If people in The Woodlands are tired of not having an ambitious dining experience in their part of town, the wait is over. Moreover, it’s a tasting menu that people closer to the heart of Houston who enjoy elaborate dinners should consider in their dining plans.
We profiled chef Austin Simmons in a recent cover story about young, up-and-coming executive chefs. He already has a long track record of working alongside some of the best chefs in Texas. After culinary school, he worked at Michelin-starred Mansion On Turtle Creek in Dallas under James Beard-winning chef Dean Fearing and then later under John Tesar. When Tesar opened his eponymous restaurant in The Woodlands, Simmons joined him. When the controversial chef left, Simmons, along with Jeramie Robison, shouldered the executive chef responsibilities.
When the undercapitalized restaurant shut its doors, Simmons took his hard-won education and experience down the street to Hubbell & Hudson, where he is today.
Cureight is a restaurant inside of a restaurant. It’s small—only 25 seats—and nestled near the kitchen in what is affectionately called “the bunker.” It’s an elegant dining room though, so don’t think you’re going into some kind of Spartan environment. A big glass door and window gives diners a front-row view of the chef and his assistants creating the small, elaborate plates. They are "officially" taking reservations on June 18, but it's a good idea to get in touch early with reservation requests via their web site. We were able to get an early look at what diners can expect.
(By the way, there is nearly no cell phone reception in “the bunker” so get your calls and texts out of the way before dinner so you can simply sit back, relax and enjoy the meal. The worst case scenario is taking a break between courses to check your phone if needed.)
Dinner started with an amuse bouche so powerful and compelling that diners were still talking about it at the end of the night. If there was one regret, it was that we wanted more and thought it perhaps would be successful as a plated version, too.
The starter that set our tongues wagging for the course of the evening was fresh hamachi in San Bai Zu sauce (also known as Sanbai Zu), a combination of primarily dashi, soy, rice vinegar. A restrained bit of jalapeño added a pop of heat and on top were pure white tiny spheres of coconut milk. It was all served together in a single spoon—a small bite with huge impact.
Next up was some of the most clean beautiful bay scallops seen in recent memory. There was not a trace of grit. They were tan, firm and incredibly fresh. Nearly translucent slices of fresh radish were laid in the shallow bowls and wafer-thin slices fresh jalapeño followed. Simmons included tomato “hearts”—the juicy, seedy part—alongside and the scallops were touched with a bit of brown butter.
When nature hands you perfection, little more is needed—except, perhaps, a good wine pairing. The pairing of 2012 Ga’ia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment from Santorini, Greece with the bay scallops proved to be the star of the evening. The complex citrus and underlying minerality, paired with the shellfish, let you easily imagine what it would be like to dine on the same dish on a rocky shore.
All of the wine pairings, in fact, were quite good and led diners around the world, from Piedmont to South Africa. Wine manager Derek Ryan put on quite a good show.
In a move that seemed daring—even a little cheeky—Simmons served his take on Oyster & Pearl, a dish made famous by Thomas Keller at The French Laundry. Even Keller would probably love the homage of a perfect oyster with a hearty dose of caviar on top nestled in a sauce of oyster “liquor,” oyster, dashi, truffle, shallots, and just a little butter.
As for desserts, pastry chef Nguyet Nguyen's creations perfectly keep pace with the high bar set by the savory courses. We're not going to give away the main dessert we had (that one is better left as a surprise) but the ending of macaroons and caramel filled chocolates were an appropriate ending—a last look at the elegant repast.
Those are just a few of the dishes that diners might experience at Cureight. The menu, of course, will change based on what’s fresh and available.The tasting menu ranges from $100 to $150, depending on the selections, and the wine pairings add another $50 to $75. Cureight will work well for special occasion celebrations, business groups and friends or families who just want to share a special dining experience.
For those who have to make a significant drive to The Woodlands, you could do far worse than make a "staycation" out of the trip and opt to spend a night at one of the nearby hotels, like the small five-story Hyatt on Market Street that's just a few blocks away. It's much nicer than making a long slog home on a full belly and an excuse to have brunch the next morning before you head back. Hubbell & Hudson, Jasper's and Fielding's Wood Grill are all fine options.
Simmons' ambition for his restaurant-inside-a-restaurant is transparent and invigorating. One thing that sets his menu apart from others is that he's a big fan of meats and hearty elements, even in his small plates. Dining at Cureight is a satisfying, memorable experience.