Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Recap: 2015 Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair

Well Dear Readers, as Spring is bursting out in the Greater Houston Area, we're dealing with allergies, hail and torrential downpours along with some much needed sunshine, warmer weather and a boatload of different Food & Beverage Festivals.  Not too long ago (April 8 through April 12), a multi-day, multi-site, multi-event known as the Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair happened at various location all over Sugar Land.  This event was off the chain, totally fun and showcased A LOT of our great local Chefs, Craft Beer, Texas and Regional Wineries, restaurants, food suppliers, grocery stores, you name it.  This was a Bacchanalia of EPIC PROPORTIONS and yours truly, along with more than a few of y'all, got to experience.  While I did not get to attend all of the events, I did get to go to 3 events that were very enjoyable.  A couple of them had to be worked in and around weather systems, but they worked out just fine for the most part.  So with that, time to share more than a few pics and some video for what was a good ol' time had by all!

On the Rocks New Amsterdam™ Vodka Bartender Challenge at the Club at Riverstone
Nothing like infused and high quality premium distilled Vodka to bring out the inspiration of our many talented local mixologists.  Throw in a nice country club environment deep in the heart of Sugar Land and this was one Top Shelf event!    A crew of several of our awesome local bartenders: Nathan Refell of 1919 Wine & Mixology; Justin Ware of Johnny's Gold Brick; Vincent Baldridge of the Black Tie Co., Ryan Perry of Sundance Cinemas Bar & Café & Lauren Sponberg of Beavers Gastropub all submitted great cocktails that featured many of the different New Amsterdam Vodkas:  Straight, Peach, Pineapple, Coconut, Orange, Citron, Red Berry and Mango.

Vincent Baldridge of Black Tie Co, with his vintage shaker
preparing a Savoury Dog for our libation pleasure
While the Club at Riverstone provided some nice munchies, and ABinBev also provided some Stella Artois Belgian Lager for those whose tastes go towards beer, the real stars of the event were the cocktails and the Mixologists themselves.  Each Bartender had clearly put in a good deal of thought into the flavour profile of each beverage, the presentation and in a couple of cases, the showmanship of assembling the cocktail for the panel of Judges, one of whom was my friend Phaedra Cook of the Houston Press!!!  Also of note, Michael Garfield the High Tech Texan was on of the judges as well.  Sample sized cocktails flowed and the shows went on.

Each bartender's creation had an interesting profile and the competition was tough.  For me, my two favourites were Vincent Baldridge's Savoury Dog and Nathan Refell's El Niño Collins rocked my tastebuds.  In the end, Nathan Refell won because his showmanship in assembling the beverage combined with a slam dunk win in the flavour department hit a chord with the judges.  That's not to say the other cocktails or mixologists didn't bring their A game.  I would have had a very difficult time in the judges' seats and make no bones about saying so!

So with that, here is the recipe for the winning cocktail:

1 oz. New Amsterdam Citron
½ oz. New Amsterdam Coconut
½ oz. Lemon Pepper Simple Syrup
½ oz. Lemon Juice
2 drops Bittermens Xocolatt Mole Bitters
Top with Topo Chico Soda
Tools: shaker, strainer
Glass: Collins
Garnish: Coconut slice, lemon zest, jalapeno, flamed

Combine all ingredients, except Topo Chico Soda, add ice cubes and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled Collins glass, top with soda and garnish with Coconut slice, lemon zest, jalapeno, flamed.

Nathan Refell Flames It up!!!
Lemon-Pepper Simple Syrup (makes about a quart)

Zest of 5 lemons
10 habanero peppers, seeded & chopped
8 cups of superfine sugar
4 cups of water
Add lemon zest and peppers to water. Bring to a boil, add sugar and stir until dissolved.
Strain using a chinois strainer. Cover and keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

More Photos from On The Rocks Competition

Sip & Stroll at Imperial Sugar
Ahh, the old Imperial Sugar Plant.  Nicely repurposed for Farmers' Markets and fun events like the Sip & Stroll.  This Saturday Afternoon Indoor/Outdoor event was a good deal of fun.  Many of our local Craft Breweries were on tap with great samples, along with other regional and national craft breweries, ABinBev and a full host of Texas and other regional Wines, and a few cocktails too.  But it wasn't just Beverage that we got, it was FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD!  Several of our award winning Food Trucks (like St. John's Fire & Berryhill's Catering Truck) were present serving great dishes to go with the wine and other beverages.  My pal DeMarco Jenkins of DeMarco's Pizzeria was serving a couple of his pies that were featured at national pizza competitions, and a whole host of other great Houston area Eateries, Bars, and other purveyors of fine food and spirits.

Bite sized portions of all kinds of food were available to munch on as patrons sipped and strolled their way around the plant, enjoying all kinds of samples of things like fish tacos, Campecha, Red, White and Rosé wines, and so forth on down the line.  Though we had some thunder and lightning, there was plenty of space in the Old Imperial Sugar Factory complex to take refuge from the storm.  HEB was highly visible as their Cooking Team was serving up savoury sausages and salads and pairing them well with different wines.

More Photos from the Sip & Stroll

Bistro Brunch at Sugar Land Town Square
The final event of the Week was a Sunday Brunch served in front of City Hall at Sugar Land Town Square.  The Bloody Marys/Caesars and Mimosas were flowing as diners enjoyed Chicken and Waffles, Bagels, and all other manner of great brunch treates.  Ted Mosby, the central character from "How I Met Your Mother" would have found this to be a decadent brunch on steroids, with just enough great cocktails to numb you after getting some bad news from family or friends over brunch.  Though really, other than a few drops of rain here and there, no bad news was to be found at this Sunday Late Morning/Early Afternoon event!

Nope, all that there was to find were more great wines, samples of the Winning Cocktail from Nathan Refell, along with Caesars and Mimosas from HEB.  Other restaurants such as KUU from Memorial City and Grimaldi's were sampling out different brands of imported beer like Asahi from Japan and Kronenbourg 1664 Pale Lager from France.  I ran into more than a few Food Media friends, such as Isabel Protomartir, a Greater Houston Area foodster I know via Tastemade!

More Photos from Bistro Brunch

Boxing it Up to Go
Overall the Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair was one great taste after another for this Food Media Dude.  From the Rocking On The Rocks Cocktail Challenge to the rollicking shenanigans of the Sip & Stroll at the historic Imperial Sugar Factory, to the sun and rain-soaked Bistro Brunch in the Sugar Land Town Square, there was something for all food and beverage lovers of all taste profiles. Just get And just so you know, the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce & The Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston were the producing partners and beneficiaries of the Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair.

I can't wait to see what they do next year!

Eat Happy, Y'all!!!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Preview and Post Opening look at Whole Foods Market's New Voss Location

Whole Foods Market is a Texas Original that has grown over the decades into a large, global, trusted brand.  They have developed a large amount of house brands built around core values centered on selling the highest quality natural & organic products possible, nourishing their customers, serving local communities, showing proper stewardship for the environment and creating wealth through profits and responsible growth.  The fact that many of their food products are delicious is just one more reason they're a great place to shop.  From the original mother ship in Austin in 1980, to the small neighborhood oriented markets of the 1990s, the brand is now beginning to set up larger, more diversified locations that match other chain supermarkets in size while sticking to their original mission.

Fish & Meat Market, Prior to Opening
One such location that fits this new Texas sized concept recently opened at 1407 Voss between San Felipe.  They tore down the former Randall's (aka Safeway) that was located there to build a brand spanking new, more environmentally friendly location around the corner from their older, smaller location on Woodway across from 2nd Baptist Church.  While carrying plenty of their House Brand 365 products, as well as their large assortment of locally grown produce, this location has expanded upon previous concepts to include a much larger and broader prepared food section, a full service well sized Fish market, a properly stocked and staffed Butcher shop, with actual butchers and butchers apprentices working in-store (not to mention the ability to smoke meat on site!) and a very well stocked wine and craft beer section.  I had the opportunity to walk the store during construction prior to opening.  I also paid a visit after opening and this posting provides my impression and thoughts on this new location.

The New Whole Foods on Voss (and it's sister Texas sized location in the Woodlands) both have two of the largest fresh produce sections I have seen in any of their locations.  They are stocking very large amounts of organic and fresh produce, much of it from 100 miles away or less.  They are also stocking a huge variety of Fresh Produce items eo ensure that those who want to shave their own red ginger root or pickle a few pepadews will be able to do so with little or no difficulty.

The Meat Market is also quite large--stocking a huge variety of fresh meats that are butchered in store. That's right, there are professionally trained butchers on staff and they have a fully sanctioned butcher's apprenticeship program.  Almost all other supermarket chains prepackage their meats and do not have professionally trained butchers on staff.  Combine that with their 5 Step Program (i.e. no cages, no crates, no crowding, Pasture Oriented, High Quality of Animal Life) to ensure that livestock animals are raised properly, humanely and healthily means that you can feel very good about the quality of meat you buy there as it's gone from farm to table.  Plus, in my experience happily, healthily raised animals produce the best meat.

While the Seafood Market may not be as long as the one at the Hong Kong Market on Bellaire, it boasts a plethora of fresh, locally sourced or properly farmed sustainable species of fish and shellfish for your dining enjoyment.  The cases have many different choices on display, including whole fish taken from gulf catches packed on ice.  I almost felt the urge to dodge a tossed fish like you'd run into at the Seattle Public Market.

For the Craft Beer and Wine lover, the new Whole Foods Market on Voss boasts a large selection of local and regional craft beers, including the great local brands of Saint Arnold, No Label, Buffalo Bayou and Karbach.  These include bottles, cans and of course 24 oz bombers. .The Wine section includes many Texas Brand wines, along with other US and Foreign Wineries, and includes the option to buy a six pack of wine at a 10% discount off the whole ticket.

The bakery section includes a great variety of breads and sweets, many that are just quite beautiful to look at as well as downright delicious.  Looking for a fruit glazed custard tart or a fondant layered cake?  Done!  Looking for Butter Croissants or Marbeled Rye Bread?  They got it.  All baked fresh daily in  store, I might add!!!

My favourite section that I cannot say enough great things about is the Prepared Food section.  Here besides a huge salad and fresh food bar, you have a great sandwich counter; an in-store taqueria making great breakfast tacos in the morning and beef, chicken, turkey and veggie tacos during the lunch and dinner hours; a fresh baked pizza section that includes an awesome high temperature ceramic pizza oven brought straight from Italy that flash bakes your pie in just a few minutes.  Much of the ordering is down via kiosk which cuts down on order errors and ensures proper quality.

In the prepared food section, my favourite part of all is the first in-store Ramen Bar in the Houston area! This bar puts together all kinds of fresh veggies (mushrooms, bok choy, cabbage, onions, garlic, peppers), protein (BBQ Beef, chicken, pork, tofu) and different broths/sauces to create your own fantastic Ramen dinner.  I am very fond of the BBQ Beef Brisket that they smoke in store and being able to use it in a big ol' bowl of Ramen noodles with Sriracha, mushrooms, onions and bok choy is a wonderful dining experience for a quick meal on the go or to enjoy in the café area in-store!

Last but not least, the store also features a 24 tap craft beer bar that does Growler Service as well as pints to be consumed in store.  While this isn't quite the same as the in store brewery that the Post Oak location has, it's good to know like many of their other locations, you'll be able to grab a pint after work or come by in for an evening Tap Takeover by any one of our Texas Craft Beer Brands, and then be able to get a little grocery shopping done afterwards.

And lest I forget, Whole Foods does a great job of partnering with local and growing regional brands that fit their profile of healthy and sustainable food and household products.  Earlier this year I mentioned their partnership with Daily Greens, an Austin brand I used during a dietary cleanse back in January.  More recently, they have partnered with youth entrepreneur Mikaila Ulmer whose Bee Sweet Lemonade was a featured pitch on ABC's Shark Tank.  Whole Foods so loved the concept of her Flaxseed Lemonade (from her Grandma's recipe no less) and the use of a portion of the proceeds to help save honeybee populations from recent issues such as Colony Collapse disorder.  Whole Foods is working with her to help grow her brand as well as is hosting some Pollinator events that are also centered around the same cause.  For those who do not know:  much of our food depends upon honeybees to exist.  Bees, Flies, Birds, other insects and even bats share a symbiotic relationship with fruits and other plant products.  Without these species to pollinate plants, fruit and grains aren't produced, which means pretty much the whole rest of the Food chain is messed up.  Kudos to Whole Foods on helping make others aware of this problem, as well as promoting a sharp young entrepreneur and helping to do something about it.

New Voss Location of Whole Foods

Folks, although I am usually about dining out, I also cook at home and am conscientious of where I shop.  Given what this location brings to the table, if you have not already checked them out, I highly recommend you do so.

1407 South Voss Rd. (across from Trader Joe's)
Houston, TX  77057

Store and coffee bar open 7:00am to 10:00pm.
Seven days a week.

Eat Happy, Y'all!!!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Review: Playa Azul Seafood & Oyster Bar on Grant Rd.

It seems that it's seafood season in the Greater Houston Area all the time.  And we are all blessed to have many great Seafood restaurants here in the Greater Houston Area.  Some are Chains of all levels of quality and service.  Many more are local establishments that provide a bit more of a interesting take on great seafood.  One of the ones I tried recently, Playa Azul Seafood & Oyster Bar, has a distinctly coastal Mexican take on Seafood and such, as I discovered when I went there for lunch on a recent weekday.

Playa Azul quite literally means "Blue Beach" and is also the name of a famous Cozumel Island, Quintana Roo, Mexico Resort, just off the Yucatan Peninsula.  This restaurant is not some luxury resort though--think of Captain Benny's meets a Mexican beachside seafood joint and that best sums up this place.  But it is not without it's charms.  The staff is laid back and friendly.  There is a huge Oyster bar service right in the Middle of the Restaurant.  Fresh oysters are visibly shucked for the diner as they watch and the aroma of delicious Latin Spices and Lime is evident.

After studying the menu, I decided to start off with a Toro Appetizer:  a Jalapeño pepper, stuffed with Queso Fresco, battered, wrapped in bacon and deep fried.  These are a crunchy, spicy, creamy and meaty treat that started off my meal quite nicely.  This is served with cocktail and tartar sauce, along with a side of fries or another side item if you prefer.

For my main meal, I was kind of torn because there were several different types of Tex-Mex, Cajun and Mexican dishes, many of which were seafood based.  After thinking about it for a decent amount of time, I went with the Fish Tacos al Pastor.  These are three spicy grilled, street style fish tacos, served on white corn tortillas with steamed white rice and lime wedges and a creamy cilantro dressing if you wish.  I folded one up and took a bite, getting a spicy kick from the sauce the fish was grilled in.  I cut the spice by adding some of the creamy cilantro sauce and a squeeze or two of lime juice.  These tacos were like a spicy, almost Tandoori version of Fish Tacos that  you see in San Diego or other Mexican Coastal towns.  Very nice indeed.  Of course they have the more traditional fried and grilled fish filets, shrimp, oysters, shrimp brochette, grilled Tilapia and so forth if that is more to your liking.
Report card for Playa Azul on Grant Rd.
     Toro Appetizer: A
     Tacos Al Pastor: A+
     Speed: B+
     Friendliness: A
     Dining area: A
     Oyster Bar: A-
     Men's Room: A-
Atmosphere (Yucatan Capt. Benny's): A-

Overall Grade: A-

Playa Azul is located at:
10966 Grant Rd (at Jones Rd).
Houston, TX 77070
(281) 955-5772

Hours of Operation: Mon - Thu: 11:00 am - 10:00 pm
Fri - Sat: 11:00 am - 11:00 pm
Sun: 11:00 am - 10:00 am

Eat Happy, Y'all!!!