Friday, February 8, 2019

The Big Picture: Pastries at Epicure Café - Essay

"When I looked through the construction fence that surrounded the mess at..."

The Big Picture: Pastries at Epicure Café

When I looked through the construction fence that surrounded the mess at the corner of West Gray and McDuffie Streets in the River Oaks Shopping Center, soon to become Perry’s Steak House’s swanky new 12,000 square foot “flagship location,” I felt nostalgia for Birraporetti’s which occupied that space many years ago.  I’m talking here about the old, rather divey Birraporetti’s, before upgrades to menu and décor, known for inexpensive booze, cheap pasta and Irish pub-ambience, not to mention bagpipers and tenors who sang “Oh Danny Boy” in the parking lot on Patty’s Day, with insufficient portable toilets.

If you’re my age, you’ll remember when Big Band orchestras performed at Birraporetti’s.  How fun to drink an Old Fashioned and watch Ronnie Renfrow’s rump twitch while he led his orchestra into “Mack the Knife” or ‘Kansas City.”  Ronnie played “St. James Infirmary” for me every time I asked him, a song that became my personal boozy anthem years before in “da Quarter,” however Ronnie orchestrated the tune for a swing tempo.  Those nights were magic.

Across the street from there, an unmitigated nightmare is being erected.  Poking the ground on an enormous construction site at the corner of West Gray and Driscoll Streets is a 30-story residential luxury high-rise.  After the cranes, hard-hats and dust are history, 300 luxury units and 10,000 square feet of ground-floor retail will accompany all the other high-rise developments that are encroaching on the neighborhood.  Merde!  I can’t decide if all this finery is satisfying or annoying.

Quite a relief to step into Epicure Café and forget cranes.  I’ve been going to Epicure Café ever since it opened in 1990, occasionally for lunch, but much more frequently for wine.  In fact Epicure is one of my favorite places to meet my friend Debby who lives a few blocks from there in River Oaks.  Debby and I adhere to the same ritual every time we meet, she orders a latte and a Lady Finger, and I order a sugar free cappuccino, we gab like hens, until several hours have passed, and one of us declares it’s the cocktail hour.  Time to order wine.  At this point Debby eats an Éclair.  It suits the wine.

“Ah can’t believe you wimmin (women) can jabber for that many hours,” Donnie predictably observes when I return home.

My escape from cranes gave me a chance to ask a few questions about Epicure’s pastries.  I wanted to know more about the flaky bits of solid chocolate that crown the Chocolate Mousse cake, and the thinly sliced toasted almonds that top the Strawberry Napoleon, details commonly seen in patisseries, gourmet markets and fancy Edwardian style tea rooms in Europe.

So I had a chat with Khan, Jalal Khanloo, whom with the help of his brother Amir, founded Epicure Café.  We talked about Khan’s Iranian birth, Tehran born, and I told Kahn about the students I knew from Tehran who were studying engineering at my university in south Louisiana in the early 70s.  They detested the Shah.  Khan told me about his culinary training in Vienna, where he lived for twelve years.  His brother Amir joined him in Vienna for a while.  Following that, Kahn said, they “came here.”

Vienna!  That explains the Sacher Torte.  Epicure Café’s apricot preserve-filled, chocolate ganache-covered sponge-y cake has direct ties to Vienna’s culinary history, Sacher Torte originated in Vienna under Habsburg imperial patronage.  It’s fitting to eat this decadent cake on Royal Vienna porcelain with sterling utensils, surrounded by crystal chandeliers and fussy rococo decor.

Epicure’s fresh raspberry Sorbet, on the other hand, can be sloshed in your mouth and inelegantly slurped.  Many centuries before Viennese chefs made fresh Sorbet for Franz Joseph’s peculiar wife Empress Elizabeth, King Solomon and Alexander the Great enjoyed Sorbet.  Their fastest running slaves one imagines delivered the ice.

You’ll have to forgive me for taking an epic approach here, but I can’t resist the big picture.

Accordingly, the historical practice of rarified and refined culinary arts includes significant Persian antecedents.  The fifth century BC Persian king Darius the Great, in between having to scatter around Greece and Anatolia to squash revolts, held sumptuous feasts at his court, we know this from ancient Greek writers, and from images on the walls at Persepolis.  Along with professional chefs to make pilaf and kebabs and the prized Persian meat and fruit stew, royal kitchens were staffed with pastry chefs.

Pistachios, I’m convinced, are god-sent, no different from the olives Athena gave us.  In fact legend holds that the first man, Adam, carried pistachio nuts from heaven.  So valued were pistachios among mortals, the Queen of Sheba forbade non-royals to possess them, and, gifted the nuts to the aforementioned Solomon, who already knew a thing or two about luxury, including Sorbet.  Babylon’s hanging gardens had pistachio trees.

While you’re shoveling in Epicure’s Pistachio cake, be mindful of the fact that humans were enjoying pistachios as early as 7000 BC, according to archaeological evidence in Turkey.  The pistachios grown in southeastern Turkey at the Syrian border, in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, are arguably the best on the planet.  I can attest to this, I ate pistachios at the archaeological site of Alalakh, the modern Tell Atchana, an Early Bronze Age palace and temple complex built in 2000 BC, ate them in the old market in Antakya, ancient Antioch, where the Romans had elegant villas and Paul trekked, ate them at Issus where Alexander relieved the Persians of their wealth effectively ending the Persian Empire, certainly ate them at the fertile crescent town of Gaziantepe where millions of pistachio trees are harvested, also at Sanliurfa just east of the Euphrates, closer to the Iraqi border.  I ate pistachios at Abraham’s Harran, one of the oldest continually inhabited locations on earth.

One more question for Khan before I split Epicure Café.  I wanted to know about his custom-made cakes.  Epicure regularly makes custom-made cakes for customers, yet this service is not found on Epicure’s website.  How come?

This is true Khan told me.  His longtime customers have always known they can order cakes “for all their occasions,” and they spread the word, he makes birthday cakes, anniversary, engagement cakes, baby shower cakes, new baby and baptism cakes, professional sports team celebration cakes, Barbie Doll cakes, “and I make ice cream cakes for their kids.”  It’s not on the website, but he does announce it on Facebook and Instagram.

Kahn wondered if he should put up a sign telling customers they can order cakes, at the same time he doesn’t want to make more than about three wedding cakes a week.  “The more you make, the greater the risk of the quality dropping.  Don’t want that.  Everything is done in the kitchen, right in there.  Amir oversees all the baking.  Those cakes would be crowding up my counter, I wouldn’t have counter space.”

Epicure Café
2005 West Gray, #C
Houston Texas 77019
713 520-6174

Images posted by Epicure Café
Epicure Café’s Tiramisu Cake
Epicure Café Mini Chocolate Mousse
Epicure Café’s Custom made cake

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