Chef Chat, Part 3: Chris Williams of Lucille's and His Southern Cooking

Chris Williams Lucille's 5512 La Branch Tel: 713-568-2505 www.lucilleshouston.com

This is Part 3 of a three-part Chef Chat series. If you missed our previous posts, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, we've been chatting with chef Chris Williams of Lucille's, the restaurant he named in honor of his great-grandmother, Lucille B. Smith. We learned a bit about the chefs who helped shape his culinary style, how he traded on his cooking skills to survive, how his menu took shape, and how his father's and great-grandmother's experience contributed to its formation. Today we taste some of his food.

We started out with his Backyard Tomato Salad, an heirloom tomato salad made from produce sourced from his garden. Crisp, undeniably fresh wedges of tomatoes of varying shades were tossed in a vinaigrette with bits of frisee, red onion, cucumbers, house-cured crisp applewood bacon bits and creamy blue cheese.

I absolutely loved the salad from top to bottom. The fragrance and flavor of the heirloom tomatoes were extraordinary, and the bits and pieces of other things mixed in added nuances of texture and flavor that were altogether delightful. The bacon bits so crisp and deeply flavored; the red onions and cucumbers crispy yet sweet; the blue cheese creamy yet not too overpowering. The "broken vinaigrette" displayed the perfect balance of tangy and savory -- not too sour, not too salty or sweet, and the just-toasted pretzel bread was excellent as well.

Afterwards, I tried the Fried Green Tomatoes, which had been crusted in cornmeal and deep fried until golden. Topped with a light orange, creamy, spicy sauce that tasted a bit like the Spanish salsa golf, it was a solid rendition of a Southern classic.

Oyster Sliders were next, a beautiful, mouthwatering trio of buttery, crispy, tasty little sandwiches that I ate with gusto (and No. 3 on Joanna O'Leary's list of 10 Oyster Dishes to try in Houston). The slider buns had been toasted with butter so that they had that sear of butter crisp on the inside, the oysters were crisp on the outside, but hot and slippery on the inside, while the sweet and spicy aioli brought everything together. A must-order if you like oysters.

Large, plump shrimp adorned the Shrimp and Grits dish, which displayed his concept of layering flavors. The addition of andouille sausage added a layer of smoky earthiness, while a sherry tomato broth complemented the shrimp in a way that enhanced the somewhat briny element of the seafood.

His Pan-Roasted Chicken showed off some of his newer techniques, in particular, a 45-minute egg that had been cooked sous vide and appeared as this glutinous shiny white orb that made my eyes light up. The chicken breast had been sous vide as well, and pan seared until the skin was crisp. A chanterelle mushroom stew, which was reminiscent of a thicker cream of mushroom soup, finished the dish alongside roasted fingerling potatoes and roasted kale. I was almost loath to break the sous vide egg, but the ooze of creamy yellow yolk that coated the chicken and accompaniments was worth it.

For dessert, house-made pecan pie was topped with bananas foster and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Fresh, steamy coffee served in a shiny silver coffee press accompanied the dessert, which was rich and sweet, the mix of sweet hot banana in caramelized sauce and pecan pie a bit over the top but worth every calorie.

I visited Lucille's intrigued by her legacy, attracted to her story -- this African-American woman whose cooking made such an impact on so many lives, as evidenced by this blog I found about Camp Waldemar's love of Lucille in the 1960's. I left impressed by this charming neighborhood restaurant created by her great-grandson, testament to the fact that even three generations later, the apple does not fall far from the tree.

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