The pile of freshly shelled lobster meat in my seafood pot-au-feu includes a perfectly intact whole claw. I dunk a chunk of lobster in the savory broth at the bottom of the bowl and slurp it, still dripping, into my mouth. Mixed in with the lobster are some sweet braised shallots as well as some neatly halved scallops. The seafood broth at the bottom of the bowl is flavored with lemongrass and coconut milk.
Like much of what I've eaten at Noé, the shockingly innovative new restaurant in the Omni Houston Hotel, the taste of this dish is sensational, exotic and difficult to describe. The American lobster, French shallots and Asian lemongrass in this whimsically named dish are familiar, but the combination of them is not.
Chef Noé Robert Gadsby defines the highly original cooking style at this fantastical new restaurant as progressive American or Franco-Japanese (see Toque Off, "The Great Gadsby," December 16). Some of the food, like the tuna-jalapeño sashimi with tomato ceviche, is mind-blowing. Some of it, like the roasted quail with celery-apple mashed potatoes, tastes pretty pedestrian. And some of it, like the seafood pot-au-feu, is way over everybody's head.
When I asked our waitress about the dish as I looked over the menu, she said pot-au-feu meant "pot on fire" in French and referred to the spiciness of the lemongrass broth. But she was way off base. The broth isn't fiery at all. In fact, Gadsby was making a little joke -- and she didn't get it.
Pot-au-feu does indeed mean "pot on fire," but it's the name of an ancient French boiled dinner of meat and vegetables slowly simmered in a giant pot of water. The rich broth formed in the cooking is eaten as a soup with croutons for the first course. Then the meat and vegetables are served with coarse salt, pickles and horseradish for the main course. I happen to know it well because I ate a lot of it while traveling on a tight budget; it's a cheap and filling meal that can be found all over France.
The first time I visited Noé, I was intrigued by the clever idea of a seafood pot-au-feu, but I wondered how far Gadsby had taken the parody. Did he serve the broth first and the seafood later, as in the traditional dish? Were there any vegetables? So I asked the waiter about it. He said pot-au-feu was a French boiled seafood dish. When I asked for more details, he said he would inquire in the kitchen. Sometime later, he repeated the misinformation with renewed assurance.
Obviously, the menu is written with some poetic license. Such wordplay comes naturally to Gadsby, whose parents were literature nuts. His first name, Noé, is itself an arcane reference to author Ernest Vincent Wright's oddball book Gadsby, a 50,110-word novel that doesn't contain the letter e. Get it? No-e Gadsby. Chef Gadsby wisely decided to avoid the long explanation and go by his middle name, Robert.
But the obscure menu language isn't arbitrary. The allusions explain where the chef came up with his highly conceptual dishes. Take the name of his signature dish, "gingered butternut squash and lobster soup, almond cloud and hazelnut veil," for instance. Yes, it is deliberately obtuse. But it helps to know that "cloud" is a term for flavored foams made famous by the cutting-edge Spanish chef Ferran Adria. Almond cloud turns out to be an almond-flavored whipped cream. The hazelnut veil is a sprinkling of chopped nuts.
The squash-and-lobster soup itself is spectacular, though far more straightforward than the hard-to-decipher moniker would suggest. "Why all the fuss about clouds and veils when you can barely even taste them?" my dining companion wondered.
And what is anybody supposed to make of an appetizer called "celery root, Jonah crab napoleon, curried tomato fondue and egg sunny side up"? We ordered the dish just to see what the hell it was.
It turned out to be a luscious, pale-colored mess as undefined on the plate as it was on the menu. Jonah crab is an Atlantic creature. The celery root was sliced into disks that were supposed to act like the pastry layers in a napoleon, but they were too chewy to cut through. You had to shove them to the side and saw them into bite-size pieces. The word fondue was being used accurately, but obscurely, to mean a slow-cooked goo of cut-up vegetables. At least I knew what a sunny-side-up egg was.
If I were your waiter, I would describe the dish as a crab-and-tomato hash with a fried egg on the side. But then maybe you wouldn't want to pay $15 for it.
Noé's elegant Asian modern decor features Japanese art, black lacquered chairs, a blue-and-rust carpet and lots of blue accent lighting. It's an inviting space, but on a recent Friday night at nine, the bar was completely empty and the restaurant was less than a third occupied.
It was hard to make any generalizations about the clientele. There were some visitors from Mexico who were probably staying at the hotel. There was a pair of men (metrosexuals?) talking loudly with the waiter about their chamomile tea. An Asian twentysomething and his date were quietly sipping wine. And the gruff guy sitting at the table directly behind me told the waiter that he was the chef at another downtown fine-dining restaurant.
The Houston Noé is the sister restaurant of the original Noé in Los Angeles, which is located in another Omni hotel. When it first opened there, the extremely cutting-edge cuisine baffled and amazed the critics. Old-guard types like John Mariani hated it. Jonathan Gold, the restaurant critic at the L.A. Weekly, was blown away by it. Gadsby was making a splash with the first Noé, and he wanted to convince the world that he still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
Born in Bedford, England, to parents from the Caribbean, Gadsby attended culinary school in London, then apprenticed under the top chefs of France. Then, in a career move reminiscent of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, he went to work in Asia. Gadsby first went to Los Angeles to work with chef Thomas Keller in the '80s. He wowed Hollywood in the late '90s with one of the city's most innovative restaurants, Gadsby's, which closed a few years later.
L.A. was already acquainted with the wildly creative Gadsby. Houston is still trying to figure him out. No doubt Gadsby spent lots of time in the dining room at the original Noé talking to patrons and relaunching his career. Too bad we aren't getting much of that treatment here. What's now old hat in Los Angeles still needs a little bit of an introduction in Houston.
Gadsby wasn't around that Friday night. That's okay -- he's hired some talented people in Houston to fill in for him. The half-Japanese, half-Lithuanian fusion genius Mike Potowski left Mantra to go to Noé and work with Gadsby. But unfortunately, chef Potowski didn't make any appearances in the dining room that night either.
I guess Gadsby wants us to figure out his menu poetry for ourselves. I gave it a try with an appetizer the chef calls "foie gras three preparations yesterday-today-tomorrow."
What came to the table was a rectangular dish with three servings of foie gras. On the left was a classic foie gras au torchon, with a tiny toast point stuck in it. This is an old-fashioned preparation in which the whole lobe of goose liver is wrapped in muslin, poached in wine and served on toast. Okay, that makes sense for the yesterday part.
Next to that, in the middle, was the teeniest cast-iron skillet you have ever seen. And in the little skillet was a tiny mound of scrambled eggs with a little chunk of lightly seared fresh foie gras on top. Fresh foie gras is much more exciting than the old-fashioned long-cooked stuff and has only been available in this country since the '80s, so that makes sense for today.
To the right of the skillet was a little round bowl filled with some kind of pistachio custard. I was told it also had cubes of cooked foie gras in it, but I couldn't find them. I couldn't taste them either. Maybe Gadsby was trying to tell me that in the future there won't be any foie gras? Or that I will have to use my imagination to taste it?
The larger question this study in foie gras presented was what to drink with it. Gadsby often serves little glasses of fruit juice or cocktails with his food, and he missed an opportunity here. What will we be drinking with foie gras tomorrow? And of more immediate concern, what was I supposed to drink with this appetizer right now?
I asked my waitress to make a recommendation. She knew that a sweet white wine like Sauternes is considered the classic combination with foie gras. But none was offered by the glass on Noé's wine list. She said it was too bad there wasn't any Riesling available by the glass at the moment, since that wine has some sweetness and also would go well with the foie gras. She said she would ask the manager if she could open a bottle. But she returned with a bottle of Pinot Gris and told me her manager had recommended it.
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Pinot Gris, known in Italian as Pinot Grigio, is usually pretty low in acid and fruit. I asked the waitress if this one was different, but she had no information. I suspected it was simply the white wine the manager most wanted to get rid of.
So I persisted: Did chef Gadsby have a cocktail or something he recommended with the foie gras three ways? The waitress went back to the manager again. Finally, my stubbornness was rewarded. The manager suddenly remembered there was an open half-bottle of Sauternes in the kitchen refrigerator. So I finally got a glass of sweet white wine to accompany the foie gras. But getting an appropriate beverage turned out to be a bigger head game than figuring out the foie gras.
Noé is a playful, challenging restaurant. Much of the food is astonishing. Some of it is transcendental. Sure, the menu reads like a list of culinary crossword puzzle clues. But luckily for sybarites, you don't need to get the chef's jokes to enjoy a mouthful of succulent lobster. And all those food geeks who are familiar with words like quince, quinoa, tataki and pot-au-feu will enjoy the place even more.
Just don't go expecting an education. You have to figure Noé out for yourself.