This week, Chef Johan Schuster sat down with us for a long chat. We learned a bit about his homeland of Transylvania, how its woodsy, fertile soil served as a playground for mushroom foraging trips with this grandfather. He talked about Count Dracula, aka Count Vlad Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler, the Count who would impale his prisoners on a stake, drawing blood. We found out about Schuster's mentor, a chef of the old school, who also served as the chef for the last Romanian King. And then he told us what his food is all about at Charivari: seasonal cooking, classic techniques, and fresh ingredients.
In Transylvania, nose-to-tail cooking is the norm, so we started with a couple of things that exemplify that style. A house-made pork rillette, smeared generously over a just-crisped slice of thinly cut baguette and accented with droplets of a balsalmic-fig reduction, epitomized classic French cooking. The rillette was mild in flavor, but excellent, letting the balsamic-fig sauce, which was sweet and fragrant, do the heavy lifting in terms of flavoring the dish. Give me a small plateful of that rillette with a bottle of red wine, and I could gladly sit for hours.
Next, we had something you don't often see in Houston, a classic head cheese, cut thick like a terrine. Again, the aspect of the "classic" really hit home with this dish, which seemed so simple it belied the technique required to make it. The clear brown aspic was firm and jello-like, skillfully flavored and perfectly seasoned. It was like something you'd find in some faraway mom and pop restaurant in the French countryside and very delicious.
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The rest of the tasting focused less on classics and more on seasonality. A mushroom soup cappuccino, whipped to an airy consistency so that the creamy soup was more foamy than creamy, was notable for its presentation as well as the deep flavors of mushrooms with a hint of marsala. He used fresh chanterelles and dry porcini in this soup, and though it was a little heavy on the salt for me, I enjoyed the strong wild mushroom flavor and light-as-air textures.
For his tuna tartare, he took a huge slab of beautiful, deep red, sashimi-grade, Bigeye tuna, and then whipped out his Shun knives to give me a quick knife-skills show as he chopped up up the tuna into tiny bits and pieces before setting it into a round mold. Served with sesame oil, sauteed sea-asparagus, and salmon roe, and finished off with chili-infused olive oil, the final product was reminiscent of a spicy tuna roll in terms of flavor, very fresh, and delicious.
For our final dish, Schuster wrapped a filet of just-flown-in Alaskan Halibut with cedar sheets from Oregon, then threw it on the grill. Served with grilled fresh chanterelles, venere black rice, a beautifully light whipped beurre blanc foam, and adorned with edible flowers, the plump white fish took center spotlight, and oh did it shine. The cedar sheet had infused the fish with this mildly woody aroma, and the beurre blanc foam was rich yet exceedingly light at the same time.
"European Continental and New Contemporary Cuisine" is how Schuster described his food. I didn't quite get it when he described it, but after the tasting it all became clear. It's a mixture of old an new, of classic French with Nouvelle French, of his Transylvanian roots and love of fresh, seasonal products mixed with this tradition of using an animal from head to tail. And in looking at it that way, Charivari, the French word, the name, the concept, makes a whole lot of sense. It's just Schuster's mix of everything he's accumulated in his 34 years as a chef and cook, and it's pretty darn good, indeed.