Monday, September 13, 2010

Houston - Banana Leaf

Where to eat in Houston?

With the desire to eat some spicy lunch and get together with a friend at a casual setting we narrowed down to Banana Leaf, a Malaysian Resto located in China Town. It was selected purely based on my mother-of-all-sources: Yelp! The very idea of a Malaysian cuisine also attracted me - with a fusion of Chinese, Thai, Indian and local Malay flavors it can satiate anyone. Banana Leaf is a small restaurant but they make up for the size with their really extensive menu. They house more than 200 different items that you can order from;the beverage list alone runs to about 18! It caters to a whole gamut of food lovers - from those who are seeking some good comfort food to those in an adventurous mood (Jelly fish Pasembur?)
Those chairs will get occupied during rush hour!

We ordered their famous Roti Canai and Roti Telur, served with a dipping curry for starters. The Roti Canai was really good, I mean you could go there just for this; the Roti Telur is nothing but the Canai which is stuffed with eggs and onions - so a no brainer, another yumm dish.
Roti Canai.....'Parotta' anyone?
Roti Telur - They call it 'lappa' back home!

For the main course we were pretty much flummoxed and overwhelmed on what to order? Should we get the stir-fry noodles or the noodle soup? Maybe the casseroles....wait, they have some sizzlers!? Well then we are not selecting anything from the 100 odd rice entrees?! The fact that we were gobbling up the Roti Canai while we were making this decision didnt help! After a lot of eating and very little deciding over the menu, we selected two items and let our wait staff decide on our third dish. We got the Indian-styled stir fry noodles, Nasi-Lemuk (chicken-anchovies-coconut rice) and the vegetable curry casserole.

The stir-fry noodles was exactly like what you'd find in any Indian-Chinese restaurant - a simple dish made beautiful.
Comfort Asian Food - Stir-Fry Noodles

The Nasi-Lemuk was almost like three dishes in one - it was curry chicken (w bone), chilli anchovies which was essentially anchovies in sambal and a pickle (nope....not pickled cucumber!) served with coconut rice and some hard boiled eggs topped with nuts. The curry chicken was good, very similar to what you would find in South India, but lacking in the spice level. I was having anchovies in sambal for the first time; I think I need to have more sambals before commenting on the one I had. I found it rather mild for my taste; I was expecting the sambal to be very spicy. The anchovies were cooked until it lost it's shape - so for the uninitiated, it could have been anything!
Nasi-Lemuk - a little bit of extra spice would have done the least for me!

 The best dish was the vegetable curry casserole which came in the actual cast iron casserole they cooked it in; they placed it over a small burner which I thought was pretty cool. It was a brothy-casserole rich in curry flavor with the right amount of heat.

Vegetable Curry Casserole...well no baking involved here!
Brothy Curry Casserole - the star of the afternoon

Overall, I'd recommend Banana Leaf to anyone who loves Asian cuisine. Malay food offers a good range of flavors and Banana Leaf is a good start. I'm looking forward to my next meal there - still have 219 dishes to sample!

'Woking' on the good stuff

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Houston - Melange Creperie

Where to eat in Houston?

Crepes - the national dish of France, a standard on breakfast menus is found all over the world; a friend of mine mentioned she ate street-side crepes in Thailand! So if you are in Midtown Houston (Fourth Ward to be exact) and care for some tasty, sumptuous and healthy crepes, Melange Creperie is your answer. Before you head there, be aware that this is no dining experience - this is a one-man-crepe-station on a parking lot! Sean runs the marvelous mobile creperie on the parking lot of Mango's on Westheimer & Taft. You can go online to his twitter account to find out his timings and menu.
His menu consists of no more than 4-5 different crepes - a mix of a few standard crepes along with the seasonal ones. There's the ham-egg-cheese, Texas ratatouille (yes, mixed veggies), banana nutella (nutella goes with anything rt?!) and my fav - toasted coconut and mango! Along with the crepes, Sean dishes out some trade secrets on his ingredients and where he acquired this art - all good marketing strategies. One crepe fills you up pretty good and it cost around 6 bucks - not a bad start to the weekend. I wish he had a pot of coffee going on as well - if you can make crepes on a parking lot, coffee shouldn't be that difficult! Great guy selling some very good crepes.

If I lived in the midtown area, I would be a regular at Melange Creperie . Remember to take a bottle of water, cos he sells only crepes!
Sean - The Crepe Master
Texas Ratatouille - fresh veggies inside a hot crepe
Banana NUTELLA! This was yummm and a crowd fav!
Seasonal stuff this - Toasted coconut and mango! This hit the spot :-)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Where to eat in Jamaica?

Okay, got to admit...I'm cheating a bit here - I should call this post "Where to eat in Negril" and not Jamaica; Negril is a beach town that's on the western end of this tiny island nation. Before I start detailing the lip-smacking delicacies that this part of Jamaica has to offer, I have to describe the laid back - relaxed attitude of the people here. It's almost as if they got no concept of time...remember the final snowy mountain fortress scene from the movie Inception? Imagine that pace to reflect our current think of the ultra-slo-mo scene where Yusuf is driving the van down the bridge - that's Jamaica for you! And in a way, it does affect your restaurant experience. Never go to a resto in Jamaica when you are really hungry and expect the food to be on your table in a jiffy; you just won't get it for a while....period! So leave behind the fast-food-drive-thru-"I'm not getting any quick service here" attitude behind before you step into this beautiful island. I should mention here that my good friend Karthik accompanied me on my culinary adventure - whether it was savouring spicy jerk chicken or taking a shot of the local drink - FBM.

Now to the good part!

Bourbon Beach - Jerk is actually a good word here!
When you think Jamaica, you think 'Jamaican Jerk' - the quintessential Jamaican flavor that you thought you tasted in your local Wings-Stop or Buffalo Wild Wings. just thought you did! When we wanted to taste some local jerk in Negril, we let our tour guide help find us an authentic place and he took us to Bourbon Beach, a beach front casual diner where all they make for you is Jerk Chicken. It was a one man - two women operation (and a bar tender tending to an empty bar). The guy was an exec-chef - sous-chef combo and the two ladies were managers cum expediters, though we did most of the expediting! But you know what, I coudn't care less - all I wanted to know was how the jerk chicken tasted....and boy it tasted goood! The meat is seasoned by applying the jerk spice either as a dry-rub or as a marinade. Then it is slow cooked over pimento wood until it's charred....but only in looks. Only when you taste it do you realize that all that black charred pieces of meat have the best jerk flavor - spicy, smoky with nothing burnt! You order them just like their tandoori cousins - 'half' or 'full' and he cuts the meat and pours a blackened sauce on top before packing it in a styrofoam to-go box (yup you guessed it - no crystal and china here!). The sauce is of course the jerk sauce and its bloody hot - if you have a sensitive palette and desire to taste the meat then don't even go near the sauce! The meat was perfect - moist inside, perfectly grilled outside with amazing flavor. And here's the best does not even remotely taste like what you had in BWW! Without a doubt, Bourbon beach is the place to go as far as jerk is concerned!
Bourbon Beach - best bet to fix your jerk cravings in Negril

Showing what he does best

Spicy, smoky and tender...delectable!

Country Country
This was the resort where we stayed - so I would not have sampled these yum breakfast fares otherwise. Two dishes come to my mind are the banana pancakes and the national dish of Jamaica - 'ackee & saltfish'. Let's start with the pancakes. The banana pancake served here is the best example of cooking a simple dish to perfection (which in my opinion is the most difficult thing to do - remember Chef Mehta losing the next Iron Chef battle 'cos he was not able to make decent french fries?!). The pancakes were relatively smaller compared with those in the U.S; something you will get used to in Jamaica. Nevertheless, I ended up ordering 6 of them beauties to keep me happy till lunch! In short, they were hot, buttery, soft on the inside and crispy on the outside with just the right amount of bananas- you get the general idea :-)
The 'Ackee and Saltfish' - Ackee...what again?? I figured there was fish in it....but in salted fish for breakfast? I googled it up later and found out that it is a combination dish made up of Ackee - a West African fruit that has to be cooked in order for it to be edible and Saltfish - simple cod that is dried and salted. It is a Jamaican tradition and the food of the locals. It did not appeal to me as a breakfast item, but Karthik ended up ordering it. The dish looked like scrambled eggs and tasted much like scrambled eggs just that they were extremely salty! They serve it with some calaloo (Jamaican for spinach), banana, fried plantains, dumplings and some fresh fruit. It does have an acquired taste and if you are into fish, just try the ackee by itself.
Banana Pancakes @ Country Country
Ackee and Saltfish

This was my favourite joint. The food, the novelty of the place, the cooking style and the fact that they are open 24 hours makes this place a must try if you are in Jamaica! Howie's is on the route from Negril to YS falls and the perfect pit-stop for you to fill your tummy either before or after the visit to the falls. Truck drivers, tourists, local men and women all flock to this 24 hour highway eatery. The food is cooked on about a dozen huge cauldrons on open wood flame and you are already thinking what a nice place! The menu boast some exotic soups - conch, goats head and beans, curries - chicken and goat, fried chicken and fish, and some mouth watering stews. We had the chicken stew with rice and vegetables along with some of their beans soup. The chicken was spicy and the bean soup with veggies made the whole meal very filling. Chase them down with some Red Stripe, the local beer and you need a nice nap to do some justice to that meal! Howie's is definitely a welcome change from the beach-front, all-inclusive 5-star restaurants that you find peppered all over the island. It offers soulful, cheap, spicy, local fare...we have a winner here!

Howie's HQ Dining
Pots and pots of lip-smacking local fare cooked over pimento wood
Chicken stew with rice, calaloo and festival (the long deep fried bread)

Sweet Spice
How does a restaurant qualify as a mom-and-pop joint? Would it be enough if the place is family owned, operated for more than 20 years, does not have any local branches and serves amazing local food with a distinct flavour? If that is the case, then this place is indeed one. All of us like these mom-and-pop joints for exactly the same reason - the food is unique to that place, there is a certain level of authenticity that makes us believe we are having a good time and the food is prepared in "limited editions" that makes us feel special. People come to such a place for more than just a meal, it's the overall experience. Sweet-Spice is one such local hot-spot. Karthik takes the credit for finding this joint and our driver hinted at ordering conch bits - or conch curry. The curry dishes are their crowd pullers - chicken, lobster, goat, conch to name a few. I tried the conch for the first time and it was very tasty - slightly chewy and tough from what I'd expected. The key, I believe is to marinate the conch for long hours in lime water or pound them hard before cooking. Served again with rice, it was a complete meal. Sweet Spice also serves an amazing list of fresh fruit juices -we got a tropical mix and pina for a change! So next time you are in Negril, ask your driver to take you up to Sweet Spice and get some conch bits...respect mon!

For a real fare of Jamaican home styled cooking - Sweet Spice
some spicy stuff this!
Conch bits with rice

Rick's Cafe
If you want a real taste of the party scene and want to inject some adrenelin to your vacation go to Rick's Cafe. They call themselves the 'World famous Rick's Cafe'. Ricks cafe is beautifully perched on top of the cliffs - the south end of Negril. They are famous for their sunset view, infinity pool, cliff diving and more importantly, their drink list. Two drinks that stood out which also characterize Rick's Cafe are the 'For Her' and 'For Him' drink. To quote directly from their menu, the description goes like this -
For Her: Sex with Rick $6
Vodka, peach schnapps, cranberry juice, OJ, pineapple juice & a splash of cream . . . we’ll respect you in the morning
For Him: Front End Lifter A.K.A. Jamaican Viagra $6
Blended stout beer, white rum, rum cream, clear syrup, oatmeal & one egg topped with chocolate syrup. . . true story
But I was interested in another drink that I'd researched about before I went there - The FBM a.k.a The Flaming Bob Marley, in honor of the true legend of Jamaica. The drink consists of three equal parts - Grenedine spirit at the bottom layer, Creme de Menthe in the middle and topping it with 151 proof Rum served in a tall shot glass. The top layer is then lit and you are given a wet straw to drink it. The idea here is to drink the FBM quickly and in the process, you will notice the flame coming up the straw! And yes, you might wanna stop sucking at that time!! The drink was just alright (the mint liqueur didnt do it for me!) but the idea behind it was kinda cool I thought!
Evening scene at the World Famous Rick's Cafe
The two Flaming Bob Marleys...sitting pretty!

This picture, clicked by Karthik, paints Jamaica best - laid-back, care-free and intoxicating in many different ways....everyting irie, no problem mon!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Where to eat in Hawaii?

When I zeroed in on Hawaii as my next vacation destination, the first thing I did was not to look up ‘places to see’ or ‘things to do’, but researched on ‘MUST EATS’. I did the usual routine of watching the No Reservation and Bizarre Foods episode on Hawaii – two of my favorite shows at that time. I’d made a comprehensive list of places where I wanted to dine and taste some of the most exotic foods of Hawaii. I think I did a decent justice to my list but not to the entire gamut of cuisine that the island state has to offer. The local cuisine along with its heavy foreign influence, Asian in particular is quite amazing. Here is the list of places that I ventured out during my very short 10 day trip to the islands.

Breakfast at Arancino

Arancino, located just outside the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa is a great place to start your lazy day. Beautiful breakfast served at the lanai while you are watching the morning crowd and the waves. The format is pretty simple - you got the buffet to dig into and then you have the 'cook to order' items, but the food - amazing! The buffet by itself is a big spread to fill you up - greens (I'm not a big salad person in the morning....actually I'm not a big salad person period), fresh pastries, spinach & mushroom frittatas, wild rice, variety of cheeses and meats, fresh juice bar and of course the Kona blend coffee! The highlight of the menu is the crepes that this old man dishes outside @ his crepe station - simple, lip-smacking avocado and blueberry crepe full of flavor! For $17 per person, they fit right into your Hawaii budget!

Wild rice and Spinach frittata
Old man and the crepe station
Rolling those beauties
Blueberry and Avocado

Malasadas at Leonard’s Bakery
After reading a lot of reviews on the Malasadas - Portuguese inspired doughnuts, I wanted to try them out. Leonard’s' Bakery on Kapahulu Ave is probably your best bet and you can't go wrong. They are simple deep fried yeast dough confectioneries but the bakers at Leonard’s' add their local touch to it. I got a sampler and it included the 'original' and the stuffed ones - cinnamon, haupia (coconut), chocolate, pineapple and custard. I suggest you eat them or share them right after you buy them, ‘cos the stuffed ones are likely to melt and get soggy within a few hours! You can’t microwave them; it will just lose its natural fluffiness and will taste rather ordinary! And yes, have it with your coffee!

Malasadas by the dozen

Irifune Japanese Restaurant
Oh, we struck gold here! Walking along Kapahulu Ave in search for a nice meal, we pretty much struck gold - a quirky, BYOB, Japanese restaurant that filled the cravings of both the meat eaters and the vegetarians of our group! This is like one of those restaurants that someone living in Honolulu will recommend to you; so to trip and fall into this culinary gold mine was sheer luck! I have to start with what they are known for, what they do real good every day again and again - their Garlic Ahi - amazingly rich, dripping in garlic and butter, prolly the moist of all Ahi's you've had! Need more garlic?? No can get some extra garlic sauce on the side for dipping! When you end up with all that butter and garlic on your hands, you know you are having good food! The sushi was also fresh and my fav was the spicy tuna; the freshness is btw common in most of the island Jap restos. The other item that is a must try is the breaded tofu. Long slices of tender tofu breaded and deep fried served either as an appetizer or along with your entree. We got it with the Japanese Veg curry served with rice. Try the California roll here - it tasted better here even though it’s just rice, cucumber and avocado! And do not forget to buy some Kirin Ichiban or Sapporo from the gas station right next door! Enjoy!

California Rolls and breaded tofu
Breaded tofu with Jap veg curry....I know the photo quality sucks!

Ramen at International Market Place
Among the "must-eats" in Hawaii, I had the Ramen on my list - the noodle soup that is omnipresent in Hawaii thanks to the Japs. While strolling through the International Market Place shopping for some Tiki-God carvings we wandered into the food court. I'm not a big fan of food courts with it's never ending list of chains dishing out micro-waved frozen food. Though this was not your typical mall-styled food court, I was not too enthused about trying out the Ramen here. My options were limited and I was getting hungry, so finally succumbed to trying out the Ramen. I ordered the Teriyaki Chicken Ramen and a shrimp fritter. What’s better to have with your Ramen - some bubble tea! You got to love those tapioca balls! The fact that the one-man-cook-manager-cashier-waiter at this tiny joint took about 10 mins to prep the Ramen made it appear a bit more authentic. Or did he put the 2-min ‘Top-Ramen’ inside the microwave...hmmm I'll never know. The Ramen was not bad actually - came in a midsized bowl all inclusive - chicken strips, dried seaweed, kamaboko (cured fish) rich in miso flavor. I was trying it out for first time so couldn’t really compare or rate it. I liked it! The shrimp fritter was okay - nothing great about the batter. But the Ramen is definitely a "must-eat" in Hawaii; unless you have a trip planned to Kyoto sooner!

Fully loaded Teriyaki Ramen

Eggs 'n' Things
This 35 year old breakfast joint could be the sole reason why you need to take the 8 hour flight across the Pacific to the Islands. Guess what I did the first thing on the first morning at Honolulu? Yes, walked along the Waikiki at 6.00 AM with my dad and dined at Eggs 'n' Things! Why did I go so early? Well two reasons - one I knew and was warned by my fellow food addicts is that this place gets so crowded by 7.00 AM that you end up waiting for almost 90 mins, it's crazy; the long line of people waiting to get in resembles a downtown club at 12.00 AM on Saturday night! Reason #2 - the walk along the Waikiki at sun rise is out of the world! Anyway, coming back to the real deal - the menu here boast traditional breakfast fare - eggs, pancakes, crepes and waffles - their pineapple, blueberry, macadamia nut variations are the crowd favs. I had the much talked about vegetarian omelette and wanted to see what options they had for a side - rice, potatoes and pancakes...wait a min, did you say pancakes as a side? Yes, imagine getting 3 fluffy blueberry macadamia nut pancakes topped with a mountain of whip cream as a side to an omelette?? Next time you are at Denny's try telling them that! The pictures pretty much tell you the rest of the story!
This was the side to your omellete!
My breakfast order - omellete and side of bb pancake

Doing the necessary justice!

Shave ice
Another island tradition is the Shave ice, yet another simple treat - shaved ice topped with different syrups. When the sun is beating down and you are out of beer (which will never happen in reality) you go for the shave ice. I didn’t try it at the legendary Waiola Bakery, but mine was the 'rainbow' flavored and came with a bunch of syrups. If you should try - then go for the one at Waiola Bakery and sample some exotic flavors like lillikoi, green tea, guava, pineapple, strawberry, bubble gum, pina colada, calpico and coke! You could also try the azuki beans and mochi balls toppings!

My niece trying to polish off her shave ice after trekking down the diamond head!

Kona Brewery Co
Every region has its own variation of beers and Hawaii is no different, after all beer is the third most popular drink in the world after water and tea according to Wikipedia! The island of Kona is the home of the "Kona Brewery" and they have 4 different kind of beers each distinct in taste, hops content and aroma as they call it! Unable to tour the brewery for lack of time we were at the end of our holiday sitting at the airport passing time. My dad and I decided to get a drink at the airport bar and guess what - Kona Brewing Co runs the airport bar! Straight away I decided to order the sampler, while my dad settled for his usual. The sampler consisted of the Island Lager, the Pale Ale, Golden Ale and Pipeline Porter. Each one had its typical island first name viz. 'long board', 'big wave' and 'fire rock'! The 1st three were your typical stuff - nice beers that you would drink every day. The last one, Pipeline Porter was the ugly cousin - it is a dark beer where the malt is infused with coffee! Yes, coffee! It did not taste anything like beer and the Kona coffee did not do any justice either! The coffee over powered the malt way too much imho. I was glad my sampler was just around 5 oz. But hey, I've checked one more item from my bucket list - coffee flavored beer!
The pipeline porter on the far left - not like anything you've tasted before!
So the next time you plan to visit Hawaii do not miss these must-eat places!