Hugo’s – Houston, TX


Hugo’s
1600 Westheimer Road
Houston, TX
(713) 524-7744

People will argue that Mexican food gets better the closer you get to Mexico. While this makes sense in theory, it doesn’t always work in practice. Texas, for example, is right across the border but has adapted Mexican food and made it their own – the birth of Tex-Mex pretty much means that real Mexican is difficult to find. Great Mexican? Even more difficult.

In the Westheimer area in Houston, Hugo’s Restaurant is trying to change that perception. Serving high quality Mexican cuisine that represents the best of all regional cuisines, I have to admit, I’m a bit skeptical. Places that try to represent too many different cuisines  have a tendency to be good at all, but master of none.

From the large gated doors to the vaulted ceilings and chandeliers, the space is 1925 traditional with elements of contemporary. I don’t see the supposed elements of “chic” they are aiming for, but it’s a reasonably nice atmosphere characterized mostly by the slightly uncomfortably large gaps of space between tables.

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Fore Street – Portland, ME


Fore Street
288 Fore St
Portland, ME 04101-4109
(207) 775-2717

The wave of public opinion is an interesting thing. You see it all the time, especially on public forums and boards like chowhound or egullet. Someone posts about a new restaurant – usually it’s very positive, and people get excited. They want to go and experience it for themselves. They all go in a flood, and validate what the original poster stated. “Nice service, great command of ingredients and technique, wonderful meal”. More people visit, and more people enjoy.

After some time, a few negative reviews come up. Natural, since it is hard for any restaurant to maintain their game day in and day out. But with the really popular restaurants, you start to get this negative backlash. A push. The term “overrated” is thrown around a lot. People go in with very high expectations, and come out disappointed. More pushback. More negative reviews.

Has the quality at the restaurant changed that much? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. I’ve been to some universally lauded restaurants that I didn’t like for one reason or another. I’ve been to some restaurants that have been criticized heavily, and found it to be very enjoyable. It’s why I always reiterate to people to “taste what’s in front of you.” Think about what you’re having, and actually taste it. Don’t assume that what I had tastes the same when you have it. Don’t automatically assume something will be good, or bad. Having an open mind is the most important thing when trying to qualify a dining experience.

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Nirvana Sweet House Restaurant and Hall – Calgary, AB


Nirvana Sweet House, Restaurant, and Hall
#1009-5075 Falconridge Blvd.NE
Calgary, AB T3J 3K9
(403) 590-9797

In a highly competitive world, restaurants are always looking for an edge. Lots of new restaurants try and upscale old ideas, usually to mixed success. Classic cuisines are classic for a reason – they work. They taste good, they have the benefit of being tried and true.

In Castleridge, an area dense with East Indian eateries, there is one that stands out from the others. From the owners of Bombay Sweet House, on the back side of Castlebridge Mall, is Nirvana. While most of the eateries in the area are rustic, simple eateries that have basic food, presentation, and decor, Nirvana provides a different concept. Aiming for a high-end look, they’ve combined traditional Indian decor with a slightly modern, western look. Their goal with the menu is high-end Indian, with traditional dishes and ingredients.

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The interior is a mix of modern and classic. One room, surrounded with pillars, is open, airy, and in many ways, cavernous. It is clearly used for banquets, as the vast spacing between tables makes it an uncomfortable dining experience. The second room is a well appointed room decorated in a more traditional “palace-style” Indian decor. This is the room used for service during regular restaurant hours. Spacing is still a bit awkward, but it does the job. I’ll be honest – as clean, nice, and tidy that it is, I don’t like the space. It’s definitely more banquet hall than restaurant. Each table is too detached from the others. I’d prefer a more intimate environment.

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The food is your typical tour across India. Dishes that represent Northern, Central, and South Indian dishes. Geared for producing banquets, the ala carte menu is extensive, with roughly 90 items.  Prices are actually quite reasonable – a great place to try a wide variety of dishes.

During my first visit, they had a buffet. They’ve since cancelled it, and it’s tough to compare buffet to ala carte service. However, my general  impressions of the buffet were that it was good quality, well spiced, and well prepared.

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On  a second visit, we ordered strictly ala carte. Murgh Makhni (butter chicken), tandoori platter, paneer e shola, saffron pulao, and naan.  I’m not a huge fan of butter chicken, but it was pretty decent. Good tandoori flavour, a nice rice butter sauce. A touch dry, but otherwise quite enjoyable.

The tandoori platter was good, but not specifically memorable. A mix of chicken tikka, paneer tikka, tandoori prawn,  fish tikka, and kebab, the paneer tikka was probably my favorite. The prawns were dry, the fish tikka was quite good flavour wise, but quite dry as well, and the rest don’t really strike much a chord with me.

The paneer e shola were good, but the chick peas were a bit overcooked, and the flavour wasnt well balanced. Too much bitterness. Rice and naan were standard,

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The owners of Nirvana bill it as “one of the finest establishments and first one of its kind in North America taking East Indian dining to another level”. This is a bit overstated, and Nirvana Sweet House is an overly ambitious project that doesn’t succeed on so many levels. While definitely clean, it is a cold, impersonal, and sterile space. The food is of good quality, and traditionally prepared, but fails to meet the billing of taking East Indian dining to another level. If i had to take the girlfriend’s conservative parents for Indian food on a first meeting, this might be the kind of place  i’d go. The friendly, albeit slow service is good, it’s clean, and the food is decent. On any other occasion, I’d probably pass. It’s too bad really, as the food is good, and reasonably priced. It’s just not a comfortable place to eat. I’d rather eat at the Bombay Sweet House.

Nirvana Sweet House Restaurant and Hall on Urbanspoon

Blue House Cafe – Calgary, AB


Blue House Cafe
2-3843 19 Street NW
Calgary, AB T2L 2B3
(403) 284-9111

In life, there are always little moments that keep you humble. I pride myself on an excellent food memory – I can still recall the smells, tastes, and visions of thousands of meals i’ve had over the years. So when a group of friends was meeting at the Blue House Cafe for dinner, I was actually a bit excited. It was sold to me as a quiet, underrated place with excellent food. Not knowing how it had slipped under my radar for so many years, I was looking forward to a new experience. Unfortunately, I was reminded by my former roommate that we had dined there 7 years ago. And not gone back since for reasons unknown. Oops. So much for my vaunted memory.

The Blue House Cafe is billed as “Fine Latin Cuisine”. Located in a tiny strip mall off of Northmount Drive, it is easy to see why people could consistently over look it. Even knowing where it was, I was in danger of driving by it. I blame the darkness, though really, it was likely the driver.

The interior is an eclectic mix of Latin American decor, with some “fine dining” touches. However, no matter how much they dress up the restaurant, I can never forget that I’m in a stripmall. It just exudes boxy. However, they’ve done that they could to make the place pleasant to dine in. Other than tables that are a bit too close together, I have no other complaints.

When a larger group of us get together, it usually involves ordering a diverse number of dishes, then proceeding to ensure everyone had the opportunity to share. As a result, we all got a lot of tastes of the different dishes available on the menu.

The menu doesn’t start on a good note. Ceviche de Camarones is the first dish – excellent, as i love ceviche – but the description of “tiger shrimp served with a spicy South American sauce” turns me off. As much as i love ceviche, I hate bad ceviche more. I pass.

Instead, we opt for a large number of seafood dishes. One dish that stands out on the menu is the Mariscos de Guava ($22) – a seafood medley with a guava and cilantro cream sauce.

In reality, it sounds, and looks better than it was. With no real signature flavour, the sauce ended up just tasting creamy. The seafood was average, but slightly overcooked. The calamari had been frozen, but otherwise, most of the seafood was ok. A serving of rice and steamed veg accompanied the dish.

Knowing that the Guava dish was likely to be better on paper than in execution, i opted for the other interesting, or “signature” dish on the menu – the Cazuela de Cordero ($25). A lamb casserole in a coffee-vermouth broth. This was probably the most interesting dish of the evening. The coffee actually added a wonderful richness to the lamb, without a lot of grease. It complimented the gaminess of the lamb, which was cooked to extremely tender. The dish itself was interesting, and worth ordering in my mind. While it was definitely on the subtle side, the flavours worked for me. Most people at the table agreed.

Mariscos Con Arroz ($23) is a combination of every critter of the sea on a bed of rice and the same steamed veg. The sauce was indescript, and the seafood of basically the same quality as the Mariscos to Guava. Nothing really wrong with it, but nothing all that interesting either.

Filet of Salmon ($20) with a creamy lemon dill sauce was actually very poor. Overcooked and dried out, the salmon was drowned in a overpowering lemon sauce with only mild hints of dill. Lacking any balance, the entire dish was, in my mind, inedible.


Sadly, I was quite disappointed with the Blue House Cafe – more so than a bad dining experience like Sobaten. They have an interesting menu, and some excellent value, in terms of the quantity, which was both generous and substantial, and the price. However, there was really nothing all that interesting about the food. Flavours were underwhelming, and every seafood dish ended up tasting the same. I’m honestly at odds with myself regarding whether or not I should recommend this place. On one hand, there is nothing wrong with the food. On the other hand, my expectations, and the creativity of the menu, say it should be more. If you need a safe, affordable seafood meal, this just might be the place for you. But i think i’ll pass. Maybe there is a reason why I hadn’t remembered I had dined here before – it just was completely unmemorable. At least I feel a bit better about that.

Blue House Cafe on Urbanspoon

Imaan East African Restaurant – Calgary, AB


Imaan East African Restaurant
#2, 3218 – 17th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta
403.242.1650
Open Sunday-Saturday, 8am-11pm

Imaan East African Restaurant on Urbanspoon

In the quest for great food, sometimes you stick out a bit. Sometimes you stick out a lot. And sometimes, you feel like you’ve been transplanted to another time and place. You get a bit of that awkward feeling – everyone stops and looks at you and wonders why you have disturbed their sanctuary. You feel a bit uneasy and want to politely ask if they speak English, and then you remember that you’re in Canada. I call it Chinese Restaurant Syndrome(CRS).

On my way to lunch, I noticed a new sign up in a nearby strip mall. Imaan. “The taste of ancient kush”. Kush is an ancient region of East Africa, a kingdom of old that occupied the territories that now are Sudan. Not really knowing what Sudanese food was, I decided to stretch my elastic pants and eat a second lunch. On my way back, I stopped in at Imaan – East African “Fine Dining”.

Inside is a restaurant that looks like it drastically needs some work – roughly 2 months old the owner tells me. This is East African Fine Dining done cafeteria style! When we walk in, everyone stops and looks. Speaking something that sounded like Amharic, the owner pops his head out of the kitchen in a bit of surprise, and rushes over to help us out.

We’re handed menus, and he patiently explains some of their cuisine. Kushitic cuisine is very similar to Ethiopean cuisine.And Somali cuisine. East African Cuisine in general is my guess.  They serve it by way of Somalia. Everything is home cooked in the back. And most of the dishes sound vaguely familiar. Anjero, Muufo. We’re told they carry goat. “Try the Spaghetti – it’s good”! Spaghetti comes with anything else on the menu,so i definitely hope it is!

Not wanting to bring myself to a wafer thin moment, i order a side order of Suqaar, which is advertised as Beef and Chicken stew, and some Injera, i mean Anjero. The owner takes off to the back. The food is delivered in African time.

I don’t mean to digress, but for those who have been to Africa, they understand the concept of African time. For those of you who don’t get African time, let’s just say, don’t be in a rush, because really, you have no idea when anything will show up.  It happens when it happens. If you think waiting for an appetizer for an hour is frustrating, you’ve never been to Africa :)

Anyway, out comes a monstrous stew and some Anjero, which has a slightly thinner texture than Injera, and not as sour. Im quite happy with it – especially for $5 along with $1.50 for the Anjero. The stew itself is flavourful, and meaty.  Chock full of potato, carrots, and beef, im not 100% sure where the chicken component is (maybe the broth?), but they don’t come in chunks.

Apparently, this is not a monster order, but is a double order – oops.$10, not $5! My friend of significantly less girth had bowed out of secondsies, but they brought him food anyway.

At $10 for the dish, it wasn’t quite the insanely good deal i felt it was. But it was still quite reasonable. And quite tasty. The menu is an interesting mish-mash of food – most holding a very strange appeal to me. Pancakes, Omelets and Liver. Hmm. Ugaali,the local corn meal dish. Called NSima in Malawi, Pap in SA, Sadza in Zim, if it’s anything like NSima or Pap, i’ll pass. Bojiya – bean fritters and pepper – sounds interesting. The Firdhis Sampler looks good – a meal for two with rice, chicken, suqaar, spaghetti, and goat meat with a salad. For $24, this seemed to be the meal of choice among the more… regular crowd. I wish I had a greater appetite to explore, but it just creates more reasons to return.

I’ll be honest, I don’t really know what to say about Imaan. The food was good. The prices were very reasonable. The owners were friendly. The room was sterile, and we definitely felt out of place. It was a bit uncomfortable being stared at. I guess think of this as a scouting report – and when you’re in the SW, and feeling a bit adventerous, know that there’s a place that you might enjoy more than another burger. Give it a try and report back. We’ll be seeing you just now!

Imaan East African Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Food and Fine Dining – Philosophy (Interlude)


In recent economic good times, I have noticed some dining behaviour that I can only classify as…perplexing. What I have noticed in many discussions regarding food is that a large contigent of people believe that if they eat something expensive at a fine dining restaurant, it must be good. This issue drives me crazy.

Let’s break this issue down from the roots. Let’s start with the definition of fine dining. There is no clear cut definition – in fact, if you think about it, the term itself is a bit pretentious. What is fine dining? I have no idea. To me, it conjures up images of fancy decor, and a “higher level” of execution. But this is just a label. Anyone can use it. And really, there is no real meaning. Let’s throw the term out.

I have a personal issue with “fine dining” as well. Lately, most fine dining establishments copy techniques and flavours that other “fine dining” restaurants have had success with. They feel they are bringing haute cuisine, a higher level of “food” culture to the masses. Fancy ingredients. Time intensive techniques. And they copy them verbatim. Forget seasonality. Forget about local ingredients that did not have to be picked green, and ripened in a gas-controlled storage facility. It’s like taste has become secondary to technique. But isnt the point of technique to maximize the taste? Shouldn’t the first technique be “use the best ingredients you can get”? Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against those who innovate. But to blindly copy another chef’s technique for nothing more than financial success is cheating the diner.

When did people start to forget about taste? Sea-salt foam. “Mmmm, it’s the essence of sea salt”. Great! I could drink out of the ocean, or lick an Alberta road in winter, and i could get the very same essence. What is good about that? Does it nourish? Excite?  Soothe? Does it invoke any feelings or passions? Calm you when you’re upset? Make you happy when you’re blue? Or is this the same as the interpretative dance that you don’t understand, but pretend to like because it is the cultured thing to do?

Look, my point is really simple. Eat what you like. What tastes good. Think of the evolution of food - from sustenance, to enjoyment. We’re at a place where food serves both purposes – we enjoy it, and it nourishes us. Don’t be afraid to like something, or dislike something, for what it is.

On a Calgary-based blog,  Foodosophy commenter JM wrote an interesting post on how he discovered it was ok to recognize, AND like Ginger Beef for what it is – non-authentic Chinese. While my personal feelings regarding Ginger Beef don’t follow his predilection, I think the opinion is sound. Taste what you are eating. If you like it, there’s nothing wrong with that. From the humble KD, to Ginger Beef, to McDonalds’ french fries, there are many things we “shouldn’t” like, but we do.

In an old episode of Kitchen Nightmares, Gordon Ramsay started a marketing campaign for a pub – the campaign for “Real Gravy”. While I won’t go as far as to campaign for “Real Food”, I would like to petition you all to really taste that ceviche-style, uzu-marintaed black cod with fleur de sel foam and faux caviar. If you like it, great. But if you find it to be mediocre, you leave the restaurant $50 poorer, and having to stop for a burger on the way home, it’s ok to say “I got cheated”. Don’t like it because it was expensive, and fancy. Like it, or dislike it, because of how it tastes.

Dio Deka – Los Gatos, CA


Dio Deka
210 E. Main St.
Los Gatos, CA 95030
408.354.7700
Open 11:30am-2:00pm, 5pm-10pm Mon-Fri. 5pm-10pm Sat. 10:30am-2:00pm, 5pm-9pm Sun.

www.diodeka.com

As a 15 year old (more years in the past than I’d like to admit), I went to Greece as part of a high school trip. While I had travelled abroad a number of times before, this was my first visit to Europe and the history, people and food (yes, even then), perhaps predictably, made a lasting impression. While I’ve done quite a bit more travelling since then, I’m not sure I’ll have such a strong memory of Europe as the first night at our hotel on Parthenonos street, with the namesake monument lit up and viewed perfectly from our room’s balcony like a floating home for the gods. Our late dinner comprised of rather exotic fare for a young Canadian lad – moussaka (delicious!) and baklava – helping to take some of the sting out of a long and delayed trip.

Fast forward to a recent trip to Dio Deka, a rather well-received, modern and pricey Greek restaurant in upscale Los Gatos, CA. Instead of the sloppy, primally satisfying street food served nightly in the Plaka, the owners wanted a place where Greek cuisine could be experienced through a highly refined lens. The tzatziki appetizer resembles not so much Monet – broad-brush impressionist tzatziki such as that I make at home (a handful of this, a pinch of that) – and much more Ansel Adams, made with great clarity, executed with precision, and carefully calculated to hit doubles (if not home runs) with American diners.

The aforementioned tzatziki had clearly been made with yogurt painstakingly squeezed of all water, leaving behind a very thick spread that more than slightly reminded me of herbed cream cheese. It was very tasty, but was clearly lacking garlic (as the foodosopher pointed out about two milliseconds after it hit his taste buds) and the normal yogurt tang that one would otherwise expect. The popular lamb meatball appetizer, each skewered on a small stick of rosemary, were similarly well-executed, though the sauce was a bit non-descript.

The terrific grilled calamari salad, produced from the mesquite grill which constantly belched smoke into the large ventilation system, had beautiful char marks while being impressively tender.

This same grill produces the famous Dio Deka lamb chops, three to a plate and cooked, after some negotiation, to a tip-top perfect medium-rare (which required asking for it rare-to-medium-rare). Some have criticized these lamb chops for lacking “flavor”, by which I think they mean that characteristic lambiness that causes some to shy away. I’m not in that camp, as I prefer it when the meat expresses its origin sotto voce, rather than yelling in my ear, so I found the subtle flavor rather delicious. The double-thick Berkshire pork chop was similarly flawlessly executed – it was cooked exactly to the knife edge between underdone and overdone that is often so elusive with pork. The accompaniments with these dishes were exactly that: no more, no less. One entree, a braised lamb shank with orzo, didn’t come from the grill. The meat itself was braised lovingly to falling-apartness, but the orzo was far too rich with butter and cheese that made the meat seem lean (not an easy task). We did not opt for any desserts, but they certainly looked to be great crowd-pleasers. The “Greek beignets” seemed to appear at every table, although I’m not so sure they would be ten percent as popular if the menu read “Greek doughnut” instead. The wine list was quite strong, even by Bay Area standards. There are a good two to three dozen wines available by the glass, with a handful of interesting wines interspersed among the sea of populist choices.

The owners have succeeded – wildly, by all appearances – in their quest to bring updated Greek cuisine to the well-to-do masses. However, this success comes at the expense of the Greek-ness of the whole experience. If one wanted to be cynical, one might even claim that Dio Deka is really an American steakhouse with a definite but carefully-measured Greek twist. The menu seemingly explores a rather small fraction of Greek cuisine in order to ensure that the food retains a familiarity for American palates (although further visits might be needed to fully confirm this – the restaurant for some reason has taken the menu off their website, at least from what I can tell). This populist path means that it is a very useful place for parties with less-adventurous eaters who nevertheless want to experience something different. The noise level was a bit high, though, so don’t take the grandparents from Iowa unless you’re sure they’re up for it. The strength of the restaurant are the dishes from the grill station which were all executed with GPS precision and are the reason to go back. It won’t replace in my heart my first late-night lamb souvlaki, however imperfect it was, but not for a lack of trying. It’s not so much food that has been dumbed-down as food calibrated perfectly by their shrewd business plan.

Dio Deka on Urbanspoon