The last two days, we've been chatting with Chef Terrence Gallivan of Pilot Light Restaurant Group about his experience as a chef in New York, his move to Houston, and most of all, what we can expect from Pilot Light when it eventually opens.
This last part of the chat, you'll get to see what's so hard to describe about the creative, Modernist cuisine that he and Seth Siegel-Gardner have been creating in their test kitchen.
We started with a soup and sandwich course, but this was definitely unlike any soup and sandwich I'd ever had. Served on a tile of black slate was a large foam-topped green shot glass next to what looked like a delicate food sculpture embedded into white- and green-colored powder.
Upon presentation, Gallivan told me that this is one of the dishes they were serving that week. In the glass was a parsley and mussel soup, which I found to be smooth and savory, the mussels giving the soup a distinctive aroma that I couldn't quite put a finger on until he said mussels. On the plate was bone marrow milk, brown butter crumble, herb powder, poached quail eggs, and a one-by-two-inch rectangle of what he called a "croque monsieur," or ham and cheese sandwich. The sculpture part of it, which was beautiful, was a simple weave of dried cippolini onions.
The entire ensemble was so pretty, I almost didn't want to eat it, and honestly I didn't know where to start. Should I pick up the powder with my hands? Should I use the utensils provided? "How should I eat this?" I asked. "However you like," Gallivan responded.
I tentatively tasted the powder by picking some of it up with my fingers, then scooped up the powder with a spoon, while munching on the crispy croque monsieur. I gingerly added a poached quail egg, then bit into cippolini onion lattice. It was rather complicated to eat, but I enjoyed the different textures and flavors as my taste buds recognized the different components coming to together.
Next came what appeared to be a hard-boiled egg topped with caviar, served on a white rectangle plate with what looked like a dinner roll next to it. But I was catching on to this theme of things not appearing as they seem. The egg was in fact a soft boiled egg, which had been peeled, then poached in kaeshi to give the egg white a sweet-salty-savory flavor. Sitting on top of toasted rice with furikake, it was topped with caviar and served with kim chi bread, which had been made with ground kim chi powder and some fresh bits of kim chi.
When you cut into the egg, runny yolk oozed out over the rice puffs, making a good dipping sauce for the bread. Combined with a generous portion of caviar, the flavor profile was very Japanese. I actually don't care much for caviar, but the totality of this dish was just stunning, the simple plating belying the complexity of the dish.
Our final course involved a bit of a show. Gallivan used some liquid nitrogen to prepare it, the cold liquid creating a temporary blanket of cloudy smoke over the entire table.
The final presentation included yet a another sculpture, this time, in the form of a dried butternut squash tuile, made to look like a haphazardly arranged lattice. A long slab of roasted butternut squash cake brushed with a saba (caramelized grape must) was buried under shattered pebbles of blackberry, raspberry and pumpkin seed ice cream, and a swoosh of white chocolate and ras el hanout ganache completed the dish.
I enjoyed the textures and temperatures in this dessert very much. The tuile was crispy, the cake was dense and moist, the ganache was dense and thick like a peanut butter, and the dipping dot style ice cream was cold and refreshing but melted in your mouth. Though I found the flavors somewhat cacophonous, the dish was as fun as it was complex, and I can honestly say that I've never tasted anything quite like it.
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When asked how he would describe his style, Gallivan said he couldn't come up with a word that didn't sound corny. I think the problem is finding a one-word description, because a single word wouldn't do justice. His cuisine, Pilot Light's cuisine, stretches the imagination, is as intelligent as it is creative, and approaches the limits of what you know about food and think about how it can be prepared. It's a little bit of rock star cutting-edge, combined with some imaginative artistry, rolled up with some well-honed technique.
Pilot Light is still looking for a permanent home in Houston, so if you want to see more of what you saw here, try to get a seat at one of the few remaining dinners between now and the end of the year. If you are lucky enough to get a reservation, trust me when I say, it will definitely be one of your most memorable meals of the year.