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Bootsie's Kicks Butt

Intriguing and delicious: The chicken-fried rabbit.
Troy Fields

For more photos from Bootsie's (and to see how that chicken-fried rabbit is made), take a look through our slideshow.

A colleague and I were enjoying the bluesy rock on the hi-fi at Bootsie's Heritage Cafe when our genial waitress delivered our lunch entrées. The music faded in my head as I eyed the chicken-fried rabbit perched atop a creamy bed of grits. My first forkful delivered a succulent bite of thigh meat, but my enjoyment of the dish was heightened once I decided to ditch the utensil for a Henry the VIII-inspired, medieval grip. The flavor was there, to be certain, but the visceral experience of grabbing the dish with my hands made it an experience.

Rabbit is tough, and preparing it usually involves a pressure cooker or a long, long simmer in some sort of roux or sauce. So the country-fried rabbit, which I'd never seen offered on a menu, was intriguing from the get-go. Plus I'm a sucker for any dish involving grits, and, having tasted Bootsie's version at the recent Kiss My Grits Gulf Coast Throwdown, I knew they would be good.

The rabbit was a delicately battered and fried hindquarter on the bone, served atop a bed of grits in a nine-inch oval baking dish. I'm not exactly sure how the chef got the rabbit so tender — perhaps it was brined before frying. The grits were well-balanced in creaminess and consistency, despite wanting for a bit of salt. But since the batter was a tad on the salty side, it combined well with the flavor of the grits for a finely tuned bite.

My dining companion's 3rd Coast Fish & Chips were presented in simple alternating fashion — chip, fish, chip, fish — a nice departure from the usual pile in a plastic basket. The batter on the fish was thicker and a bit doughier than the rabbit's, but still crunchy and light, not grease-soaked.

We'd started lunch with a board — a literal two-by-12 — of artisanal cheeses and a cup of chilled zucchini and basil soup, and dispatched both in ravenous, rapid succession. The horseradish chive cheese and moody blue cheese were standouts among the samples, which also included two varieties of brie and other fromages. The former was creamy and biting without being overbearing. The latter had a pungent aroma and flavor without the seemingly chemical presence found in mass-market supermarket cheese. Salty-sweet shavings of homemade pickles sat in the center of the plate with sliced sourdough. Neither was delivered in large enough quantity, but that allowed the focus to stay on the cheese, as intended.

Despite looking rich and heavy, the soup was relatively light and airy on the palate, with hints of basil distributed throughout the cooked-down zucchini. My advice is not to spoon too quickly through the soup, but rather let each spoonful spread across your palate and recede down your throat so that the subtle flavors have time to unfold.

Bootsie's Heritage Cafe provides an experience on par with the haute cuisine of fine-dining establishments, but served in a laid-back, rural-ish location, which provides many of the ingredients served there. Think of the cuisine as your Maw-Maw's cooking, tinged with a heaping spoonful of sophistication and correspondingly complex flavors.

Bootsie's interior has the look and feel of a farmhouse kitchen. The rough-hewn two- and four-top tables have been smoothed a bit and painted in a muted color scheme, and each is topped with brown paper. Into this setting, add a soundtrack ranging from the aforementioned blues to Jimi Hendrix, Depeche Mode and Black Sabbath, and you get an atmosphere that says something like, "We've got good food and know our shit, but we're not taking things too seriously."

A year after opening, Chef Randy Rucker's quaint little house a block off of Old Town Tomball's Main Street strip is a dining destination. While it may not be as well-known as Catalan, Reef or Haven, Bootsie's fans make the trek without hesitation — particularly for Rucker's monthly (sometimes bimonthly) Heritage Dinners, which are reservation-only, multiple-course affairs that pair the culinary genius of the Bootsie's staff with wine and cocktails.
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Roughly 40 patrons gathered for the four-hour, $75-per-head Heritage Dinner on May 2, touted as a ten-course meal, although I counted 12 courses. After a Yosemite Sam-like "hiya" to quiet the boisterous crowd, Randy Rucker presented David Leftwich, who was the chef-in-residence for the evening and co-presenter of the event. The canapé service was being set out, and the majority of diners proceeded to dive in, but Rucker commanded the crowd to wait for the entire table to be served and the dish to be explained. Some people may have found it rude, but what I heard was, "Hold on and let me explain the painstaking work that went into the dish so that you can more fully appreciate it."

The canapé service included an interesting interpretation of hog head cheese. Bootsie's interpretation of the dish, fromage de tête with mustard seed marmalade, was a welcome departure from the usual country-fare approach. It was a gelatin-encased chunk of pork instead of a loaf mixing minced pork and seasonings. The low meat-to-jus ratio resulted in a light bite that didn't sacrifice any of the flavor you'd expect from this dish. Clearly, we were in for a dining experience like no other.

A marinated snapper appetizer continued to escalate my dining party's expectations for the evening. The fish was plated in mounds with a slight sheen of marinade. The first bite started as chilly and pleasantly sweet, then gave way to a delicate underscoring of the sansyo pepper. One of my friends commented, "They could just give me a bowl of this and call it an evening."

The kohlrabi (German turnip) vichyssoise perched atop small pieces of chorizo was my favorite dish of the evening. The dollop of whipped concoction was aerated with nitrous oxide, resulting in a delicate structure and corresponding consistency that evaporated on the tongue, leaving behind only flavor and a realization that the dish was a masterful example of molecular gastronomy.

Other standout dishes from the Heritage Dinner were the garden potpourri flatbread and the grilled quail. The relative simplicity of the sliced flatbread was a nice departure from the prior complex creations. However, the taste was no less rich, with generous cuts of lardo combining with greens to create a warm, savory dish. The grilled quail was also pretty straightforward. Tender and juicy, it was presented atop a bed of delicate carrots.

Two desserts closed the evening. The first was a lemon-lime mousse and a bit of apple cake prepared by Chef Chris Leung, a well-balanced offering of tart and sweet. The texture of the cake structure evoked thoughts of pie apples and crust, but without the associated syrupy goo or over-the-top sugar. Fresh pickled berries from Bootsie's farm followed, served atop a coriander ganache and peanut butter. The berries were certainly pleasant, but my companions and I were more focused on the combination of peanut butter and ganache.

While the Heritage Dinner is a special event, the Bootsie's 3rd Coast Dinner is available any night the restaurant's open (reservations are recommended) and is not a large departure from the Heritage Dinner approach. This iteration comes in six-course ($35) and nine-course ($55) offerings that evolve based on availability of locally procured ingredients. Wine pairings are also available, as is the full menu of libations.

The evening I tried the 3rd Coast Dinner, my table enjoyed a menu highlighted by ravioli of Hill Country rabbit, crisp confit of Muscovy duck, 3rd Coast sea bream and dark chocolate frozen parfait. To drink we had Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc ($13 a glass; $50 a bottle), Piraat Ale ($8) and Southern Star Bombshell Blonde ($5). The meal was fantastic.

Is driving to Tomball for the food at Bootsie's worth it? Absolutely. In fact, even though I've been there three times in two weeks, I'd like to return there for dinner tonight.

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