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.