We recently got word of a very interesting project taking place nearby in Spring. On the Rox Sports Bar, an established neighborhood bar, was turning over its kitchen to a talented local chef, Jeff Wetzel. Jeff has a broad background in the kitchen, ranging from casual to fine dining to the country club scene. We've eaten his food before, and Jeff is a very capable cook, but we wondered how his cuisine would translate into a bar setting.
Bars are interesting places for food. Great bars often have mediocre food, and bars that specialize in great food are often not very good bars. Also, bar patrons typically don't want the kind of dishes that talented chefs like to create; they're often too fussy and require too much attention to eat. Bar food needs to be easy to eat, satisfying, and based on something familiar.
How would this talented chef tackle this challenge? We went in to find out. Jeff invited us to sample the food from his upcoming menu; he plans to roll out these dishes on April 6.
First up was a starter, and it got my attention immediately. Naughty Bacon Bleu Cheese Chips consist of fresh, hand-cut potato chips, chunks of applewood-smoked bacon, and chives. It's all covered with a creamy bleu cheese sauce, and chunks of fresh bleu cheese. While similar in concept to the signature appetizer at Jasper's the addition of bacon and chives takes this dish to the next level. We were off to an auspicious start.
Next up was the bar staple - buffalo wings. We've sampled dozens of versions of buffalo wings, and few measure up to the original. For us, the flavor of Frank's hot sauce is a Platonic ideal for buffalo wings, and the farther away you get, the more the dish suffers. Jeff puts his twist on the iconic bar dish by smoking the naked wings, combining a handful of chives, and then dressing them with... Frank's hot sauce. That's a tough decision that goes against the instincts of a man who can create great sauces, but it's the right one. We approve.
After these appetizers, it was time to get to the main course(s). Jeff presented his take on the BLT - he calls it the Bloody Mary BLT. It's built on a foundation of in-house baked rosemary bread, dense and slightly crusty. On this tasty base he layers applewood-smoked thick-cut bacon, celery root slaw, and slices of beefsteak tomatoes marinated in Absolute Peppar vodka. The BLT is finished with chive creme fraiche, and a tangy balsamic syrup. This became quickly one of our favorite BLTs; the layers of flavors formed a complexity that typically isn't seen in this lunch staple. The herbal rosemary combines with the smoky, savory bacon, and the blast of acid from the balsamic, reigned in with a touch of sweetness, was masterful.
The sandwich was served with fresh-cut fries, expertly fried. Good fresh-cut fries are tough to make, and apparently Jeff sold his soul at some point, because he has been entrusted with the secret.
Continuing the sandwich theme, we dug into the Puerco Sucio. The formula is simple: Take seared confit pork belly, dress with chipotle aioli. Combine with slices of baked apples and a bit of celery root slaw, and serve on housemade ciabatta. The resulting sandwich is much leaner than the pork belly you find around town, and we found the better meat-to-fat ratio to be a good one. The smoky pork played off the sweet apples and the creamy slaw, and the result was a very good sandwich.
Our final sandwich was a new twist on the humble chicken sandwich. Called Pollo Loco, an adobo-marinated chicken breast is chargrilled, then dressed with havarti and mango radish salsa and presented on ciabatta. Chicken sandwiches can be boring, but this one was not. The mango radish salsa was an inspired choice; again, a complex, layered flavor profile makes for an interesting dish.
Jeff could sense that we were nearing capacity for the tasting -- it was tough not to finish each of the dishes he put in front of us. So he brought out one last item to try, a simple flatbread. On top of the housemade flatbread were slices of pear, melted brie, and a generous helping of arugula, all drizzled with high quality white truffle oil. This was a refreshingly light dish, refreshing yet hearty enough not to leave us craving something else.
We went into Chef Wetzel's tasting with a good degree of skepticism, but this talented chef dispelled it handily. He showed his chops, and delivered elevated version of classic bar food that would be right at home on the lunch menu of a fine restaurant. We look forward to sampling more of his creations in the very near future.
On the Rox Bar | 8905 Louetta Rd., Spring TX 77379 | 281-320-2911
We popped into the new Levure Bakery, in the Woodlands Creekside Park village center for a pre-opening run-though. The bakery was in training mode; the fresh-faced staff eagerly helping the handful of customers invited for the preview. The bakery is scheduled to open on Thursday, March 12.
A limited menu was in effect for the run-through. We selected a grilled sandwich: Brie + Apricot + Ham. It was served with a house salad of arugula, orange, and walnuts, topped with a champagne vinaigrette. The crusty Leuvre bread had a satisfying crunch, and the creamy cheese was the dominant flavor. We enjoyed the sandwich a great deal.
We also picked up one of the bakery's baguettes, which were beautifully crusty and brown. It will be devoured later today.
We think Levure will be a great addition to the neighborhood, and look forward to returning for a full review when they're up and running.
As Tony would say, "Fuggedaboutit."
It's no secret that we're fans of Hubbell & Hudson, the gourmet grocer, restaurant, and cooking school located in the Woodlands Waterway district. Whether we're searching for gourmet ingredients for a special dish or a great meal prepared by the Woodlands best chef, Hubbell & Hudson is our go-to destination for all things foodie.
We've enjoyed each menu that Executive Chef Austin Simmons has rolled out in the upscale Bistro, but we'd heard rumors of more humble changes that piqued our interest. The Sandwich Bar, located in the Market, has been undergoing changes, and we were anxious to check out the results.
|Sous Chef Fiorella Casteel and a member of her kitchen staff|
The changes start at the helm, with Sous Chef Fiorella Casteel serving as Chef Simmon's field marshall at the Sandwich Bar. Chef Casteel brings a wealth of east-coast kitchen experience to the Woodlands, and appointing a sous chef to head up this casual spot shows how serious Hubbell & Hudson is about the quality of their sandwich (and burger) offerings.
The chefs have rolled out a slate of new dishes, and at a recent tasting we sampled several of the new hot signature sandwiches.
We started with the Prime Rib sandwich. Thickly sliced, medium-rare Angus prime rib is used, and it's cooked to a beautiful medium rare and then seared to give it a tasty char. Fresh red peppers, caramelized onions, greens, and an intriguing roast red pepper hummus finish off this sandwich, and it's constructed on a gently toasted slice of garlicky tomato bread. The chefs have a winner here - it's easily one of the best prime rib sandwiches I've ever tasted, and the unexpected spicy hummus is a clever counterpoint to the rich beefy flavor of the generous slab of prime rib.
Next up was the Crab Cake sandwich. A generously sized lump crabmeat cake is dressed with wasabi mayonaise, lettuce, and chunks of bright red tomato, and the result is served on an English muffin. As you can see from the photo, Hubbell & Hudson doesn't skimp on the crab cake, and we think this dish will please any seafood fan.
We now travel south to the Caribbean for the Not So Cuban Cuban, a modern take on the traditional Cuban sandwich. Both freshly roasted pork and black forest ham are joined by baby swiss and the de rigueur pickle slices, dressed with a spicy Asian sauce and slid between two slices of ciabatta bread. We loved the sandwich and were in awe of the stellar Slow Dough ciabatta, but felt that the spicy Asian sauce overpowered the sandwich. We'd suggest asking for light sauce for a more balanced dish unless you crave hot sauce.
The final offering was perhaps the most unique. Named the Seoul Pork sandwich, it is an Asian spin on a chopped BBQ sandwich. Shredded Asian bacon slaw, wasabi mayo and chopped roasted pork are combined with a sweet honey sesame glaze and served on a toasted challah bun. It's an unexpected combination that works - the rich roast pork and smoky bacon are complimented by the crisp slaw, and the spicy wasabi mayo is offset by the sweet glaze. The combination works - this is a sandwich we will order often.
We think that these sandwiches highlight the creativity and attention to detail that is the hallmark of Hubbell & Hudson's restaurants under the leadership of Chef Austin Simmons. As always, the chef both surprised and delighted us with unexpected flavor profiles that work on the plate even better than they do on paper. We're looking forward to sampling the next offerings from this talented chef.
Hubbell & Hudson Burger Bar | 24 Waterway Ave | The Woodlands, TX 77380 | 281-203-5600
We were out in the far northwest reaches of the Woodlands last Sunday, and had an hour to kill. We headed out to the newish center at the intersection of 1488 and 2978.
This area used to literally be BFE, because the map shows the town of Egypt at that intersection. It's amazing how it has grown up in the past few years.
Searching around, we saw a Which Wich shop, and we'd never visited one, so our choice was made.
Upon entering, we were faced with a display filled with hundreds of small paper bags, and a wall explaining everything. The Which Wich concept is different: Pick the bag that corresponds to the category of sandwich you want, then customize by ticking off the appropriate boxes on the bag. Hand it over, and in a few minutes, you get it back, filled with a sandwich build to your specs.
The choices looked interesting; we were in the mood for something Italian, so we went with their Muffuletta. It's a mixture of salami, ham, and their olive salad. We added a bit of garlic and provolone cheese, and handed over our bag.
Part of the concept is that almost all the sandwiches cost the same - about $5.50. Adding chips and a drink bring the total to around $8; not cheap, but not outrageous either.
On this slow Sunday, we waited and waited. Unlike Subway or the other sandwich shops we've visited, Which Wich has one person making sandwiches, which slows things down considerably. The sandwiches are also made behind a tall counter, so you can't observe the work or the ingredients.
Our name was called, and we retrieved our sandwich. In an era of huge portions and too much food on the plate, Which Wich was a surprise... the sandwich was small, perhaps 5" long, and it wasn't exactly overstuffed with ingredients. The flavor was OK; a little too much olive salad, not enough meat and cheese.
All in all, we were disappointed. The place has promise, but the value side of the equation is off. When the market leader is offering a footlong sandwich stuffed with ingredients for $5, paying more for a sandwich that's less than half the size and with skimpy ingredients just doesn't make sense.
Which Wich: 6619 FM 1488, Magnolia, Texas 77354, 832-934-3034
Spicy Pickle, the fast casual sandwich spot from Denver, announced that its new Houston franchisee has signed a lease for their first site and is actively pursuing additional locations. The first site is scheduled to open in the spring of this year.
From their web site:
"Spicy Pickle restaurants serve high quality meats and fine Italian Artisan breads along with a wide choice of 10 different cheeses, 21 different toppings, and 15 proprietary spreads to create healthy and delicious panini and sub sandwiches with flavors from around the world. There are over 150,000 delicious sandwich combinations for you to create, along with 8 specialty panini sandwiches that have become favorites of our customers."
Nationwide, the company notes that development has slowed considerably for the Spicy Pickle chain in the United States, but some expansion possibilities continue to exist. Bank financing for new franchise opportunities is simply not available in the current climate, and expansion will continue to be limited until capital becomes more readily available.