top and in the center is a mound of long-grained rice dotted with flecks of parsley. Dark green rounds of okra lend a bit of silkiness to the broth and finely diced red bell peppers and onions add the needed punch. A touch of heat slowly grows until it seems to warm the soul as much as the belly. The soup is everything desired in a traditional New Orleans gumbo.

It's hard to resist having a bowl every single visit. On the menu, it's called LH Gumbo -- after Lennie Hall, who worked with chef Mark Holley at Pesce and is working with him again at Holley's.

There is reason to resist, at least occasionally, and that's to indulge in another soup that represents both culinary history and Holley's personal journey as a chef. It's called Koonce's Peanut Soup (after James Koonce, a chef and sommelier who worked with Holley for years at Brennan's). Its warmth and savory depths brighten even the dullest of days.

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Review: KUU Needs to Work on Consistently Good Cooking, but the Seafood Is Wonderful

Categories: Cafe Reviews

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Photos by Troy Fields
The kanpaccio features rosette-shaped pieces of fish with ingredients that include soy and fruit soaked in sake.
The kanpaccio, a word play on "carpaccio" and "kanpachi," or mature amberjack, is a dish that delights every taste bud. Rich slices of fish, shaped into rosettes, gather a bit of heat from small green slices of fresh Thai pepper before being bounced back and forth between the salinity of tobiko and soy and the sweet fruitiness of a fresh slice of orange and halved red grapes that were soaked in sake.

It's a signature dish for KUU, a Japanese fine-dining establishment in Gateway Memorial City that opened in February under the deft hand of chef Adison Lee. Lee trained under Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa, a pioneer of modern Japanese cuisine, and it shows. Lee's sashimi dishes are similar in style to Nobu's, with garnishes and accoutrements meant to enhance their flavor and appearance.

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