Saturday, July 26, 2014

Solaro Urban Winery on TC Jester

About a decade or so ago, if you said the words Texas Wines, it would usually make an Oenophile or Sommelier laugh or roll their eyes or maybe a bit of both.    You'd not think of wine grapes growing in Texas.  Or perhaps you'd think of some place that would "import" their grapes from California, press and age the wine in Texas and call it "Texas Wine."  However, places in the High Plains Country near Lubbock, El Paso, Brenham, Fredericksburg and Austin near Lake Travis have quietly been growing grapes from Southern Europe which work better with our Texas climate, especially Italian grapes and are slowly releasing some interesting vintages that turn out to be very complex, flavourful yet young wines.  One of these is Solaro, based out of Austin, who also has an Urban Winery off of TC Jester and I-10 near Buffalo Bayou Brewing. They have a tasting room, along with an aging room with stainless steel vats and wooden barrels, and a good selection of their 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages available to sample and buy in their tasting room. This modern steel and glass building with a modern art rendition of a corkscrew and cork beckoned us on a Saturday afternoon to sample their wares and enjoy some vino and conversation.  But first some background.

Per their Website:
Solaro Urban Winery Houston sets the trend by bringing Estate Vineyard operations to wine production in an urban domain. The sparkling new Urban Winery offers two main Tasting Rooms, granite service bars and private bar seating under 24 feet of brilliant vaulted ceiling with views into the glass enclosed wine cellar and production areas featuring custom stainless tankage and racked barrel storage. The wine-dedicated facility also encompasses winery offices, a private conference room, temperature controlled case storage, catering kitchen and audio-visual capability for wine related classes and seminars. We only produce wine from those grapes which can be grown in Texas as well or better than anywhere in the world.

Brittnee Gradney, Mia's Niece and Wine expert
Though some parts of the facility are being finished, the Tasting Room was open and apparently some of their grapes were reaching the proper sugar level at their vineyards around to be watched for harvesting, which had the staff in a nice mood.  We found a few other groups of wine lovers sampling and talking wine and food in the facility on this sunny, hot Houston afternoon.  As as the wine poured, we noshed on some cheese, charcouterie and bread.  A very nice time indeed.  Our guide for this tasting was the lovely Brittnee Gradney, who also happens to be the niece of KHOU-11's AM Anchor Mia Gradney.  This intelligent young woman, who graduated from the Hilton School of Hospitality at University of Houston, guided us on our tasting tour of Solaro's Texas wines with aplomb and copious knowledge of wine.  Clearly she was on the Chancellor's List at the Hilton school, as she was simply running over with knowledge on grapes, wine and Solaro's philosophy.  Ms. Gradney also very much represents what I love to write about:  great food and beverage, great folks, in the Houston area and beyond.  She's an Alief ISD grad too, just FYI--the part of town where my family lives.  Nothing like pride-by-association, eh?

The tasting room and wine space is modern, industrial, feels like a mix of a modern bar, art museum and small business seminar space all rolled into one.  Their product is visibly on display in the racks (Stephanie Black, another associate, informed us there will be more of these to come soon), along with the vats and barrels.  Many tables were set up in an overflow area outside the main tasting room, and there's even a patio which could be used for a small to medium size event.  Very nice digs, truly.  Ms. Gradney took us through the wines, from lightest to boldest as we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon.

The Wines 
Ms. Gradney started us off with a Chenin Blanc.  This chilled White wine was very crisp, and had notes of green apples in it much like a Vino Verde.  Very refreshing for this time of year.  Grade A   

Next we had a Miscela Bianco RSV.  This is made from grapes grown in the High Plains (Lubbock area) and was fruitier, less dry than the Chenin Blanc.  It was very refreshing had had essences of peaches and irises in it.  We liked it so much, we bought a bottle of it for later.  Grade: A+

After these fabulous whites, we transitioned to the reds.  We started with a Sangiovese RSV--the first wine grapes Solaro ever grew, brought in especially from Italy to grow in the Central Texas climate.  This wine was earthy, had essences of raspberries and black currents, simply marvelous.  Grade: A

Next up the scale was a Barberra Barrel RSV.  This one was bold, had elements of Roses, Rose Hips and Lingonberries in it's palate.  One for us carnivores to enjoy with seared pork tenderloin.  Grade: A

Next we sampled a Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from their Cellar Collection.  This one was the fullest flavoured of the reds, having elements of beefsteak tomato, venison and portobello mushrooms in how it hit my palate.  This is one to have with that properly dry aged ribeye steak, Oscar style.  Grade: A+

We ended off with their Port, a bold dessert wine that had been fortified with XO brandy--the good stuff, not the cheap stuff.  This was a bit more on the Tawny side of the Port Spectrum, not as sweet as the Australians tend to be yet sweeter than other ports.  This wine was not Chaptalized though, just the natural sugars brought out in the process by the brandy.  I longed for a slice of blueberry cheesecake with lemon curd to offset it, but for those who love a good port, this one works.  Grade: A-
Can't get more Wine without a Corkscrew,

And just FYI:  Solaro offers memberships.  For the fee you get special access to some of their reserve wines and special bottles.  Click the link for details.  I want to thank the staff at Solaro for the great introduction to these award-winning Texas wines and for a nice afternoon.

Solaro is located at:
330 T.C. Jester Blvd.
Houston, TX 77007

Wednesday, Thursday - 1pm - 9pm
Friday, Saturday - 11am - 6pm
All other times by appointment.

Drink Wine Happily!!!
喝得开心酒 !!!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Burger Friday: Beer Market Co. in Montrose

A few months back I'd heard it mentioned somewhere that a new craft beer bar had opened in Montrose in the spot that used to be held by a Texadelphia.  After checking around and reading a few good comments about Beer Market Co. over on Montrose, I was motivated to make my way inside the loop to give them a try.  I'd heard they had  pretty good burgers, which peaked my interest.  Furthermore, their list of bottled beer was outstanding, and though their tap list was shorter than I'd like, there were some brands I've yet to try in 2 plates at the Flying Saucer, more than enough motivation for this craft beer drinker.

From their website:
Beer Market Company is the newest neighborhood spot for the Studemont & Memorial area. We’re a relaxed, “come as you are” kind of place. After work…or after your jog at Buffalo Bayou Park – either way, you will feel as if you were in your own living room. But better, because of the beer. Over 365 different kinds actually, that we rotate on a regular basis so you won’t get bored. Did you know there are over 80 different beer styles around the world? You should probably come and try them all. We won’t judge. And if you get hungry, we have an extensive and delicious menu to complement all your beer choices. I you want to catch the game, we have 30 flat screen TVs. So come grab a bite and a drink, kick back and watch the game with your friends.
512 White IPA
Ok, y'all had me at Craft Beer.  On a Friday afternoon I headed there for a late lunch and took a good look at them.  The interior was a mix of Industrial and Reclaimed Wood mixed with a Sports Bar and a touch of NOLA meets Vegas.  The Staff uniforms were a mix of Sports Bar (ladies wearing high tech weave golf shirts and Khaki shorts with a short apron) and Craft Beer Bar (Guys wearing faux Gas Station/Mechanic shirts and long dark cargo shorts with multi-tools hanging off a belt loop similar to Craft Beer Bar Backs).  I started with a 512 White IPA and asked the young woman who greeted me what menu items were good. She suggested a sampler of their 3 tacos (Gulden Drak Chicken, Short Rib meat and Chicken Street Tacos) or their Mac N Cheese burger.  I went with the latter, but will likely be back for that taco sampler soon.  The server suggested I get it with grilled red onions, and I agreed, ordering the patty cooked medium.    FYI:  the 512 White IPA is like a Belgian Witbier mated with Saint Arnold's Elissa IPA.  It has the yeasty, citrus notes of Belgian Witbier, a nice cloudy golden pallor, but finishes with the slightly sour bitter hoppiness of an IPA, smoothed out by the yeast.  I've stated before IPAs aren't my favourite style of beer, but have grown to appreciate them over the past few years.  I've also found that Belgian style beers are very refreshing in the Houston heat, as are IPAs.  And this one works well with my palate.

Mac N Cheese Burger with Grilled Red Onion
I studied their beer list and meditated on recent life events while I waited for my food.  One of the male servers came by, asked how I liked the beer and shared my thoughts.  "You know your beer, dude!"  I mentioned my two plates at Flying Saucer Sugar Land, prompting a fist bump from him.  Can't fault a server trying to connect with a customer, eh?  When the burger finally arrived, it was a beauty. It's 1/2 lb. certified angus beef patty topped with a mac ‘n cheese "patty" plus 2 strips of bacon on a brioche bun, topped with a dill pickle spear skewered into the bun. Their burgers are served with your choice of: shoestring fries, sweet potato fries or a side salad.  I went with the shoestring fries.  The patty was cooked to a proper medium with a hot, slightly pink center and was juicy.  It was nicely seasoned and grilled, no blandness, no dryness, just a good patty.  The chewy macaroni and cheese plus the sweet, crispy smoky bacon and the sweet and sour grilled red onions made for a nice mix of flavours and textures.  The brioche bun was a little heavier than many I've had, but it kept the burger together (kind of annoying when the bun fragments and a burger gets messy 2/3 the way through).  The shoestring fries were fine and crispy, though I prefer a thicker, natural cut fry.  The burger and fries were served with a special sauce on the side which was like a mix of In-N-Out's special sauce and Freddy's Frozen Custard's zesty dipping sauce.  I dipped the burger and fries in it and it put some zing into the palate.  Good burger, very satisfying.

About midway through the burger, I ordered a second beer:  Indian Wells's Lobotomy Bock.  This California based brewing company brews a number of brain-injury themed beers apparently, though this one is brewed according to the German beer purity law aka Reinheitsgebot.  This beer pours dark, has a coffee malt nose, a smooth front note transitioning into a malty, wood-barrel middle and a slightly hoppy finish.  A VERY SMOOTH DRINKING Bock beer, and a little potent too.  Summer is not considered a good time for drinking dark beer, yet I love a good Stout, Porter or Bock anytime of the year.  It's also nice to find yet another good place to eat that has a good selection of beers from all over, yet also stocks the larger brands if you're hanging with friends who prefer the mass-produced beers.

Report Card for Beer Market Co.:
Food & Beverage:
     512 White IPA: A-
     Indian Wells Lobotomy Bock: A++
     Mac n Cheese Burger: A
     Friendliness: A
     Speed: B (kitchen was slow, not servers)
     Dining area: A
     Bar area: A
     Men's Room: Incomplete
Atmosphere (Sports meets Craft Beer Bar): A-

Overall Grade: A-

Beer Market Co. is located at:
920 Studemont St #900
Houston, TX 77007
713) 426-9035

Sun-Thu: 11 AM til 12 Midnight
Fri-Sat: 11 AM til 2 AM

Eat Happy, Y'all!!!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Preview: New Frozen Custard Waffle Cone Sundaes from Petite Sweets!

In previous blog posts, I've already enumerated the reasons why I love frozen custard and prefer it over ice cream at times.  And as we are finally feeling the REAL HOUSTON SUMMER HEAT, Frozen Custard would hit the spot right now as far as helping one feel cooler.  Very recently the folks over at Petite Sweets got in touch with me and let me know that they have now created several special waffle Cone Sundaes which include such flavours as lemon ice box, chocolate covered pretzel, The Turtle, Makers Chocolate Covered Cherries and Balsamic Strawberry.  Yes, I know that last one might make someone screech "SAY WHAAAAAAT?!?!?" but truly, if you've enjoyed the treats from Petite Sweets, and many of y'all have, you know it's going to be absolutely delicious!

My Favourites
These four that were my faves really hit the spot with me.  These included (clockwise from upper left) Strawberry Balsamic, Chocolate Pretzel, Lemon Ice Box and Makers Chocolate Cherry.  The flavour profiles were wonderful, they hit the proverbial spots on my palate that made me happy and had great visual appeal.  The Strawberry Balsamic featured chocolate or vanilla custard (I chose chocolate) with Strawberry Balsamic Sauce and whipped cream in an in-house made Belgian style chocolate dipped waffle cone.  Everything is made in house--sauce, whipped cream, custard, chocolate and cone.  And the quality shows.  Somehow the vinegary strawberry balsamic sauce is offset by the cocoa and sweetness SO VERY WELL.  Unique, delicious, decadent.  Grade A+.    The Chocolate Pretzel has crushed pretzel, chocolate fudge and whipped cream topping on your choice of custard in a chocolate dipped cone.  This one is a chocolate, salty, crunchy sweet delight.  I very much enjoyed this one, and really like the Belgian style chocolate the cone is dipped in.  Smooth, not too sweet.  Grade: A++  My Great Aunt Willie made some of the best lemon ice box pie.  This vanilla custard with slightly sour lemon curd, crushed graham cracker and whipped cream gave my taste buds a flashback to one of those pies and for some reason sour lemon pie or lemonade on a hot day seems more refreshing.  Grade: A++  The Makers Chocolate Covered Cherry has dark cherries in a cherry Bourbon sauce in a chocolate dipped cone.  Nothing like Bourbon and cherries to really make you get a sweet and whiskey buzz going and this works so well with the chocolate too.  Grade: A+

The Pretty Goods
These included (left to right in the photo) the Funfetti, the Turtle and the Big Island.  All of these were pretty good and on any given day, I'd be happy with them too.  They just might not be my first choice off the list.  If these flavour profiles hit your taste buds right, you will love them!  The Funfetti has your choice of frozen custard topped with a crushed iced sugar cookie, funfetti sprinkles (aka Jimmies) and whipped cream.  This one is like a Confetti Cupcake or birthday cake cone.  Sweet, colourful, fun for the kiddos especially.  Grade: A  The Turtle had your choice of custard topped with chopped pecans, caramel, hot fudge and whipped cream.  This one was like eating a sweet, chocolate turtle candy, with crunch.  I liked it but wasn't in the mood for pecans on this day.  It was still quite good.  Grade: A  The Big Island has vanilla custard topped with pineapple puree, whipped cream, crushed graham cracker and toasted coconut.  It definitely hit the tropical profile and was refreshing.  If you like tropical cocktails and ice cream, this one is for you.  Grade: A 

I was hanging out with Dominique McGee while trying these sundaes and we joked about how this was a great step up from the usual ice cream parlour most folks would hit.  It was also nice to have the choice of other treats like Macarons of so many flavours as well handy, as well as coffee to offset the sweetness of the treats.  As we caught up on other things, folks were coming in and out buying up Macarons and Frozen custard like it was going to be gone tomorrow.  If you've not yet been to Petite Sweets, these Frozen Custard Waffle Cone Sundaes are just one more reason on top of so many others you need to pay them a visit!  I want to thank the folks there for having me and Dom over on this particular afternoon to preview these wonderful sundaes!

Petite Sweets is located at:
2700 W. Alabama,
Houston, TX 77098

Phone: 713-520-7007

Open 7 Days A Week:
Sunday 11am-7pm
Monday-Thursday 10am-10pm
Friday-Saturday 10am-11pm

Eat Happy, Y'all!!!