The Union Kitchen

September 24, 2014 – My mother, Mari Rich, is 88 today!  She lives with my stepfather, Paul, on an idyllic piece of East Texas woodland about 40 miles or so northwest of Houston.  Whenever I fly coast to coast I always try to stop for a couple of days just to check on her.  The truth is she’s so active I can’t keep up with her.

She called me recently while I was  in Washington, D.C., to tell me that she had found a new restaurant she thought I would like.  As it happened the restaurant my mother had in mind was in Kingwood, roughly about halfway between her house and his.  Sounded like a plan was developing.

The Union Kitchen was the brainchild of Paul Miller while he was still in college.  He had in mind an upscale restaurant with the atmosphere of a neighborhood favorite.  And that’s exactly what he and his partner, Executive Chef Juan Arellano, created.  In addition to the Kingwood restaurant they have two other locations in Houston itself.

In Kingwood, the room is all dark wood and leather.  It’s a warm room.  Comfortable.  The kind of place that has a private room where local civic clubs meet.  As a matter of fact the Red Hat group that my mother founded in the area has its lunch meetings there from time to time.

As we perused our menus I began to understand Miller and Arellano’s concept of food.  They are seeking to provide a “global cuisine with southern hospitality.”  The dishes offered are indeed global but with a southern twist.

For instance, the entrée I couldn’t resist.  Osso Bucco is one of my favorite dishes.  It is usually made with a shank of veal.  Sometimes a shank of lamb.  The Union Kitchen’s offering is labeled “Porkobucco.”  A classic global dish southern style.

In an Osso Bucco the shank of whatever is slow-cooked and should be falling off the bone, fork tender.  It’s a quality not that difficult to achieve with veal or lamb.  But I wondered if a pork shank could be that tender.  I needn’t have been concerned.

The pork shank placed in front of me rested on the traditional bed of mashed potatoes and was surrounded by slices of zucchini and yellow squash.  I tested the shank with my fork and, sure enough, there was no need for a knife.  Fork tender.  Falling off the bone.  Succulent.

No one but me was really interested in dessert.  But again the Union Kitchen offered something I wanted to try.  A pair of free form crème brulees.  One the traditional custard; the other chocolate.  Again a twist on a traditional global dish.  Delightful.

A few all too rare hours with family.  Food worth fighting Houston traffic for.  It was a good night.

Oh, and happy birthday to my mother!

Chez Nous

July 23, 2013 – We turned into a residential neighborhood in Humble, Texas, just a few miles northeast of Houston.  The First United Methodist Church was on the corner. We’re in southeast Texas.  Land of brisket and beer.  And anything fried.  This evening we’re looking for a fine French restaurant in a residential neighborhood.

We drove two blocks past neatly kept houses to a red building with several cars parked in front of it, more cars parked in front of the house next door, also red.  We had arrived at Chez Nous.

For the first time in many years I was with my mother, Mari, on my birthday.  She and her husband, Paul, were treating me to a birthday dinner the evening before the big day.  Knowing my love of good food, she had dutifully researched the restaurants in the area.  She found a winner.

The building had been a Pentacostal church until 1984 when Gerard Brach turned it into an exceedingly fine French restaurant.  Brach himself is French and learned his way around the kitchen in his native land.  Eventually making his way to New York he found himself in the kitchen of the Four Seasons Restaurant.  He spent the ‘70s working as a restaurant consultant but found he missed the hustle and bustle of the kitchen.  So he sold his business and, he says, just “for the fun of it” made his way to east Texas to open Chez Nous.

He was eventually joined by current Executive Chef and Texas native Stacy Crowe and her husband, Maitre d’ Scott Simonson, who became co-owners.  Stacy and Scott had met when they were both learning their trade in France.  They now live with their daughter in the house next door to the restaurant.  That explains their patience with the cars parked pretty much in their front yard.

Chef Crowe was in charge on this night.  When I visited the small but efficient kitchen later in the evening I found an attractive, all-American young woman with an infectious smile who exudes enthusiasm.  Clearly a woman who loves what she does for a living and is very good at it.

Stepping out of the hot, humid Texas evening into the quiet cool of Chez Nous, we were immediately impressed with the room.  Nicely appointed.  Comfortable.  Elegant.

Settled at our table and opening the cocktail menu I was very pleased to see the Chez Nous 75, a version of the French 75, my favorite cocktail.  Had to try it.  The Chez Nous 75 uses the traditional recipe for a French 75, making it their own by adding a touch of peach liqueur and a dash of Grand Marnier.  It’s refreshingly peachy.  Delicious.  I ordered another.

But my eyes really lit up when I saw the foie gras on the menu.  Served with caramelized apple, berries, and a honey vinegar gastrique, it was smooth and creamy.  So pleasing to the palate.  Just made me want to close my eyes to focus more on the delicate flavor.

I ordered rack of lamb for an entrée.  The ribs were sliced at table by Rebecca, who arranged the small marvels in a beautiful circular presentation, accompanied by a side dish of mashed potatoes, a packet of haricot vert and a mélange of yellow squash and zucchini.  While the ribs were closer to medium than to the rare I prefer, they were tender and tasty.

Since it was so close to my birthday, I thought I deserved a chocolate soufflé and had so advised the kitchen earlier.  It came personalized with a birthday greeting, in French, of course.  Light and delicate as a soufflé should be.  A quick slice through the top by our waiter to add a bit of crème anglaise.  The word ambrosial comes to mind.  The perfect ending to a celebratory meal.

Fine French food in east Texas.  It was my day.  Or close to it.  Happy Birthday to me!