Usually when old college buddy Joe, a.k.a. Mr. Award-Winning Food Editor of the Washington Post, passes through on his annual holiday Texas tour, Chow, Baby treats him to restaurants that attest to our world-class culinary greatness (Nuevo Leon, Lambert’s, the late, lamented Aventino). This year, however, Chow, Baby decided to put Joe to work, by making him weigh in on an old nagging question: whether Terra Mediterranean, its disdainful service, and its Rice-a-Roni taste-alike “saffron” rice really do suck as much as Chow, Baby thinks. Off to West 7th Street we went.
The good news for our civic pride is that once again, our esteemed guest had a fine, fun meal in Cowtown. The bad news is — well, no, it’s not that Chow, Baby was wrong before; it’s that Terra has made an amazing turnaround in the three months since its last visit. Another ego-saving explanation: This was Chow, Baby’s first visit on a Saturday night, rather than its usual crowd-avoiding weeknight, and the weekend is when A-level staffers take the stage. First of all, as soon as we walked in, we got hugs from Saturday-night bartender Emilie, who remembered us from our loud pleasure-moanings at Aventino a year ago. (She was the server bringing us all the moan-worthy food, so it was really her fault we made such a spectacle of ourselves.) Hugs are a great way to start a meal.
More great ways to start a meal: warm, puffy pita so straight-from-the-grill you can taste the char ($ free); Terra’s silky hummus (which, for the record, Chow, Baby has always praised; $6); and stuffed grape leaves, three lamb and three veggie ($6). Chow, Baby had only had the lamb before, and was sort of eh; the vegetarian, served cold, are much firmer and tastier. Our Saturday-night-star server, Edgar, actually talked to us and listened closely — both firsts in Chow, Baby’s Terra-service experience — and showed special concern for the important things, like exactly how customers want their lamb kabobs ($16) cooked. Recall if you will that this is the third time Chow, Baby has ordered lamb kabobs at Terra. First time: inedible. Second time: inedible. This time: glorious. Seared outside, pink and juicy inside, supremely flavorful, and most excellent when eaten cold the next morning. Why the difference? Because on Saturday nights, co-owner Jay Chanaa runs the grill. For sure, it’s worth fighting traffic and parking and lines and whatever else you have to get through to have Jay cook your lamb.
So far, Mr. Award-Winning Food Editor thought Terra was A-OK. (Exact words: “This is the place you said sucked?”) But Chow, Baby still had a chance to redeem its critic-cred: “Here, try the rice.” Know that Chow, Baby had not disclosed its own rice estimation; it wanted an objective opinion from a real, professional food writer. (By the way, Joe’s newest book, Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One, is now available for preorder. Chow, Baby helped test some of the recipes!) And what did this authentic food critic think of the rice? Of course Chow, Baby wouldn’t be bringing it up if his response weren’t this: “Ew! This tastes exactly like Rice-a-Roni!” Personal/professional validation on top of good service, great lamb, and an Emilie hug — what a swell evening it was.
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