Bessilyn Piazza's sandtart cookies are out of this world—or soon will be. Recently approved to hitch a ride on the Space Shuttle Discovery (scheduled for an April 5 launch), Mrs. Piazza's cookies are headed to the International Space Station.

The melt-in-your-mouth cookies have been enjoyed by patrons of Bessilyn's restaurant, The Italian Cafe in Seabrook, for over 20 years. But when one customer requested a batch of cookies for special delivery, NASA called in the order. The customer is Colonel Timothy J. Creamer, Flight Engineer and NASA Science Officer, who is currently living and working aboard the International Space Station. Following standard procedure for crew requests, NASA contacted Bessilyn and obtained a batch of cookies for microbiological testing. One week later, the space-bound "to go" order was approved.

"My feet haven't touched the ground since I received the news," says Bessilyn. "This is something I never dreamed would happen. I'm still on cloud nine."

The original sandtart recipe hails from Bessilyn's late mother, who baked the Italian wedding-style cookies for years for The Italian Cafe. As demand for the cookies grew by the dozen, Bessilyn relieved her mother of the rolling pin and rolled up her own sleeves. She's been up to her elbows in flour ever since.

"When these cookies board the Space Shuttle in April, it will be the perfect tribute to my mother," says Bessilyn. "I know how proud she would be to see her sandtarts travel into space."

Six sandtart cookies for a mere $2.75 are a regular feature on The Italian Cafe's dessert menu. Shipping is available worldwide—and now off the planet.

(via PR Newswire)

The Houston Chronicle is reporting that John Tesar has joined DRG Concepts in Dallas.  As we reported, Tesar recently left his position at his self-named Woodlands restaurant.

DRG operates the Dallas Chop House, Dallas Fish Market, Fish Express, and GoFish.  The company announced that Tesar will be working on recipe, menu development, and concept development alongside Corporate Chef Anupam "AJ" Joglekar.

(via Fork and Cork)

We're always on the lookout for new places to eat near the Woodlands, and we received a great tip about a new place.  Called South Street Dining, it's an ambitious new spot on Kuykendahl between the Woodlands and 2920.

We've not visited yet, but from their description:

The chicness of New York hits the heart of Texas in the form of South Street Dining. Here a contemporary atmosphere blends with a creative menu to create a tempting dining destination for locals and travelers alike. The menu is brimming with delightful creations and specialties, with large and small steak portions available. Diners will especially love the tableside service of Chateaubriand that keeps this classic dish fresh and flavorful. Of course, there's an excellent wine list, extensive Scotch collection, and other drink choices to complement every selection. Dining under the restaurant's stone accents and beautiful rustic lighting create a truly memorable experience.

We can't wait to see if the food and experience lives up to the description.  Look for a full review as soon as we check 'em out.

South Street Dining
24914 Kuykendahl Rd.
Spring, Texas 77375

With the whirlwind departure of Chef John Tesar from his self-named restaurant in the Woodlands, we were concerned that the kitchen might be losing its mojo.  After all, John Tesar, the bad boy chef depicted in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, had to be the heart and soul of the place. His sudden departure left us wondering what would become of Tesar's, and of a spectacular hamburger, the Magic.

We decided to find out.  We visited for lunch with a foodie friend, and looked for changes.

And we found them.

The first thing we noticed were subtle changes in the bar / informal dining room.  New linens provided a crisp yet relaxed feel.  Gone were the signs with John Tesar's cartoon likeness, something we always thought was slightly cheesy.

The service was as prompt and professional as always.  We've dined here a half-dozen times, and our server remembered us and our preferences.  The entire vibe of the restaurant was significantly more relaxed and upbeat than before.

Our server suggested that we try a new appetizer, and we took her advice.  What appeared was a lovely tuna tartare, expertly presented over a bed of crushed ice.

The dish combined coarsely chopped tuna, a bit of wasabi-tapiko roe and roasted cashews.  It was served over a mango puree dusted with sesame seeds.  The result was outstanding; the tropical sweetness of the mango balanced the Asian tang of the wasabi, and the cashews provided a crunchy, smoky counterpoint to the aquatic flavor of the tender, fresh tuna.  The roe snapped delightfully on the tongue, adding a small surprise that made us smile.

Next was the main course - the Magic burger, a cheeseburger we consider to be among Houston's very best.  Would the departure of John Tesar ruin this work of beefy art?

We were greeted by this beautifully arranged creation, flanked by the assortment of pickles and the addictive cherry tomatoes marinated with aged balsamic vinegar.  These accouterments had lost none of their zing.  But it was time to sample the burger.

We've tried the Magic on several occasion, but it appears that the new talent in the kitchen has taken this already superlative burger to new heights.  There's something slightly different about the beef; the flavor was even more sublime, and the ooze factor was slighly higher, and perfectly balanced with the melty cheese.

Our curiosity was now piqued; who is the talent behind this even-better burger and the wonderful new appetizer?

The answer comes in two parts.  With the departure of Chef Tesar, two of his sous chefs have been promoted to Co-Executive Chefs.  "Co-Executive Chefs"?  At first this seemed odd to us, but after talking with the chefs, it makes perfect sense.

Helming the kitchen are the new Dynamic Duo - Chef Austin Simmons (left) and Chef Jeramie Robison Jeremy Robinson.  They've been working at Tesar's since it opened.  Both have a strong background working with some of the best in the business, having spent time in the kitchens of John Tesar and Wolfgang Puck.  Each has a slightly different specialty; Chef Simmons focuses on the meat dishes, and Chef Robison's passion is with the fish.

This arrangement is eminently suited to Tesar's.  On one hand, it's a modern steak house, with a wonderful selection of steaks and superlative hamburgers.  On the other, it's a contemporary seafood restaurant, featuring fish from the Gulf Coast and those flown in from around the world.  While it is certainly possible to be a creative genius who can execute both meat and fish dishes, the Simmons/Robison approach has great merit.  These two talented chefs can bounce ideas off of each other, and while each can focus on his particular area of focus, both can contribute ideas to the other side of the menu.

Talking with these two chefs was a delight.  Unlike some executive chefs who believe that they're God's gift to cooking (we won't mention any names) these young men are focused on delighting their patrons, and enjoy the fact that they can practice an art that "they are pretty good at".

If our meal was any indication, "pretty good" doesn't come close to describing their talent.

We walked in concerned that Tesar's would go down hill with the departure of John Tesar.  Now we're confident that Austin Simmons and Jeromy Robison will take this restaurant to even greater heights.  There are now two more young chefs to watch in the Houston area.

Keep an eye on these two.

Tesar's on Urbanspoon

Subway, the huge nationwide sandwich chain, is rolling out its first-ever breakfast offerings, started on April 5.  Products were very well received in a limited test that included many Canadian outlets.

According to Subway:

The sandwiches will be made with omelets- regular eggs or egg whites and cheese -served on English muffins, flatbread or Subway's fresh-baked sub rolls. Options include Western egg and cheese, Black Forest ham and cheese, bacon and cheese and steak, egg and cheese. Customers can add any of Subway's regular lunchtime condiments or vegetables to their order. Prices range from $1.75 for an English muffin melt to $6 for a footlong sandwich.
Prices for breakfast offerings will range from $1.75 to $6.00.  Apparently Subway has decided to pass on the hotly contested value segment for the product rollout.

Subway has also been touting its industry-leading animal welfare policies, including using eggs only from cage-free chickens.

We've seen many things at SXSW, but we've never before seen Bill Murray tending bar

More information is coming out about John Tesar's exit from his eponymous restaurant.  We broke the story last week about Tesar's hasty and unexpected exit, and a whirlwind of speculation has surrounded the chef's moves.

Last night, John Tesar recently spoke with D Magazine's Nancy Nichols about his leaving Tesar's in the Woodlands.  We're quoting the highlights, and you can read the full interview on D Magazine's site.

In short, Tesar is leaving the Houston area, and heading back to Dallas.

NN: Are you coming back to Dallas?
JT: I am coming back to Dallas. Currently I have 2 options. They are two separate entities. I have signed a letter of intent with both. 

Our source for the original story told us quite plainly that Tesar was fired by the restaurant's investors. Tesar himself tells a different story:

NN: So were you fired from Tesar’s in Woodlands?
JT: I voluntarily decided to walk away from Tesar’s. I was not fired; I walked away. It’s not going to effect my future.

Tesar goes on to present his version of what happened:

NN: So give me the short version of what happened?
JT: I do not wish ill on my ex-partners. They enticed me to leave New York when I was with David Burke [at Fish]. I went into the business with good will. I realized that the project was opening in the middle of a recession and was undercapitalized. We started out with three partners and the 2 majority partners [Bill and Hilary Burke] pushed out my main contact. But we built this thing [restaurant] and got good reviews. But they had no experience in the restaurant business and we knew it wasn’t going to make enough to pay me, especially since I have a family.

We're sorry to see John Tesar leave the Woodlands.  He's a very talented chef, and his restaurant raised the bar for both fine dining and great burgers outside the Loop.

When asked about the fate of Tesar's in the Woodlands, the chef made a telling comment:

JT: The restaurant is doing well—just not well enough to pay a John Tesar-style chef. I gave them back my 20 percent and we are still wrangling over things like money the and name.  It’s a good restaurant.

Reading between the lines, it appears that Tesar was expecting from his months-old restaurant the type of salary that an executive chef would receive at mature, successful establishment.  That sounds naive to me; part of the reason a key employee gets equity in a startup is the fact that he's willing to work for less than his normal salary.  The term is "sweat equity", and it's one well known to folks who work in startups.  Sweat equity can make a key employee rich when the business succeeds, but it means that he won't be paid a high salary until the business becomes profitable.  It's a great example of capitalism in action.

Apparently Chef Tesar wanted to have his steak, and eat it too.

Update: We've got some hardcore foodies reading this blog. Most of you (57%) are willing to drive over half an hour to check out a new restaurant. And only 12% stay in your own neighborhood (15 minutes or less).

I'm with you. I live in the Woodlands, and I've driven to Sugar Land (several times) for a great meal.

Houston is big.  From Sugarland to the Woodlands is an hour drive, even when there's no traffic. Today's question:

For how long will you drive to visit a restaurant that you want to try?

Fifteen minutes? Thirty? More?

Our poll is on the right; you can vote anonymously. Thanks for your participation.

Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that Congress passed the most sweeping healthcare reform legislation in decades.  It mandates all sorts of changes in the healthcare industry.  But did you know it also mandates changes for restaurants?

One change that will be obvious: If a restaurant has more than 20 locations, it will have to place calorie information on the menu, so it's easy to read while ordering.

We think this is a provision that's long overdue.  Due to hectic lifestyles, many people, especially in Houston, eat at restaurants several times a week.  It's often difficult or impossible to know how many calories a dish contains, or how many can be saved by choosing between two dishes.

Now the information will be readily available to consumers, and each of us can decide whether or not to factor it into our dining decisions.  We applaud this.

Chef John Tesar is expected to be making an announcement this afternoon about his new, exciting plans.  We'll be posting the news as soon as we get them.

We're hoping that Chef Tesar decides to stay in the Woodlands.  In the few months that it's been open, Tesar's has established itself as the best restaurant in the area.  And it's an area with plenty of hungry residents who don't mind paying for good food, as the success of Jasper's has demonstrated.

While we wait for the announcement, those who enjoy a bit of restaurant biz drama should read the comments in this thread on D Magazine's Side Dish.  There's also some banter on CultureMap surrounding the event, but it's nowhere near as amusing.

One thing's for sure... he's got a fan in "Pastry Lady".  I have a feeling she is the anonymous commenter on our earlier Tesar story.

Chef, you need to hire this woman.  She's got your back.

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