Pop-Up Fever: The Just August Project
Photos by Ruthie Johnson
Pop-up restaurants are growing like mushrooms across the country. The small eateries have small menus and even smaller staffs. They "pop-up" for a finite time period, and then POOF, they're gone. Sound silly? Think about it this way: These temporary restaurants give rising chefs the tools and canvas they need to gain experience and hone their skills. And the model makes sense: It's a low-risk way to test the market. Perhaps best of all, pop-up restaurants issue a creative license for chefs to experiment and innovate beyond the boundaries of usual.
As of last night, Houston has its first pop-up place: the Just August Project so named for its single month of existence. The pop-up was concepted, created and chef'd by three rising, well pedigreed stars: Seth Siegel-Gardner (most recently of the fabulous Fat Duck in London), Justin Yu (who just moved back to Houston from the Napa Valley, where he honed his cheffery at Ubuntu), and Terrence Gallivan (who has worked at Restaurant Gordon Ramsey and Danny Meyer's The Modern).
I tried to keep my expectations in check as I walked into the Just Dinner space on Dunlavy for last night's meal. After all, the opening night of a new concept in a town that had sheltered the chefs for mere weeks was bound to bring some jitters and kinks. But what I discovered as I enjoyed my way through the $45 prix-fixe menu is this: The Just August Project brings incredible talent and reach to Houston. The meal is not for everyone; small portions of off-the-wall combinations will surely have some rolling their eyes, but the culinary acrobatics offer an outrageous view of next-generation dining.
Plate after plate of jaw-dropping creations graced our table, each with a kind of who-thinks-of-this-stuff quality to it. The young chefs expertly play with flavors and styles to create dishes that have a "completeness" to them: The dish's star always shines bright, but is also accompanied by sprinkles, flavors, and accoutrements that are just as interesting and delicious. Powdered red wine vinegar, for example, ash yogurt, black garlic jam, and dehydrated chorizo.
The pre-set menu is officially five courses but is actually much more extensive with the addition of several starter snacks, two desserts, and a final offering of mignardises. The innovative snacks - a tray of pickled cabbage stems topped with roasted yeast aioli, small avocado pieces with harissa and candied seeds, and a pork crackling sprinkled with dried red wine vinegar and elderflower - set our imaginations on fire. Next, the crudo of Gulf red snapper with tomato and horseradish atop celery gazpacho gave us new perspectives on flavors; while each item has an extreme type of flavor, none clashed. The raw course was one of our favorites.
And the innovations just kept on coming. Poached Gulf shrimp with braised pearl onions, sunflower and ash yogurt offered a savory-sweet flavor trip. Next came the pickled broccoli stems and dehydrated chorizo perched atop a perfectly poached egg yolk. That course was followed by goat braised in whey and served with a dynamite black garlic jam.
Desserts offered a sweet take on traditionally savory flavors. Toasted fennel ganache provided a delicious base for the accompanying cocoa nib granita and sour apple shavings. The sweet corn pudding served on chiffon cake was decidedly bitter, but the sour cream ice cream provided a helpfully rich dressing.
Yes, there are some kinks to smooth and ruffles to fix, but the Just August Project is an exuberant evening out that will remain top of mind for a while before sinking becoming a glorious memorie. I'm simultaneously ecstatic and devastated that the place is booked solid for the month. I love to see our community supporting two of its own in a concept that's novel to the city -- yet I wish more people could experience the pleasure before POOF, it's gone.