Monday, October 3, 2016

Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen: More than oysters

Holy moly! I haven't posted on my blog in over a year. It's amazing how much life can change throughout twelve months. I've sold my business, and I have begun a new venture with one of my best friends, Rhonda, called The Fickle Females, so I've been posting there more than this blog or my I Chew and Review Facebook page. Anyway, I still write for PKWY Magazine, so I had the chance to go down to Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen for a tasting.

This ended up being way more than I expected. They are launching a Cicchetti (Happy Hour) menu so I got to sample almost everything on that menu. I really love the small bites concept, and I'm glad to see Mandola's has joined in the trend. Sometimes I like to spend hours at a place snacking, having cocktails and socializing with my friends. Small bites play very well into that.

So here's a visual journey of our feast!

Gulf Oysters on the Half Shell
Baked Brie

We started with a dozen Gulf oysters. I'm pretty new to eating raw foods, but oysters have become something I really enjoy. These were huge and went down so nicely with a big dollop of the fresh horseradish. A great start to the meal. The baked brie was very comforting. The melted cheese spread like butter onto the crostini and the sweet jam accented the flavors nicely.

Bone Marrow
This was one of my favorites. Bone marrow is so buttery but also has a deep richness to it. I've been looking for a good bone marrow since visiting the Salted Pig in Chicago, and this one was really good. It wasn't quite as smooth as The Salted Pig's, but tasty nonetheless.

Prosciutto Asparagus
Peel and Eat Shrimp
You can't go wrong with peel and eat shrimp! These were so sweet and fresh. Everyone at my table really enjoyed them.
Audrey Avocado Crab Bites
Shrimp Empanadas
I like the Mexican twist on some of the dishes here. These crab bites had a green chile salsa which was slightly spicy but didn't overwhelm the crab. The shrimp empanadas were one of my favorite bites served that day. They just tasted like more.

Lobster Deviled Eggs

Ahi Tuna Tower

Smoked Salmon

Key Lime Pie
Needless to say, we left very full and I enjoyed the social aspect of shared bites. You can still of course get full sized entrees at Mandola's and the Cicchetti hours are more limited than standard dining (2-6:30 every day). I can't wait to go back.

For more information, reservations, and operating hours, visit

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


I’ve had some wonderful experiences at Hubbell & Hudson as well as some not-so-great ones, but I had high hopes for Hubbell & Hudson’s latest concept, Cureight. I had been highly anticipating my reservation for over a month, so when the evening finally arrived, I was really excited.  I made sure not to eat much that day in preparation for the eight course meal ($135 per person).

Shortly upon our seating, Adam introduced himself and prepared us for our “culinary journey.” Adam is perhaps one of the best waiters I’ve ever had. He was personable, yet professional, and is a skilled communicator. His service was superior and was an integral part of the evening’s overall experience. The dining area is intimate and elegant, and you are seated where you can see Chef Austin expertly preparing each course.

You have the option of adding on alcohol pairings with each course. We chose the exotic pairing ($75) which included wine, beer, and cocktails.

Amuse Bouche

Hamachi sashimi with coconut pearls, dashi granita and a sliver of jalapeno paired with Goose Island’s Lolita
This was a great start to our meal. This one bite had a little bit of everything from the cold granita to the slight heat of the jalapeno as well as contrasts of salty and sweet.

First Course

Bay scallop, brown butter, tomato hearts, apple, and dashi paired with 2013 Gran Passione, Falanghina, Marche
The visual appeal of this dish was outstanding, as was the taste. I don’t typically eat raw tomatoes, but I wanted to experience the course as it was intended, so I tried it. I’m glad I did. I particularly enjoyed the flavor of the brown butter that hit my palate at the end of the bite. I also really enjoyed the wine with this course. I picked up on a lot of pear notes which complemented the apple in the dish.

Second Course

Chef Austin’s version of Oyster & Pearl with caviar and truffle paired with 2014 Castelvero, Coretese, Piedmont
This is Chef Austin’s tribute to Thomas Keller from French Laundry. This was perhaps my favorite course of the evening which came as a surprise to me considering I really don’t care for truffle; however, this was truffle done right. I tried to eat the soup slowly to savor each creamy spoonful, but it was difficult.

Third Course

Uni, egg dashi, king crab, prosciutto, and tagliatelle pasta paired with Tank 7, Farmhouse Ale, Kansas City, Missouri
With the first two courses being absolute hits, I didn’t think the third could be a hit as well. I was wrong. The uni was so creamy and the sweet crab paired nicely with the salty prosciutto. This is a dish I will think about months from now.  I enjoyed the Tank 7 with grapefruit on the nose but not a hugely bitter aftertaste.

Fourth Course

Pork belly, octopus, apple butter, sriracha, curry, and coriander paired with a lychee martini
This was perhaps the course I was looking forward to the most, but actually ended up being my least favorite. There was just a lot going on with this dish, and I feel like it could almost be separated into two different dishes. This was definitely the most challenging dish to eat given there were so many elements it was hard to get the balance of each flavor correct. The pork and apple butter went together in their tried-and-true fashion, but I feel the curry was completely obscured by the other strong flavors.

Fifth Course

Bread & butter, smoked duck, foie, brioche, and cherry paired with 2013 Van Loveren “African Java,” Pinotage, South Africa
This was a very heavy course, and I was already starting to get a bit full. While delicious, I found it to be a bit too fatty for my liking. The grilled brioche left a greasy residue on my fingers, but it tasted very good with the foie, cherry and duck. The serving of foie was extremely generous, and I felt guilty for leaving more than half of it on my plate. I also found the smoked duck a bit on the chewy side.

Sixth Course

A5 Japanese Wagyu Beef, lobster, kimchee, and burnt onion paired with 2010 Clos Galena, “Formiga de Vellut,” Priorat, Spain
I would say the kimchee was Chef Austin’s interpretation because it didn’t fit my kimchee schema. So putting semantics aside, I enjoyed the combination of flavors in this course.  The burnt onion wasn’t my favorite, so I found myself only using a very small amount of the generous portion. The combination of the beef and lobster was outstanding as usual, but my dining companion felt her lobster was slightly overcooked.

Seventh Course

Pineapple, Basil, Fleur de Sel
This was a nice palate cleanser before dessert. The basil wasn’t too overpowering, and the candied mint leaf was a nice touch

Eighth Course

Almond Tonka Bean Cake, Peaches, Coconut Kaffir Lime Sorbet paired with N.V. Cascina Gilli, Spumante Dolce, Malvasia

This was a perfect ending to an incredible experience. I think I could have eaten an entire bowl of the sous vide peaches. The sous vide process really brought out the color of the peaches, and they were nicely cooked without being mushy.

After the meal, the pastry chef, Nguyet, came out to talk to us for a few minutes about her experience as a pastry chef. I’m impressed with her abilities given she is relatively young, and the same goes for Chef Austin, who also visited our table after our meal was complete. He’s very passionate about what he does, and it was clear after watching him for hours as he prepared our meal, that he is in his element with Cureight.  We discussed the possibility of rotating the menu from time to time, and I think that will eventually happen, but to my delight he said the Oyster and Pearl course will always remain.

After having a few days to reflect on my experience, I have to say the execution was nearly flawless in terms of service and meal presentation. Sometimes when I’m invited to dine somewhere complimentary, I worry I will be treated differently. I watched and listened to the other diners’ experiences, and I have to say, every table was treated with the same level of service we received. 

With eight courses there are going to be some you prefer over others. It’s entirely possible you will love the wagyu while it wasn’t my favorite. You’ll have to visit to make that determination for yourself. 

I highly recommend this unique culinary experience, and we are very fortunate to have something like this in The Woodlands. 

Cureight is reservation-only and is open every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Visit to place your reservation. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Crisp and New in The Woods

With all the growth in The Woodlands, it seems there's a new restaurant opening weekly which has kept us very busy. However, Crisp is one establishment I've been waiting for! Located in the former space of The Black Walnut, it is in a great location with the exception of the parking; however, the evening we went, they were offering complimentary valet service which helped ease that challenge. On my first visit, I went with my good friend and food-writer mentor, HtownChowDown, so be sure to check out his write up of Crisp as well.

First Impressions
The inside is hardly reminiscent of the old Black Walnut, but the layout is still similar. Gone is the ordering counter because thankfully, Crisp is full-service. The overall decor is modern yet comfortable and has a certain warmth to it. The booth seats are a bit shallow, but not the end of the world. The dining area on the left side is surprisingly quiet given that the bar is close by and has a more lively feel.

Crisp opens at 10am which I find interesting, but I'm actually glad. Sometimes I need to grab an early lunch, and am usually limited to the places that are also open for breakfast. Also, in the coming weeks, look for Crisp to start offering brunch on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I'm looking forward to this!

Wine and beer
Our first visit was in the evening, so of course an adult beverage was in order to start off our dinner. I love wine, but I usually depend on Brad at GenuWine to choose my wine for me, so when I'm not there, I find wine selection overwhelming. I need a pocket sommelier. However, I'm also a budding beer nerd, so I was excited to see they had some great local selections. They happened to have Bishop's Barrel 9, so I  ordered that. 

I was also intrigued by their serve yourself  wine machine. I fail to remember the technical term, and calling it a wine vending machine makes it sound cheap, but basically, you insert a pre-paid card, put your wine glass under the wine you want and select your serving size. 

They also serve mixed beverages and have a decent bourbon selection. 

The Food
I've now been to Crisp three times in the span of a week, so I've had a chance to try quite a bit on the menu. I'll hit my personal highlights because I'm a woman of few words (I'm sure some would argue that point). 

Saffron Arancini
This appetizer is very rich, but one of my favorites on the menu. Risotto is mixed with mozzarella, breaded, fried and served with and orange and thyme vinaigrette. They're very creamy, and I couldn't eat a whole one. Definitely a shareable appetizer. 

Crisp's 1/2 pound burger 

A really good burger is hard to find, and although I think Hubbell & Hudson as well as Fielding's have a better burger, this one is quite good. I was a little nervous about the sage mayonnaise because it's not really my thing. I had my waitress bring me a sample so I wouldn't ruin my burger with it, and let me just say that it would be a great salad dressing since all they currently offer is vinaigrette. (Yeah. No ranch here folks, but let's hope they add that. I've heard rumors that people have brought in their own ranch to eat with their pizza.) Anyway, back to the burger. I ordered my burger medium and it came out medium well, but wasn't worth sending back. It was still juicy especially with the addition of a fried egg. The balsamic onions added a nice hint of acidity which complemented the somewhat mild provolone. It's served with basil instead of lettuce which for me, hit me at the tail end of the bite. Overall, a good burger.  And for the folks that like fresh, hand-cut fries, these are for you. 

Death by Brownie

Talk about rich. Wow. They melt their own chocolate for this house-made treat. It wasn't overly sweet, and you definitely need the gelato to help cut the richness of the chocolate. This brownie is great paired with a nice stout beer. 

I find Crisp a welcome addition to The Woodlands. It's locally owned which is increasingly rare for the area, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my three visits there. There have been some dishes I have liked more than others, but I think this is expected. I can't wait to go back and continue to work my way through the menu.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Another Dining Option in Conroe?

When it comes to non-chain dining options, the choices are few in Conroe, so tonight, I decided to give the locally-owned Vero a try before my symphony concert. Their menu is relatively limited to salads, a few pastas and thin crust pizza. Like most places these days, Vero is counter service. That was fine for today because my time was limited. 

Now let's have a little chat about expectations. If you come to a place like this and expect it to be Ciao Bello, you know you're in for a disappointment. You're in Conroe. Set your expectations accordingly. 

I chose the spaghetti and meatballs with a side salad. Because, you know, I needed to carbo-load prior to my concert. Playing the flute can be exhausting. My total was under $10. For dinner! Can't beat that! I was also thrilled to see they had Sonic-esque ice. 

My salad was delivered within a couple of minutes. I was surprised at the portion size. For $1.89, it was a lot of salad. The dressing was slightly tangy and the lettuce was crisp. Score. 

Next up were the spaghetti and meatballs. I liked the sauce, but it needed salt. Easy fix. I hate sauces that are sweet, and this one was not. I prefer meatballs that are a little firm, so I found these to be a little soft for my liking. The flavor was good, however. They were nicely seasoned. 

Many ask if places are "family friendly." I'd have to say Vero is. While I was there, there were 7 children under 2. Now I like kids just fine, but at that age, many are finding their voices, and apparently 3 of the 7 found them tonight. And with the concrete floors and no insulation or ceiling tiles, it was a noisy dining experience. However, a couple with children should feel very comfortable bringing the entire family to Vero. 

All in all, Vero is pretty good for Conroe, and I'll add it into my regular rotation, and would be my choice for Italian in the city limits. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Belt-Busting Brunch Buffet

Brunch buffets seem to be popular on Sundays. I guess people like to stuff themselves silly and then go home to take a nap. I myself am not a huge fan of a buffet, but when I received an invitation to to be a guest of Tony Mandola's to try the 50 foot Sunday Brunch Buffet ($35), I was intrigued. So my Mom and I braved the nasty weather last weekend to give it a try. Like Tony Mandola's regular menu, the buffet has a seafood and Italian focus.

There were many options, and I'll share with you some of the highlights and lowlights in this visual tour of the buffet.

Boiled shrimp and crab claws
These were definitely a highlight. The shrimp were sweet and perfectly cooked. 

Gulf Oysters
I'm not an expert when it comes to raw oysters, but these had a slight briny flavor and seemed very fresh. I went back for seconds.
I can't say the gumbo was a hit. It had a nice dark roux, but lacked the flavor that usually comes with a roux that dark. It was also not very spicy. There are other selections on the buffet that are better.

They have several salads to choose from on this buffet. I didn't eat any of them because who wants to waste valuable stomach space on vegetables? They looked beautiful, however. 

The meatballs had to have been one of my favorite items available. They were nice and tender and were seasoned very well with plenty of garlic. Don't miss these.
Red Snapper
For some reason, I got a picture of the snapper but didn't try it. Isn't he beautiful? 

Prime Rib
Of course I couldn't skip the Prime Rib! I wasn't a huge fan of the rub, but it was still flavorful and a nice addition to the buffet options.

Eggs Benedict
The eggs benedict was pretty good. I felt like the Hollandaise needed a little salt, but I was impressed the yolk was still runny in my egg. I'm accustomed to a stereotypical English muffin with my benedict, and this reminded me more of a biscuit. If I were to visit again, I'd probably put another one of these on my plate.

Fried Chicken and a Waffle
The fried chicken was one of my favorites. Even though the breading was not incredibly crispy, the flavor made up for it. And of course I had to pair it with a waffle. 

Seafood Crepes

 Blueberry Cheesecake

 Bread Pudding
The bread pudding itself was good, but the sauce needed some oomph.


Chocolate Cake
This chocolate cake was hard to stop eating. It was rich, but the chocolate frosting was not overly sweet. I'd go back just for this cake.

Pear Tart

Coconut Cream Pie
The coconut cream pie was another winner. With this pie as well as the pear tart, you could taste the butter in the crusts. That made me happy.

As I was leaving, I asked myself if I would drive back down to Tony Mandola's to eat the buffet again. In short, yes, I would. The service was excellent and the food, even if it was a buffet, was very good. Were there some things that were better than others? Absolutely, but I could easily get my money's worth by filling up on some of my favorites such as the shrimp, oysters, meatballs and friend chicken. And I can't forget the chocolate cake. Oh, the chocolate cake. 
Tony Mandola's is located at 1212 Waugh in Houston. For more information and their hours, visit.