tenacity: Summer’s End

Randy Rucker has put together another excellent menu for his upcoming tenacity dinner, one that showcases some of my favorite summer foods in his own different and powerful way:

  • Japanese hamachi, daikon radish, watercress consommé & ruby red grapefruit
  • Live scallop, badia a coltibuono olive oil, preserved papaya puree & candied kombu
  • Composition of tomatoes, fromage blanc & shaved bonito
  • Local corn soup, miso, Gulf shrimp & malabar spinach
  • Confit of Louisiana frog’s legs, fennel, smoked potato gnocchi & foamy parmesan water
  • Crispy pork rillette, celery branch, almond cream, green apple & kecap manis
  • Soft bittersweet chocolate, basil seeds, sweet & sour hijiki & cherimoya soup

If you know me at all, you know I’m excited about the frog’s legs in particular.  Frog’s legs are one of my favorite meals — and an underappreciated one, at that — a Southern treat, the sweet, delicate meat of the legs rivaling any other meat you’ve ever tasted.  I’m fascinated to see what Randy does with this particular item, and how it will pair with some of the more exotic dishes, such as the Japanese hamachi and the live scallop.

The rest of the menu, however, seems to be inspired by Randy’s old restaurant, laidback manor.  The intricate, experimental dishes made with deeply Southern ingredients — Gulf shrimp, local corn, tomatoes — this is a Randy Rucker dinner you don’t want to miss if you’re still grieving over the loss of laidback manor.

The dinner will be at the Modern B&B tomorrow night, September 4th.  Randy is still taking reservations; you can RSVP by emailing him at rrucker79 at hotmail dot com.  And just to refresh your memories on how awesome his dinners are, read on:


tenacity, part two

Musical Restaurants

Some exciting news, courtesy of my friend Plinio Sandalio, pastry chef extraordinaire…

Both Chef Jonathan Jones and Plinio have left the new Americas in The Woodlands.  I’m not going to make any remarks on the Cordua group‘s remarkable ability to hire amazing chefs (i.e. Randy Rucker) and then mysteriously lose them, since I don’t know the ins and outs of their business or what goes on behind the scenes.  All I’m going to say is that we’re very lucky to have Jonathan and Plinio back in Houston where they belong.

Jonathan will be the new head chef at Monica Pope’s modern/upscale icehouse cum barbeque joint (it’s indefinable, I tell ya…) Beaver’s, where he’s taking the place of Dax McAnear, who will be working with Scott Tycer at his highly-anticipated Heights restaurant, Textile.  Phew!

Joining Scott Tycer’s motley brigade is Plinio, who will be the new pastry chef at Gravitas (where he has big plans to totally shake up their dessert menu) and could potentially be at Textile, too.  The prospect of working at both restaurants is exciting since, according to Plinio, “it would be a perfect balance of bistro desserts and modern desserts.”  I’m excited, too!

Playing musical restaurants in Houston seems to be the de rigeur activity, as Chef Olivier Ciesielski left Tony’s last week to pursue a private venture and CIA-trained, Italian-imported Francesco Casetta took his place.  The important thing, though, is that Houston is retaining all of this talent and expanding our culinary footprint.  It’s only fitting for the fourth-largest city in America that we start catching up with New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago after all this time.

For more insight into the move, read Misha’s article at Tasty Bits: Plinio Sandalio Now at Gravitas.

UPDATE: Alison Cook at the Houston Chronicle has more news here: Jonathan Jones is the new chef at Beaver’s.  The comments section here is quite interesting…and dead-on correct.

VOICE, A Prelude

This is not a review of VOICE.  Not yet, at least.

Aside from the little issue of trying to forcibly extract the evening’s photos from my camera as it groans and bleats and emits tiny, rasping death rattles, I simply can’t be unbiased about the restaurant.  Which is unusual.

I’m a pretty unbiased person by nature.  Even when I start feeling twinges of favoritism towards a person or object or food or beverage, I always remind myself that I will lose out, ultimately, in a game of favorites, since it tends to close one off to the rest of life’s possibilities.  I enjoy playing Devil’s advocate.  Some call it arguing; I call it “seeing all sides.”  I think you get it.

But we were so terribly spoiled and pampered at VOICE last night — in the absolute best, most non-pandering, non-grating, non-superficial way — that I have no idea how to write a “review” that isn’t tinted with an overly rosy glow.  I feel like it would read as if I were a 13-year-old, gushing about her first crush.  I’m going to take all of this into consideration for a while, and will hopefully emerge with a post that isn’t obscured by my feelings towards the place.

That said, however, our experience last night was unparalleled.  The warm service, the endlessly beautiful interiors, the voluptuous wines and expert pairings, the visits from Chef Kramer and his keen crew, the heavenly amuse bouche, the dusky mushroom soup, the tender and submissive short ribs, the exotic five-spice ice cream, the creative cocktails and clever platings — everything was wonderful.

You see how this could quickly devolve into a love letter to VOICE, right?  Let me put some restraints on, and I’ll hopefully be back tomorrow with an even-handed (albeit highly positive) review.  See you then…

Image courtesy of http://www.hotelicon.com.

The Modern B&B

Are you busy next Tuesday?  No?  Good!  Because Randy is serving up a menu in honor of “The Modern B&B,” which is sure to knock your little socks off.

As with past tenacity supper club dinners, this multi-course tasting menu features fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, including a divine-sounding selection of Houston Dairymaid cheeses.  What else is up for grabs?  Glad you asked…

  • Yellowmouth scamp cured in cucumber “hooch”,  persimmon vinegar and nasturtium (I’m assuming this is either Yellowmouth grouper or scamp; they’re very similar to each other — or perhaps Randy is conducting some illegal fish-breeding experiments at home…)
  • Barely-cooked Gulf shrimp, red cabbage gazpacho, crunchy savory meringues and golden raisins
  • Terrine of game birds, caramelized miso, crispy skin(s) and tiny blue basil
  • Warm abalone, soft egg, bacon crumble and flowering herbs
  • Garden squash and onions, fresh thyme, shaved tongue and rye gnocchi
  • Composition of cheese via Houston Dairymaids
  • Sesame financier, roasted banana puree and yuzu curd

This may be the best-sounding menu that Randy has compiled to date.  Personally, the terrine of game birds made my heart skip a beat, while the garden squash and onions with shaved tongue are utterly intriguing.  I haven’t been able to make it out to a tenacity dinner in a while, but you can bet I won’t be missing this one.

As always, reservations can be made by emailing Randy at rrucker79 at hotmail dot com.  The dinner itself will be hosted at — appropriately enough — The Modern B&B, which is exactly what it sounds like: a modern bed and breakfast located in the Museum District, which just happens to serve tasty, organic breakfasts for their guests.

Hope to see your smiling faces there!

Upcoming tenacity Dinners

Still haven’t made it to one of the tenacity dinners yet?  Then here are two good excuses for you to RSVP and get your avant-garde food swerve on: July 26th and July 31st.

Randy Rucker has created a page devoted to posting only the dates, times and menus of each upcoming tenacity dinner.  You can check it out here: tenacity.  The next date is this coming Saturday evening, a rare weekend treat, while the July 31st dinner falls on the now-traditional Thursday evening.

This Saturday’s menu features:

  • Chilled soup and salad of summer squash
  • Glazed snails, bread & butter pudding and preserved garlic scapes
  • Cornbread gnocchi, baby onions and espresso
  • Long Island Duck, spaghetti squash and ancho chili

…among other things.

Sadly, I had to miss the last dinner due to a last-minute scheduling conflict (I hate you, day job), which means that I missed hanging out with the Cordua brothers (of Americas, Churrascos and Amazon Grille), Avi Katz of Katz Coffee and Chef Bryan Caswell of REEF and enjoying Randy’s and Plinio’s creations.  Damn, damn, damn.

If any of my previous posts on tenacity have piqued your curiosity, I encourage you to indulge in one of the upcoming dinners.  It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

You Cantu Please Everyone

I was barely watching The Early Show this morning as I got dressed for work.  I say “barely,” not only because it was just kind of on the background to provide some morning-type ambient noise, but also because The Early Show manages to do some of the dumbest segments on morning TV and I try to avoid watching them too closely for fear of rotting my brain.

Example: this morning, we saw their weatherman participating in a Red Bull Flugtag team event, which sounds fun except that the weatherman had worked himself up into a panicked frenzy that one would normally reserve for base jumping off the Petronas Towers, not for hopping about 15 feet into Tampa Bay.  It’s just exhausting.  Not even poor Harry Smith and his distinguished demeanor can maintain any semblance of mature news journalism on this show*.

This morning, however, I perked up when I heard that Homaro Cantu would be guest cheffing on the show.  How interesting!  Oh, but wait…  Maggie Rodriguez will be doing the segment?  Crap.

Maggie breathlessly expositioned before Cantu was introduced that he’s the reigning “king” of this baffling new technique called “molecular gastronomy.”  Oy vey.  The rest of the segment consisted of Maggie Rodriguez reticently trying Cantu’s liquid nitrogen sushi balls, barbeque-flavored edible paper and a “charcoal briquet” made of bread while attempting to smile politely throughout.

It was a hilarious contrast in temperaments: the “mad scientist” chef (I didn’t call him that, Maggie did) enthusiastically presenting his creations, while the fake-as-Lee-Press-On-nails anchor weaseled her way through each course with a wan smile, her attitude managing to whittle away Cantu’s enthusiasm in record time.  By the end of the segment, you could tell that each wanted nothing more than to just get the hell away from the other.

Hey.  Not everyone’s a foodie.  That’s okay.  But maybe next time, Cantu’s people and The Early Show people can both do better jobs of finding better fits for their prospective clients.  Banal morning TV programs catering to stay-at-home moms and retired Floridians really are no place for progressive chefs.

*Why do I watch this show if I clearly dislike it so much?  Because I’m too lazy to change the channel.  If it’s on, it’s on.

tenacity, Part Two

First things first: let me apologize for not getting this out sooner.  My little camera has officially given up the ghost, so I was only able to shoot the first half of the meal.  And even then, I had to struggle to get the pictures out of the damned thing.  Pictures from the second half of the meal are courtesy of Ronny, Randy’s brother cum sous chef cum photographer.  Anyone who wants to buy me a new camera (yes, please!), form an orderly line at the door…  Heh.

Anyway, without any further ado, let me present tenacity, Part Two.

Pigs Feet

We were a bit late arriving, and were shocked to find a house fit to bursting with people.  I kept telling Randy that I had a feeling there would be a great turnout, but was stunned to see just how great that turnout was.  On the table were the appetizers/amuse bouche for the evening: chicken feet.


What’s that? You’ve never had chicken feet? That’s okay; neither had I before last week. I was a bit reluctant, only because of the visual issues associated with eating something that still has toenails intact, but anonymous eater cheered me on as I tentatively bit into a foot (and, after all, I had to make up for the fact that I couldn’t stomach the pigs’ ears from the dumpling crawl the week before). I am so glad that I did. I can’t say that all chicken feet are going to taste this good, since Randy braised his in Indonesian sweet soy sauce. But these were damn fine feet. They were like the sweetest, most tender barbeque I’ve ever had. You just have to mind the toenails, is all.

Chef at Work

Randy was hard at work as the rest of us chatted and passed around random bottles of wine, including the aforementioned anonymous eater, Tasty Bits, I’ve Got The Munchies, the head of the Personal Chefs Network and the mastermind behind B4-U-Eat. We Houston food bloggers are an incestuous bunch.

Fordhook Zucchini

I browsed through Randy’s garden as everyone else mingled. As other bloggers have pointed out, the garden is integral to these dinners. Randy will dart in and out of the house at different points during the evening, snipping off a piece of lettuce here or a handful of herbs there. The freshness and the simple idea that so many ingredients are homegrown and lovingly tended transforms your entire experience while eating, especially when you walk into a garden that you know will soon be feeding you for the evening. Above you can see the beginnings of some lovely Fordhook zucchini.

Lined Up

On to the first course… Barely-cooked Gulf shrimp tartare with sprouting radish, kyuri and baby lemongrass. This luscious spoonful of still grey-blue shrimp, soft with the salty taste of the sea, along with the slight crisp of cucumber and the grainy, tangy texture of the lemongrass was the perfect introduction to a meal redolent with fresh seafood.

First Course

It was so good in fact, we scored seconds.

Second Course

The first part of the second course was this glass of leche de tigre. Similar to our Bloody Marys, leche de tigre is a Peruvian cocktail/hangover cure that’s made with all of the leftover juices from a large serving of ceviche. As a cocktail, it contains pisco. Ours simply had the heavenly, salty milk that tasted sharply and strongly of the ocean, with just small bits of ceviche lingering in the bottom of the glass. I can see how this would be a rather effective hangover cure.

Second Course II

The second part of the second course was this delicate little piece of amberjack, a trash fish not to be confused with the Japanese amberjack, or hamachi. Randy had purchased the amberjack in Galveston earlier that day, where he was besotted with its wet eyes and overall freshness. It paid off, as the fish was perhaps the best I’ve tasted — I still can’t believe it’s considered a trash fish. On top of the amberjack is preserved rhubarb, for bite, gelled tomato and red-veined sorrel. The gelled tomato in particular was amazing. Randy marinated the tomatoes and then hung them in cheesecloth, allowing only the juices to escape; it had only the slightest sweet hint of tomato with no astringency and added a rich layer of flavor to the entire dish.

Action Shot

The third course was my second-favorite dish of the night: chilled Third Coast shellfish nage (from the French, to swim), octopus, neri uni, crunchy pig ear and celery pesto. Pig ear with shellfish? Octopus with celery? Things that would never occur to me, which is why I’m not a chef. The contrasting textures (especially the crispy pig ear) and flavors were mesmerizing. I could have eaten this dish all night. And I particularly love the action shot above, where you can see Randy pouring the nage, which was made from a reduction of blue crab and shrimp heads, into the bowl to rendezvous with the other ingredients.

Another note about this course, which I loved: so as not to be wasteful with precious seafood, the shrimp from the first course had their heads end up in the nage here. I love the idea of using every part of an animal or plant possible, especially in today’s world where it’s more important than ever that we not be excessively wasteful. I’d love to see more chefs and restaurants taking this approach. Not only would it cut costs, it would lend itself splendidly to inspiring more creativity in the kitchen.

From here on out, the pictures are courtesy of Ronny. Want to see more? Click here!

Fourth Course

Our fourth course, and my favorite of the evening: “best parts of the pig” with shimeji mushrooms, courgette, marigold and foamed hollandaise. The “best parts of the pig” were, among other things, the headcheese, the hog’s ears, cheeks, shanks and eyes. These different parts had been compressed slightly and seared on one side, for a different texture depending upon which side you ate first. I was in heaven. While one would assume that all these parts would be heavy, fatty or greasy (or just plain unappetizing), they managed to be incredibly light and summery. The shaved courgette, which is just a summer squash, added to this feeling with its softly crisp texture and fresh, delicate flavor. To quote from my tasting notes: “mushrooms ex. dark & earthy; squash light & ethereal; pig surprisingly spring-like.” It was, once again, an incredible pairing of flavors and textures.

Fifth Course

The fifth course seemed to be everyone else’s favorite (I have different tastes in all things, it seems): cobia smoked with apple-wood and broiled, red malabar spinach and cream brown butter. The cobia, a sport fish, had — like the chicken feet from earlier — been braised in the same Indonesian sweet soy sauce that imbued it with an almost caramel-like flavor. I overheard some other diners claim that it verged on tasting almost like butterscotch. The fish was firm with a surprisingly delicate flakiness. I think that many diners might have found a new favorite fish that night.

Sixth Course

Our sixth course was the first of our two desserts: a frothy guava smoothie with coconut shreds. The smoothie was so perfectly summery and fun, with its unabashedly pink hue, cotton candy-like tangles of coconut on top and a tiny bendy straw to drink it all down with. The coconut was fresh and sticky sweet on top of the ice cold smoothie, a tongue-in-cheek and utterly laid back beginning of the end to our meal.

Seventh Course

The seventh and final course: corn pudding with whipped agave nectar, papaya and caramelized dairy with poppyseeds. The corn pudding was actually corn juice cooked over high heat with an emulsifying agent stirred in towards the end. It was surprisingly sweet while retaining that vegetal bite. The whipped agave (the white puffs above) tasted almost like divinity, while the sweet and savory papaya played a nice balance between the earthiness of the corn and the sweetness of the agave and caramelized dairy. An upbeat, fruity, tropical way to end a summery meal.

Randy’s next dinner is tonight, and I hear he still has a spot or two available if anyone is interested. Until next time, campers!