Black pudding is the British name for blood sausage. At Feast, the remarkable restaurant in the creaky old wooden house on Westheimer where Chez Georges used to be, the slightly sweet blood pudding slices are cooked crispy and served on a plate full of little fresh-shelled English peas with a fried egg over top. The combination of black pudding and fried eggs reminds me of a hearty pub breakfast in the British Isles. The addition of the peas turns the combo into an imaginative and satisfying appetizer.
You don't have to eat blood pudding, ox hearts, tongues or livers to enjoy a meal at Feast — but if you do, you'll find yourself in hog heaven. The two British chefs at Feast are disciples of Fergus Henderson, a chef known for his offal cookery and a cookbook called The Whole Beast.
The menu at Feast also includes plenty of dishes for innards-averse diners. I sampled the albóndigas appetizer, a small plate of spicy little Spanish meatballs served in a tomato sauce studded with bay leaves and herbs that I mopped up with some of the restaurant's excellent housemade bread. Other offal-free appetizer selections included scallops in mushroom-brandy-cream sauce and a salad with cucumbers, radishes and raisins. There's also plenty of seafood among the entrées, along with lamb shanks, chicken and usually at least one vegetarian creation.
The menu is divided into two sections — Feast favorites and daily specials. For lunch on a recent rainy day, we tried one from column A and one from column B. From the Feast favorites, we sampled a sensational cassoulet with confit duck leg. It was a huge portion of steaming pork-and-baked bean casserole in a high-sided baking dish. The top was covered with well-browned bread crumbs. Completely covered in the center of the beans was a falling-apart-tender duck leg — I ate a little of the dark duck meat with every bite of beans.
From the daily specials list, we got an equally impressive roasted rabbit leg with bacon and garlic mashed rutabagas. The rabbit had a lovely patch of crispy skin attached, with the moist, delicately flavored rabbit meat beneath. After a couple bites of roasted rutabagas, I shook my head in wonder. I expected a bitter turnip-like flavor, but the mild orange flesh tasted more like a cross between potatoes and carrots with hints of cabbage. They were spectacular mashed with the salty bacon and aromatic garlic. I vowed to buy some the next time I found them in the produce section.
We got a glass of 2005 Li Veli Passamante, a tart, Italian negroamaro with lovely black cherry notes, and a glass of 2006 Infinitus, a jammy Spanish Tempranillo, with our lunch. At around $7 a glass and $25 a bottle, these wines are spectacular bargains. Feast's short but sweet wine list offers lots of real values in the $20-to-$80 range, with a few three-figure splurges thrown in. The waitress graciously agreed to serve our two glasses in four wineglasses so we could each enjoy half a glass.
Feast offers a two-course lunch for $13 and a three-course lunch for $16. On a previous visit, I opted for the three-course deal. You get an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert from a short list of choices. I went with a hearty fish stock served with oversized croutons, red pepper mayo and grated Gruyère cheese. You spread the toast with the mayo, top it with cheese and float it in the fish soup until it gets nicely soggy. This soup, which is known as bourride in the south of France, has long been a favorite of mine.
As my entrée, I tried a square of crispy roasted pork belly. Pork belly is the extremely fatty cut of meat that bacon is made from. At Feast they serve it with a crispy crust that might remind you of Cajun cracklins. The crunchy pork came with a potato pancake and some red cabbage braised with apples. It was a stunning combination of flavors. So was the ginger and pear crisp I had for dessert.
For his entrée, my lunchmate had Gulf red snapper served with mashed potatoes topped with leeks. The fish was overcooked and boring.
Feast is owned by English restaurateurs Richard Knight and James Silk and James's wife Meagan. James Silk, who comes from a family of butchers, formerly worked at St. John, Fergus Henderson's restaurant in London, which Anthony Bourdain called his "favorite restaurant in the world."
I first became aware of Fergus Henderson, the patron saint of what he calls "nose to tail eating," when I reviewed his cookbook for a magazine. The recipe I chose to cook from his book was the deceptively simple "roast bone marrow and parsley salad." Eating it was a revelation. While I was in London a couple of winters ago, I made my way to one of Henderson's restaurants, St. John Bread & Wine. I had smoked mackerel with horseradish and brown bread, beetroot with sorrel and boiled egg, and a roast pork with turnips and pan juices. What impressed me most about the food was the elemental simplicity of it. I can't say that I found every recipe in Henderson's cookbook appealing. Nor can I say that I liked everything I ate at Feast.
I stuck my neck out, as it were, on a dinner visit to Feast with fellow food writer Paul Galvani and his charming wife Chris. Paul grew up in London, Chris grew up in Germany and both are extremely fond of offal dishes. Paul also has a weakness for traditional English cookery.
For starters, my tablemates and I gnawed on three confit duck necks. There is no elegant way to eat this appetizer, which is why it was served with a finger bowl full of water and extra napkins. The meat that I managed to get off the skinny bones tasted okay. The braising sauce that was left behind on the plate was actually the best part. We sopped it up with lots of sourdough.
We also sampled an ox heart cut into thin strips and roasted. It was tasty, if a little tough. For our entrées, we got the suggestively named coq and tongue pie, which tasted like a good chicken pot pie with a few extra chewy bits — and the dish called steak and kidney pudding.
We shared an amazing bottle of 2005 Spanish Navarra from Santa Cruz de Artazu with dinner. The Grenache grapes in this wine came from 80-year-old vines, and the wine's highly concentrated flavor was silky smooth. The wine went well with the duck necks, the ox heart and the pot pie, but when I tasted the steak and kidney pudding, I wished I had a beer.
Almost two years ago, in a review of Firkin & Phoenix pub ["Blame Canada," January 11, 2007], I reported on an unpleasant experience with urine-scented steak and kidney pie. "My biggest regret about the Firkin experience is that now I have to establish whether I hate steak and kidney pie, or if Firkin & Phoenix's was poorly prepared. Which means I am going to have to eat (and smell) some more of it," I wrote at the time.
After that review appeared, Paul Galvani invited me over to his house for some properly prepared steak and kidney pie, but somehow I never got around to it. So when Paul and I found ourselves at Feast with steak and kidney pudding on the menu, I knew we had to order it to put this matter to rest.
The pudding was a bland, doughy mass. The steak beneath it was overcooked, as is the custom. The combination of steak, gravy and pudding tasted fine. But the lima bean-sized chunks of kidney smelled like pee. I insisted that Paul eat a large piece. As he fished it out of the pudding and lifted it to his mouth, I could smell it from across the table. As he chewed, I asked him to tell me it tasted great — which he did.
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So now I can say without a doubt that I hate kidneys — in pudding or pie.
For dessert, we ate the raisin and pastry roll called "spotted dick," which was served with custard on the side, and a wonderful version of sticky toffee pudding, which resembles a syrup of melted candy poured over a piece of cake. Paul almost teared up as he ate the toffee pudding — he said it took him back to his boyhood.
Opinions about Feast vary wildly. Most adventurous eaters and Europeans adore the place. When I quizzed people who told me that they found the food uneven or unimpressive, all of them confessed to ordering red snapper or flounder. Feast is not the place to eat Gulf seafood. "Rustic European Fare" is the way Feast describes its cooking and, for the most part, you are best off sticking to foods of that description.
I hated the kidneys, but I would much rather visit a restaurant that pushes the envelope on fine dining than one that panders to the timid. I am really looking forward to eating at Feast over the holidays — as the weather gets colder, this kind of food tastes better and better.