Washington Corridor Newsletter February 2014 Edition

What’s the buzz on the Washington Corridor?

It’s March in Houston, which means the start of patio weather and all things Rodeo! If you’re like us, and could use a break from all the bar-b-que and fried foods, don’t miss out on Coltivare for your next night on the town. This fresh new Italian restaurant in the Houston Heights is the creation of Revival Market Chef Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber. Located on White Oak Blvd, Coltivare specializes in traditional Italian and is sure to rival any of the competition for best Italian restaurant in town! Coltivare Pizza & Garden, 3320 White Oak, 713-637-4095. Dinner 5-10 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 5-9 p.m. Sundays; closed Tuesdays.)

Coltivare takes fresh approach to Italian

ColtivareRestaurantOn Wednesday, I was on the sidewalk in front of Coltivare at 4:47 p.m., waiting for the doors to open at 5. That’s not where you’d usually find me during the first few days of a restaurant’s life, since I think that it’s hard to tell much at that point.

But having seen Coltivare’s opening menu online, my brain was doing backflips. I just had to taste for myself. Right away.

I’m delighted I jumped the gun. Much of the food from chef Ryan Pera and crew tasted even better than I had imagined. If the kitchen follows this trajectory, Coltivare will challenge Da Marco and Osteria Mazzantini for honors as the best Italian restaurant in town.

What makes the food so special here is not just its very Italian simplicity, but its stirring sense of place. The shaved-fennel salad bursts with Houston’s winter citrus, and its soft avocado and wheels of ripe red jalapeño speak to our collective palate. Good olive oil and a multidimensional burst of aromatic Tellicherry peppercorns brings the whole thing to attention.

That salad works beautifully with a Gulf Coast version of brandade: a “bycatch baccala” of the day’s outlier local fish (vermilion snapper, in this case) cured in salt and then whipped up with potatoes into a soft cloud topped with a bronzy crunch of fine bread crumbs. Its fish flavor was delicate but clear, and the textures, when scooped up with grilled country bread, just riveting.

ColtivareRadishI loved the purity and bite of raw local radishes to dip in soft cultured butter that had a beautiful milky bloom, followed by a dip into coarse Galveston sea salt. What a great starter or palate cleanser that is, and very much of the subtropical winter moment.

Swaggery-salty cotechino sausage, coarsely ground over at sister establishment Revival Market just a few blocks down White Oak, came to the table with a charry, blistered crust that made the casings snap hard. Underneath lay a cushion of the tiniest al dente lentils (a time-honored Italian accompaniment to this cooked pork sausage), underscored by a vivid swoop of pureed butternut squash – an ingenious seasonal swap-out for the traditional mashed potatoes or polenta.

Cotechino with lentils is considered to be a lucky New Year’s dish in Italy, so it’s a perfect fit for the first month of 2014. Even more so in tandem with a salad of pickled butternut squash strips, thin, smooth shards interlaced with Brussels sprouts leaves, walnuts (not very Houston, but what the heck) and the tiniest, airiest croutons. That irresistible, sharp savory note? A dark mince of roasted and balsamic-pickled shallot.

I was curious to try Coltivare’s take on garum, the ancient Roman fish sauce that was used not just as a seasoning but a mask for foods that were heading south. Not that it’s used that way here: cut with a briny edge of capers, the salty sauce gave a brisk lift to poached mussels. You’ll need some cushiony focaccia bread from the wood-burning oven to sop up the garlicky juices.

MeyerlemonPizzaThat same focaccia dough makes a base for Coltivare’s wood-fired pizzas, and the smidgen of sorghum molasses in the dough makes the blistered crown glaze up as shiny as glass. The surface textures fascinate, and a sparingly applied topping of thinly sliced Meyer lemons, goat cheese, olives and rosemary simply sang. I’m persuaded that Meyer lemons are a woefully under-used pizza ingredient.

The pizza tweak yet to be made is an interior layer of uncooked dough that subverts the overall textural effect. I’m not sure what the fix is – a more pulled and thinned-out central base, or adjustments to oven temperature or cooking time? – but when the issue is resolved, this pizza will be magnificent. It goes against the serious Neapolitan current now in play to stand on its idiosyncratic own.

Of the pastas I tried, my favorite was an elemental spaghetti with Parmesan cheese, black pepper and olive oil, all melded into a voluptuous whole by a spoonful or two of starchy pasta cooking water. It’s the quality of the ingredients that made this dish shine: the fragrance of the peppercorns; the bloom of the serious parmigiano; the roundness and fruit of the olive oil. Utterly simple and perfect.

RicottaGnocchiCasarecce twists with oxtail sugo had a deep sherry-vinegar tang that interested me but which seemed to need something to balance it, to talk back in some way. Fat little ricotta gnocchi got a hard pan-sear that left their undersides charry, and the bitterness of wilted mizuna leaves and sweet note of balsamic set them off.

This first time out, I passed on the big-deal plates of whole wood-roasted fish, pork collar with clams and the like in favor of sampling widely from the vegetables and salads that are done so well here. Roasted cauliflower gets an agro-dolce spin with golden raisins and tiny pine nuts, cut by a licorice-y twinge of fresh tarragon.

And charred radicchio, the deep red, bitter green I learned to love in the Veneto, came with shaved bottarga (fish roe) cured in-house at Revival Market, its oceanic pull countered by a burst of lemon. Unforgettable stuff, crowned with translucent shards of Parmesan and a gleaming white anchovy.

Even the rustic desserts fell neatly into place, from the free-form pastry crust of a wood-roasted pear crostata to a wedge of pleasantly gritty polenta cake livened with citrus segments, then softened with a puff of whipped cream and a thread of thyme-flavored honey.

The wood-clad room itself is warm, welcoming and casual, with an open kitchen and all its bustle. The staff is well-drilled on the menu, and Revival Market co-owner Morgan Weber prowls the floor like a proud father. The wine list by Jeb Stuart won’t be in effect until the liquor license comes through, so for the present it’s BYOB.

And despite the fact that Coltivare has jumped on the no-reservations bandwagon, you won’t necessarily have to languish for eons in a sidewalk or vestibule line. Weber and company promise that if you call once the doors open, they’ll put your name and phone number on a list right along with the folks who are physically present. When your name comes up, they’ll call you and give you five minutes to claim your table.

It’s somewhere between democratic and Darwinistic. And with food like this as the reward, I’m not too proud to show up at 5 p.m. and stand on the sidewalk.

(Coltivare Pizza & Garden, 3320 White Oak, 713-637-4095. Dinner 5-10 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 5-9 p.m. Sundays; closed Tuesdays.)

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New homes bigger than ever. Can we really afford them?

Upper class luxury home with intricate stonework and brickI’m dismayed that the single-family homes built this spring were bigger than ever before.

The Census Bureau says the average size of a new home reached 2,642 square feet in the second quarter, topping the previous record high of 2,561 square feet in the first quarter of 2009.

During the recession, contractors were building smaller new homes, and it seemed we were back on a more responsible path when it comes to where we hang our hats.

Not anymore.

In 1972, the average size of new, single-family homes was 1,660 square feeet. Why do we need an extra 900 square feet today?

We don’t. And I fear the housing crash didn’t teach us anything about the hazards of overextending ourselves to buy too much house.

During the early 2000s, too many people spent too much money on homes they could barely afford. Then when one thing went wrong during the recession, such as losing a job, the house went from barely affordable to a financial burden.

The notion that those homes were a great investment — perhaps a family’s only investment — evaporated as tens of thousands of dollars in equity disappeared overnight.

It’s also important to remember that a bigger mortgage isn’t the only way big homes drain your finances.

The larger the house, the more you’ll spend on utility bills, maintenance, homeowners insurance and property taxes.

The costs add up, and add up very quickly.

They leave you with less money to set aside for emergencies or to invest in retirement accounts and college funds.

This is what being house-poor is all about.

Home builders are like car companies; they make more money when they convince us to buy bigger, flashier models.

So their goal is to get us to commit as much of our incomes as they possibly can to housing.

To commit too much of our incomes to housing.

I worry that this kind of stat indicates they’re succeeding.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why larger, more lavish homes are tempting.

I only have one bathroom in my row home, and I would love to have a guest room with bathroom en suite, or at least a half bath downstairs.

The granite counter tops and Viking ranges in some of these kitchens are drool-worthy for someone like me who makes three meals at home a day. I would use the heck out of them.

I’m as impressed as the next guy with soaring foyers, two-story stone fireplaces and rolling back yards.

But do I want to pay for it? No way. Because to do so would stretch my budget to its limits, and that’s not something anyone should do when cheaper and more affordable homes are on the market.

I bought my home in 2007. It was smaller and worth less than what a banker told me I could afford, and despite a Realtor pushing me toward bigger homes (with bigger lawns and roofs and property taxes), I’m glad I bought this 1,160-square-foot place.

During the recession, I lost a few clients and made less money, but I could still pay for my home’s mortgage plus the supporting bills.

Even now, when its value and my work have rebounded, it’s hard for me to think about moving, no matter how loud the siren call of that extra bedroom may be.

I grew up in a 2,000-square-foot home where all four kids shared one bathroom. This much space to myself is like a luxury in comparison.

I don’t want to get caught up in a bigger is better movement. Because, when it comes to our finances, it’s just not.

Article From: Interest.com By: Jen A. Miller

BrianStriegold

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