Tue March 25, 2014 4:52 pm By Patricia Sharpe

Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber opened Coltivare, an Italian restaurant in Houston’s Heights neighborhood, in January of this year. Three years ago, they founded an artisan meat market and café named Revival Market, which sold, among other things, cuts of meat and bacon from pigs raised at Weber’s farm in Yoakum. We talked with them by phone in late February.

Patricia Sharpe: I understand you’ve been doing demonstration hog butcherings at Revival Market. 

Ryan Pera, executive chef at Coltivare: We do hog butchering every few months. They are pretty fun. We try to limit it to around 24 participants. I’d say we’ve done around ten now. The response has been incredible. We get a lot of good questions.

PS: Why did you go with Italian cuisine at Coltivare rather than a Texas or regional menu? 

RP: I love Italian food and have an Italian heritage. But I think people in general love Italian. Pizza and pasta are something that people crave multiple times a week. I know I do. I would eat pizza 7 days a week—I can now, which is dangerous. [Laughs.]

PS: Are you trying to supply a lot of the menu from your own ranch and garden?

RP: We do what we can, but there is no way. Take something as simple as onions—I would need an onion farm. Maybe one day. On the other hand, every animal that is slaughtered on Morgan’s farm is brought in and used to its fullest, and every piece of lettuce that we pick from the garden outside gets used. We hope to grow things that we can highlight, like heirloom varietals, and focus dishes around them. 

PS: Tell me about that oven in the corner of the kitchen. It’s used for more than pizzas, right?

RP: It’s called a Josper. It is Spanish-designed but produced here. It uses only charcoal, the same type of equipment that steakhouses use in their high-temperature broilers. I am a firm believer in wood; I don’t like the flavor of gas in a grill. You can close the box and it can get up to 700 or close to1000 degrees. It gives a nice smoky wood flavor on the meats and doesn’t lose the juices. The heat source is on the bottom but when we close it, it can create its own convection inside. We cook a lot of meats in it.

PS: Where are the pizzas cooked?

RP: In the hearth oven. It’s an Italian style domed hearth oven.

PS: Your pizza dough is the same as the focaccia, right? It’s fantastic, by the way.

RP: I feel like I worked on our pizza dough for a good year, with our chef de cuisine, when we were planning and I was doing a good deal of baking at home. We wanted to get the long fermentation and create a high flavor and a crispy exterior but with a very light texture on the inside.

PS: Has anybody griped that it’s not technically pizza dough?

RP: I think it’s a great product whether it’s what somebody is expecting. As long as we can maintain quality, we’ll avoid those arguments.  Also, there are enough styles of pizza, whether it’s New York or Chicago or Neapolitan, that people can accept variety and differences. 

PS: Your n’duja [a type of soft, spreadable salami that they make in-house] reminded me of pimiento cheese! It’s bright red-orange and very smooth.

RP: Believe me, there is no cheese in it. Its’ a fermented product [as all Italian salami is]. We ferment it quickly at almost a poaching temperature. And we add a Texas chile called a Harlingen chile. The n’duja is smooth because of the amount of chiles that we use and the pork fat. That fat is from the animals raised on Morgan’s farm, and it is not like any other pork fat that we’ve ever found. It’s firmer and much more luscious on the tongue.

PS: There was a word—“garum”—that I’ve not seen on a Texas menu before. It’s in the broth used with the mussels.

RP: Right. It’s a fermented fish sauce that dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times. I learned about it when I was an anthropology major in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I actually did my thesis for that class on Apicius [which is a collection of Roman recipes and kitchen instruction compiled in the late fourth or early fifth century AD]. To make money, I was cooking at an Italian restaurant at the same time. I was fascinated with garum, and I finally did try it in Italy a couple of years later. I have always wanted to bring it to a restaurant setting, and now I can. You can get garum on the internet! 

PS: So, Morgan, you did the decor and design? 

Morgan Weber: Yes. We went with old materials because we didn’t want to feel like a new restaurant. We wanted it to feel used and comfortable. I’m always popping into antique shores and getting on eBay looking for things. 

PS: Tell me about the tables. They look well-worn.

MW: The wood on the tables came from an antebellum sugar plantation in Brazoria County. We found it about four years ago. I was told that a lieutenant in the Civil War set up shop there and the wood we used in the tables came from the floor in his office. It was lovingly taken apart. That is the oldest wood in there. 

PS: What else?

MW: The windows that are now mirrors on the east wall of the restaurant are also from the 1860s and 1870s and came out of an old warehouse in Boston, I believe. The wood on the walls came from a house on Houston Avenue here in the city that was torn down, and all of the shiplap that we used to build the banquettes came from houses here in the Heights that were demolished.

PS: The bar front looks like it’s been chewed on, or burrowed into.

MW: It’s pecky cypress, a wood that used to be found in swamps in East Texas and Louisiana, until it was logged out. The texture looks like it has wormholes, but it’s [caused by a fungus]. We had just enough to do the front of the drink bar and front of the kitchen bar; it’s about 130 years old.

PS: There’s something in the restrooms that has a link to your past? 

MW: I grew up in Yoakum, where there was a little Mexican food restaurant. You had to go through the kitchen and an alley to get to the restrooms, where they had a powdered soap dispenser. I was in an antique store last year and saw an old porcelain one that probably came out of a school bathroom, so I started hunting them down. The one in our restroom has become conversation piece.

PS: So you’re doing American cocktails in an Italian restaurant? 

MW: Italy doesn’t have much of a cocktail culture. Yes, there are Italian cocktails like negronis and bellinis, but it has much more depth in its spirits products. The booze they produce lends itself nicely to our American cocktails.

PS: What’s the style here?

MW: I like simple ones that build on classic drinks. I’m not an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink cocktail guy. I feel like in the last five or six years people threw the rules out and started making up their own drinks and mixing whatever they wanted to. You saw farmers’ market cocktails coming in with crazy ingredients. And then people were even making their own gins.

I feel that a company like Lillet has been around for, oh, 150 years and they are incredibly good at making Lillet [a French aperitif]. I leave the booze making to the experts. We have our take on cocktails like the French 75, on the manhattan, on a crusta.  We are trying to use what’s around us but give it an Italian mindset.

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Mon March 24, 2014 5:00 pm By Layne Lynch

Food & Wine magazine released their annual The People’s Best New Chef ballots this morning, and an impressive number of Texas chefs are featured in the virtual competition.

Justin Yu of Oxheart (Houston), Terrence Gallivan & Seth Siegel-Gardner of The Pass & Provisions (Houston), Matt Clouser of Swift’s Attic (Austin), Omar Flores of Driftwood and Casa Rubia (Dallas), Matt McCallister of FT33 (Dallas), Paul Qui of qui (Austin), Andrew Wiseheart of Contigo (Austin), and Brian Zenner of Belly & Trumpet (Dallas) are the nine Texas chefs up for The People’s Best New Chef award in the Southwest region. Yu was also recently named a finalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards’ Best Chef Southwest.

This year’s online awards honors 100 up-and-coming chefs from 10 regions across the U.S. who’ve managed their own kitchens for five years or less. Instead of leaving it up to seasoned magazine editors and celebrated food critics to choose the winners, The People’s Best New Chef relies on consumers to vote online for their personal favorites. Following the preliminary voting stage, the ten regional winners will then move on to the final round where they will compete for the honor of The People’s Best New Chef.

Starting today through Monday, March 31, individuals can vote on the Food & Wine website for their favorite regional chefs. The People’s Best New Chef ten finalists and overall champion will be unveiled on Wednesday, April 2.

Cast your ballot here

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Tue March 18, 2014 12:33 pm By Layne Lynch

The James Beard Foundation Award announced its list of finalists this morning, and a handful of Texas chefs and culinary journalists made it through to the final reaping.

As Texas Monthly reported last month, fourteen chefs and restaurants from across the state were dubbed James Beard Award semifinalists. Today, the nominees for Best Chef Southwest were announced and four of the five are from Texas: three chefs from Houston (Justin Yu of Oxheart, Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s), and one from Austin (Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine). Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap was also honored with a nomination in the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics category.

In the journalism awards, Lisa Fain’s blog, Homesick Texan, was nominated for best Individual Food Blog, and the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook received a second consecutive nomination for the Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review Award for three selected features: “Corkscrew BBQ: a New Houston Classic,” “The Cosmic Soup of Pho Hung,” and “The Pass Unleashes Plates of Playfulness.” The journalism winners will be announced on May 2, three days earlier than the culinary awards, which take place on May 5 at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

Stay tuned for more news.

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Wed March 5, 2014 9:43 am By Patricia Sharpe

One of the most notable Austin openings so far this year, the French restaurant laV (think “la vie”) will finally debut after many months of construction delays and rescheduled city inspections. Slated for last fall, it will open for dinner this Thursday, March 6, barring a natural disaster. Happily, there is no ice, rain, or thundersleet in the weather forecast.

The menu will be Mediterranean, principally Provençal, with the occasional excursion into other cuisines. The executive chef is Allison Jenkins (a Texas native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who worked most recently at the Little Nell hotel in Aspen). Janina O’Leary, also a native Texan, formerly with Trace at the Austin W hotel, has come on as executive pastry chef. An extensive wine program is headed by laV managing partner and sommelier Vilma Mazaite (who worked at Bartolotta in Las Vegas and Babbo in New York). Darren Scott and Rania Zayyat round out the sommelier team. The restaurant’s owners are Houston investment banker and entrepreneur Ralph Eads and his wife Lisa.

The other day I took a guided tour of the building with Mazaite. Although the brick structure looks old—it resembles a rehabbed 1920’s warehouse—laV was actually built last year from the ground up. So while the kitchen and dining rooms are brand new, the deliberately drab exterior paint and an industrial façade keep the building from seeming pretentious and out of sync with its east side surroundings.

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Thu February 27, 2014 3:10 pm By Patricia Sharpe
The Perini Ranch Steakhouse, located in the tiny West Texas town of Buffalo Gap, Texas, is one of the five winners of an America’s Classics designation, a group of awards given annually by the New York–based James Beard Foundation, the nation’s most prestigious culinary organization. According to the foundation, the “America’s Classics Award is given to restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.”  
The proprietors are Perini and his wife Lisa. In an email, Lisa Perini said, “We are so flattered by this award. It’s truly an honor to our entire Perini Ranch team.”
Founded in 1983 by rancher Tom Perini, the steakhouse has become a destination for diners from all over the country, but the restaurant has long been a stalwart in the Texas dining scene. In a December 2007 feature, Texas Monthly ranked the restaurant number three on our list of the 38 best steakhouses in the state, and in April 2011, Tom Perini graced our cover for a story about traditional Texas fare, "Cook Like a Texan."
The foundation described the history of Perini Ranch and its proprietor:
Cowboy cook and rancher Tom Perini made a bold decision in 1983. With oil and cattle prices depressed, he turned a hay barn on his family spread into a restaurant, hoping to draw folks from nearby Abilene. Serving Texas standards with genuine hospitality, he has created a signature rural roadhouse. 
Grilled steaks are the heart of the menu. Tom knew that if he opted for prime beef, he would price himself out of the local market. He chose instead to grill the best choice rib eyes, strips, and filets. The appeal of those steaks owes much to mesquite. The scrubby, thorny trees grow everywhere in this arid terrain. And their coals yield a pungent smoke that perfumes the air. 
Comfort foods and chuck wagon favorites fill out the offerings, including green chile hominy and garlicky cowboy potatoes. For dessert, there’s whiskey-laced bread pudding.
The other four recipients of Classics awards are Hansen’s Sno Bliz, in New Orleans; Nick’s Italian Café in McMinnville,Oregon; Olneyville New York System in Providence, Rhode Island; and Sokolowski’s University Inn in Cleveland, Ohio. 
Honorees will be recognized at a ceremony May 5 at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City. 
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