My AFC Wild Card Cook-Off: Houston vs Buffalo

In celebration of the NFL playoffs this year, I have decided to pay homage for foods well known in the participating cities. Even if I haven’t been to some of the cities, it’s not hard to find a few culinary gems one can recreate in the comfort of their own kitchen.

After watching the game itself, I can draw a few conclusions:

  1. Buffalo is cursed. Josh Allen does appear to have the tools necessary to win a few games but he’s gotta learn how to use them. At 6’5″, he pitches the ball versus throws it which certainly isn’t helped by the fact, as an announcer put it, his receiving core are “smurfs”. His naivety was clear in the 4th quarter where he literally pulled his team out of field goal range and handed Houston the win.
  2. American announcers have a hard-on for JJ Watt. It became nauseating listening to those clowns suggest that JJ’s sack was the turning point in the game and that anybody who could even dream of returning from pectoral surgery so quickly is nothing short of a god. The man love was truly nauseating and a reminder of why I mute sports events at times, especially given the fact they mic’d him up and we all got to hear his Tony Robbins’ motivational crap all game.
  3. Watching DeShaun Watson it like watching a roulette wheel spin and you have the house on red. Events like his Houdini move in this game remind us he’s far from a sure thing and that JJ Watt probably had something to do with it anyway.

The food showdown involved a menu of items representative of the two cities. This one was a bit easy…ribs vs wings. In order to up the ante a bit I added a few other dishes; Texas Caviar and Western New York’s famed sandwich… the beef on weck. I haven’t been to Houston but it’s culinary scene seems to be improving. I also have a good friend there so it’s on my list for 2020. I have been to Buffalo numerous times (the last time to watch the Bills beat the Flaccoless Broncos) and have had the privilege of indulging in a Charlie the Butcher’s beef on weck. I have also dropped by the original Anchor bar to pig out on a platter of wings.

It started with making some Texas BBQ sauce. Although there are no shortage of online renditions of Lone Star sauces, there are a few commonalities which include a good amount of sugar and lots of apple cider vinegar. In the end, I opted for Aaron Franklin’s Masterclass recipe which in the end was a perky and more biting version of many of the sauces sold on store shelves. The back ribs were slowly cooked (275 degrees)for a few hours and the sauces was added for the last 30 and the temp upped a few degrees which resulted in a slight caramelization but a maintenance of the strong vinegar flavour.

Texas caviar is a side dish open to creative interpretation as well. Usually it consists of some combination of the following ingredients: black-eyed peas and/or black beans, peppers, jalapeno, tomato, onion and avocado. Then it is usually dressed with some kind of vinaigrette ranging from Italian dressing to an olive oil with red or white wine vinegar. I used all the above ingredients to maximize taste and texture and finished it with aforementioned olive oil/red wine vinegar combination. The subtle acid nicely cut the fattiness of the other dishes and provided a bit of refreshment similar to smart Josh Allen play in the second half if you happen to be a Bills’ fan.

Texas Caviar

I cook wings all the time and opted for a straight forward oven-baked version sauced with hot sauce and butter in typical buffalo style. When it comes to wings, there are no fancy sides necessary…celery and carrots with a tub of blue cheese works every time. I often go full out deep fry but I was kind of drunk and lazy by this point.

Wings…Carrots and Celery Missing..I was a little sauced myself.

Since wings are pretty easy I tackled the famed beef on weck as well. I seasoned up an outside round and threw in the oven for a few hours (at the same temperature as the ribs) until it was medium. After a rest, I sliced it up and through on some homemade Weck buns (ensuring to leave the polarizing caraway seeds off half the batch). I wasn’t the biggest fan of this recipe which called for almost 25 minutes of bake time at 425 which would have turned them into footballs even Tom Brady couldn’t deflate. They were a little dense for my liking but gives me something to work on for next year..just like Josh. In the end, it was no Charlie the butcher but made for a great pigskin snack.

For dessert I went with a dish from the eventual game winner; Texas bread pudding with a Whisky butter sauce. It was a pretty standard pudding using some old buns and brioche I had kicking around (I wouldn’t recommend the weck buns given the caraway!). I threw in some raisins and pecans for good measure. The whisky sauce called for 1/3 cup of bourbon which retrospectively was a bit much reminding that everything (including the risk of getting drunk off dessert) is in fact bigger in Texas.

Texas Bread Pudding with Whisky Butter Sauce

My Take

Although not a game for the Super Bowl, “wide right” may be tempered somewhat by “don’t get sacked when you’re in field goal range in overtime” or “I don’t give a shit if he’s Houdini…tackle him”. As for the food, both regions represent great party foods. The BBQ sauce was tangier than I’m used to buying and would almost pass as a good wing sauce as well. The Texas caviar would shut the pie holes of any vegan viewers (or you could just slap down some carrots and celery and keep the extra blue cheese for your wings). For dessert, I suspect many Bills fans would have ignored the pudding and lapped up the Whisky sauce as a new way to drown this decade’s new football sorrow.

Review:Little Italy and Portugal Village:Darwin

So a family from Bangladesh opens a french bistro in Little Italy and names it after an English naturalist.  That’s Darwin.  OK…allow me to put it into perspective.  The owners did hire a french chef and even though it’s in Little Italy, it joins the onslaught of non-Mediterranean restaurants (Bar Isabel, Bestellen and Woodlot for example) which has opened in the area.  Finally, according to the owners, the name pays homage to a man who adhered to a philosophy of  “survival of the fittest”, a saying which is especially pertinent in the restaurant business.

I took one look at the  menu and was intrigued to check it out. In essence,  it’s primarily a French menu with some international flare at very reasonable prices. For example, most appetizers and cocktails are under  $10  bucks and the 12 oz steak and frites comes in at $25.

Unfortunately, I picked the night of the great flood of 2013 to venture out.  Thinking it was a good thing that humans evolved from fish, I waded down College St.,  umbrella in hand  and found my destination at College and Grace.  Not surprisingly, it wasn’t too busy although a table of four older ladies was keeping the place alive. The decor is modern, a fusion of a traditional bistro and a trattoria. It’s a narrow space with a full wall mirror on one side and brick wall on the other (so it looks a bit bigger) that ends suddenly at a largish wooden bar that matches the rustic accented tables (although the legs are central so I did the stupid almost tip the table over thing a couple of times).   There was one waiter who was a pleasant and knowledgeable  guy with 15 years in the business who was most insightful and attentive during the evening.

An interesting  twist on the classic drink,  I started with a maple old fashioned made with Crown Royal  in conjunction with the  traditional ingredients and a touch of maple syrup.  It was a pleasant blend and without abundant sweetness.

Maple Old-Fashioned $10
Maple Old-Fashioned $10

I opted for the shrimp cocktail ($10) which was also a  spin on the original.  The shrimp were spiced, cooked and served warm on a bed of creamed avocado. The menu promised mango as well, but I find the tiny cubes were few and far between, adding little to the dish.  The avocado was fresh and simple and lacked the additional flavours present in guacamole and other popular dips and spreads.  The shrimp was a little salty and swam in an excessive amount of green but there was a balance which made it pretty good.

Avocado Shrimp Cocktail $10
Avocado Shrimp Cocktail $10

The moules and frites ($12) were another classic dish presented with a twist. The broth was reminiscent of a tom yum soup, bursting with south asian flavours.  It was served with a spoon, an addition the very helpful waiter admitted was an afterthought after numerous requests.  I found myself lapping the broth up as well.  The frites were delicately done, fried  “just to done” and seasoned with perfect amounts salt and rosemary.  I would have loved a half a french baguette (for authenticity you know) to soak up all the remaining broth.

Moules and Frties $12
Moules and Frties $12

I shied away from the steak frites and instead went for the sauteed chicken on aligot mashed potato, a classic french dish. The chicken was moist although a bit underseasoned.  The potatoes were surprisingly light and swam in a pool of tasty sauce. Overall, it was a decent dish and came in at an impressive $18. I paired it with a  glass of Domaine de Joy “Cuvee Etolle” Blanc from France at a very reasonable $9.

Sauteed Chicken with Aligot Mashed Potatoes $18
Sauteed Chicken with Aligot Mashed Potatoes $18

On another note, I love sorrel and each of the dishes was garnished with this delightful and underutilized herb. It has a great taste, a mix of earthy, acid and sweet which complements most dishes quite nicely.

Although there is no formal dessert menu, there are a few choices which include a rum, banana bread pudding and homemade lemon tart.  I opted for the former.  It’s prepared individually in a ceramic dish and doused with chocolate sauce.  I’m normally not a fan of chocolate in general, especially on bread pudding but this sauce was stunning, a perfect balance of sweet and bitter.  In general, the dessert was not sickly sweet and the cloud-like bread mixed with the smooth sauce and small scoop of ice cream was textural bliss.  The accompanying cappuccino was not great, but maybe we will leave that one to the Italians.

Bread Pudding
Bread Pudding

My Take

This place reminds me that good food can still be served at a reasonable price, a near forgotten philosophy that has kept many  restaurants in business for decades.  Not only was Darwin known for his belief in “survival of the fittest” ( by the way, for Jeopardy fans the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin), he was obviously known for his theory of evolution, another concept important in the survival of a restaurant.  Darwin has plans…big plans. The waiter offered a quick tour of the large back patio which will be a stellar hangout once it is licensed.  The idea is to have a raw bar and grill given the fact that the kitchen is quite small and would have difficulty handling more than the 35 or so seats in the main dining room. The menu is also under constant revision.  Recently, the duck breast has been replaced with confit; the trout with salmon.

Darwin has a fresh decor and a decent menu with refreshing pricing.  There are a number of cocktails and appetizers under $10 and no entrees for more than $25.  Despite the prices, there is no compromise when it came to quality.  The highlights were the moules (sneak in a baguette) and the bread pudding.  The key to success will be an adherence to the foundations of the french menu without the standard pretension and pricing of other bistros coupled with an evolutionary philosophy and a damn good back patio…and maybe some help from Noah’s Ark on night’s like this..but wait…it is called Darwin afterall. charles-darwin-1Darwin Bistro & Bar on Urbanspoon