Mario Valdez The Rainbow Lodge 2011 Ella Blvd. 713-861-8666 www.rainbow-lodge.com
This week, we've been chatting with Mario Valdez, the 24-year-old chef who is reinvigorating the menu at Rainbow Lodge with his passion for food, which you can hear as he speaks. As Valdez described his food, the chef, who would speak so softly that I could barely hear at times, leaned toward me, his eyes bright and alive, his expression becoming animated, his voice becoming fervent. His excitement became my excitement, and there's nothing more appetizing than a chef who not only loves what he does, but loves the food that he makes.
Take for instance, his sea bass dish. When he described it -- a potato-crusted sea bass with Mexican chorizo and crab ravioli -- he made my mouth water. And the dish was indeed everything he said it would be. The fish was crusted to a golden brown, crisp, light and airy when I broke it. The inside was moist, succulent and lightly seasoned so that the salty-spiciness of the Mexican chorizo with heirloom tomato pico de gallo wouldn't overpower it. The house-made crab and cheese ravioli was al dente and flavor-packed, with a nice, chewy quality to contrast with the crispy fish. A cold lemon shallot mignonette finished off the dish. "It's a cold sauce over all this hot food, so there's a contrast between the hot and cold, giving the dish this cool quality. It's lemon-y while everything else is rich and spicy."
Truth be told, it sounds complicated, and when I was raving about it later to a friend, it sounded like this random hodgepodge of ingredients. Valdez's passion and execution sold it, however, and it was so delicious I would go back to Rainbow Lodge again specifically for this dish.
A summer English pea soup with lamb pancetta and heirloom tomato salad made from the restaurant's garden vegetables was breathtaking in terms of the visual. The oranges, reds and yellows of the tomatoes were beautifully laid out on the plate against small pops of green herbs and little white sprinkles of feta, accented by round slivers of red onion. The split pea soup was perfection as well, with a smooth, creamy consistency that was not in the least powdery and was seasoned to bring out the natural sweetness of the peas. Small crisps of house-made lamb pancetta added a gamey saltiness that kept the soup interesting, a perfect finishing touch.
A hearty, lean backstrap cut of pan-seared nilgai came alive with the addition of South Texas spoon bread. The creamy spoon bread, which had a consistency similar to grits or polenta but was smoother, was almost like a savory corn-bread pudding. Add to that the lightly spiced chili-grilled asparagus and creamy garlic mojo de ajo, or garlic cream sauce, and the dish was an out-and-out winner.
I couldn't not try Valdez's burger Friday mix, so he made a small mushroom-swiss slider with the mix of the day: buffalo, venison, wild boar and pork belly. The juicy, rich flavors were enough to win my vote for best burger. For a burger lover, it doesn't get much better than this. I'm counting the days until I can have a full-size burger in my hands.
The meal couldn't end on a savory note, so he brought me the pastry special of the day, the basil shortbread with lemon cream and lavender-macerated strawberries. And, wow. It was a stunner. Created by his pastry chef, Christina Au, the deconstructed work of art was delightful in every way. Not overly sweet, each bite was an interesting journey.
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The tasting was impressive and had me wanting to come back for more. The ambience of the Rainbow Lodge is noteworthy as well. It has this log cabin that feels like you've stepped into a rustic cabin out in the wild somewhere. It's a space out of time, with what for me was some stunning cuisine by a young chef who's passionate enough about his food to make it remarkable. I'm definitely looking forward to my next visit.