New Houston restaurant Foreign Correspondents is receiving national magazine love. (Photo courtesy Treadsack)
Bon Appétit thinks highly of Foreign Correspondents. The magazine just named the Northern Thai eatery one of the 50 best new restaurants in America (eager Houstonians will have to wait until August 16 to see if the Treadsack group restaurant is named to the publication’s coveted Top 10 list for 2016), and a visit to the Heights this week demonstrated that the publicity has spread far and wide: the place was packed at 6:30, and remained busy throughout the dinner service. I had dined at Foreign Correspondents twice before — the most recent time about seven months ago — and they had been hit-and-miss experiences, so Bon Appétit‘s nod was a good excuse to return.
The problem with the first two visits can be summed up in two words: lackluster and inconsistent. During one dinner, our party of six dealt with a great appetizer of crispy fried herbs (a menu mainstay at the young restaurant) and a series of dishes that either barely satisfied (a chicken curry) or failed (crab). The second visit, my friend and I again enjoyed the herbs, but were left less than impressed by a noodle dish and a fish plate. The former featured noodles with no definition — they were approaching mushiness — while the latter’s main component was bland and, frankly, boring. I had read a few glowing reviews of the place, and both times could not reconcile their encomiums with what I put in my mouth, though Foreign Correspondents is hardly the only restaurant in Houston that has fallen victim to hyperbole.
Would the third time be the charm? I arrived early for my reservation, so decided to pay a visit to Canard, FC’s sister bar (also a Treadsack property). Good choice that was, and you’ll want to do the same. Have the Smoke Signals (yes, it’s smoky, and slightly sweet, and it’s made with Basil Hayden’s) and talk to the casual, unpretentious bartender who was working on Monday night. She knows how to make a drink, and she exhibited not one iota of cooler-than-thou mixology disease. My time at the bar was a perfect interlude before dinner.
I was meeting two friends that evening; both work in restaurants, one in front of the house, the other in the kitchen. They had never eaten at Foreign Correspondents, and I was looking forward to their opinions. Chris Cusack, a partner and owner at Treadsack, had seen me in the bar, and was checking on the reservation. My friends arrived, and we waited outside for a few minutes for our table to open; seated, our meal began. (Note: Cusack’s knowledge of my presence should in no way give one suspicion that my review is anything less than a frank and actual representation of the tastes, execution, and quality of the dishes we ate. I do not lie about food.)
We started, of course, with the Crispy Fried Herbs With Special Sauce (I’m listing the menu items here as they are on the menu, hence the capitalization). That sauce is made from pork and shrimp, and it’s full of sweetness and heat and acid and balance and … in a few tastes, a bit too much fish sauce. The herbs are delicate and crisp (most of them are crisp, at least) and this is a great way to begin a meal. We wallowed in the briny porkiness of the sauce, and the herbs melting on one’s tongue is a sensual experience.
A wonderful thing about sharing a table with Ms. M and Ms. B is that they have great palates and are open to anything; deciding on our shared courses was easy, and fun. We ordered a whole frog, the squash and basil stir-fry, and the Khao Soi, “the iconic northern noodle dish. Chicken legs simmered in a curried coconut milk broth and served with egg noodles.”
The frog came first; it was a big one, lightly battered, meat tender and moist and flavorful. (FC gets its wild frogs from a regulated provider located in Pierre Part, Louisiana.) The legs and thighs were plump, and the breast and back offered up satisfying morsels.
Did it taste like quail? Not exactly … its meat was more delicate in flavor. It was a cross between a young rabbit’s white meat and a Cornish hen. At $31, the dish is not inexpensive, but shared three ways it’s a bargain.
When we dipped our spoons into the stir-fry dish (phat fak tong) and tasted its sauce, we smiled. It was complex and bold and deep; the pork and duck egg and basil flavors shone through, and we were happy. Then we ate a piece of the squash, and stopped. Was it underdone? It was oddly lumpy, or stringy. Mouthfeel was all wrong. I ate a few pieces, to see if the first bite was the outlier, then concentrated on the sauce.
Ms. B portioned and served the Khao Soi ($16), and we got richness from the chicken leg (there were large pieces of white meat in it as well) and a warm spiciness provided by the curried coconut milk. (A small bowl of shallots and pickled greens had been brought with the dish, and we added them to the mix; each contributed texture and flavor.) The fried egg noodles scattered atop the dish added welcome crunch, and the sauce here was worthy of accolade, as were the chicken pieces. I was less enamored of the cooked noodles; they lacked the bite I look for, were a bit too soft. Were they bad, poorly prepared? No, and I daresay most diners would find them to their liking, but I wanted that al dente touch.
Cusack’s team — to a person knowledgeable about the menu and the cuisine — brought a few extra courses for us to sample, including Spicy Water Spinach ($16) and Shrimp and Crispy Rice Salad ($14). The shrimp in this dish are from Texas, and ours were prepared with a deft hand (for god’s sake, don’t overcook your shrimp; they don’t taste good when done that way).
They retained some of that pleasing meatiness that shrimp can possess, their texture full and substantial. And a little about this water spinach, which was bitter, but in a good way (think collards and mustard greens): Growing it is illegal, except in California and Texas, because it is an invasive plant. FC gets theirs from Khmer Farms, whose proprietors are licensed to farm it, and the chefs at the restaurant use a lot of it. I think that’s a good idea. The heat in this dish was muted and delicate, and the addition of the holy basil pleased our threesome. (Khmer Farms is also the source of many of the other vegetables and herbs used at Foreign Correspondents.)
The crispy rice, a staple Thai snack food, was studded with naem, a fermented pork sausage made in the FC kitchen, which is run by P.J. and Apple Stoops, who met when P.J. was living and working in Thailand. (More on the duo in a later article.) A piquant curry paste (again, made by the FC cooks) is mixed with the rice, and tossed in are peanuts, fried chilies, ginger, lime juice, and fish sauce. I wanted to love this dish, but in too many bites the salt was overwhelming. In addition, I couldn’t shake the acid. Too much lime juice? Did it contain vinegar of some sort?
We tried to toss the ingredients even more, an attempt to distribute the sodium and acid, but, at least on this occasion, a heavy hand blew this dish out. (I’ll order it again, because the sausage was stellar — meaty, full of umami.)
We were drinking a Riesling from Peter Lauer, the 2015 “Barrel X,” and there was certainly nothing wrong with that selection ($45); it was great with the frog and the curry, and stood up even to the water spinach. The restaurant’s wine list is full of my favorite grape, and though I’d like to see a few bottles in the $28-$35 range, most diners will find something suitable on the list.
We finished the meal with Fernets, talking about the food and the service. The place was still fairly busy at 10:45 p.m., and the mood was relaxed. Our fellow diners were enjoying themselves. The third time was the charm for me, and I understand why Bon Appétit has put Foreign Correspondents on its list.
Is every dish stellar? No, though with a few tweaks here and there they could be. But Apple and P.J. Stoops are serious in their approach to their Thai food, the flavors they and their cooks are producing are bold and honest, and their emphasis on procuring meats and vegetables from Texas and Louisiana is admirable. Eating here makes you feel good, and that’s nothing to take for granted.