Chef Chat, Part 3: Kris Jakob of Kris Bistro, Fine Dining without the Price Tag

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This is the third part 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 spent some considerable time chatting with Kris Jakob of Kris Bistro. Growing up in a German household, he started curing sausages with his family from a young age. He worked on the line at the first Macaroni Grill that opened before it became a chain, made chicken fried steaks for 600-plus frat guys at UT, quit pursuing his college degree at UT when his college catering business took off, then enrolled himself into culinary school.

Now an instructor at Culinary Institute LeNotre, Jakob is also executive chef of the bistro that they named after him. What didn't make it into the chat is the fact that the restaurant was structured so that they would operate at just break-even. Which means that the food is incredibly priced, with wines marked up just $10 from what it costs them to buy it. Even more incredibly, you can bring your own bottle for a modest corkage, but that's just the icing on the cake. The real highlight at Kris Bistro is his food.

The menu is simple enough, a one page, front and back affair. One of the things they've become known for, Jakob and general manager Jerry Arguelles tells me, is Jakob's charcuterie. One of his personal passions, Jakob cures all the meats in house and serves them on a custom-made rack hanging from clothespins. To get your piece of charcuterie, you put a plate underneath the meat, pinch open the clothespin, and the meat drops onto your plate.

Service is table-side, meaning that Jakob will usually present the charcuterie plate at your table. From left to right, the meats are arranged in order, with Serrano ham in the middle, and a mirrored complement on the other side. The round, thin, slightly dark colored sausage was introduced as a Northern German style beef summer sausage, something Jakob said he'd been making since he was five. It was slightly drier than a salami, and packed with a peppery flavor.

The cured smoked duck breast, a longish piece with a strip of thin fat running through it that looked like a black tongue, was more tensile on the bite, but smoother, with a pronounced smokiness. I don't typically like lamb, but the flower-shaped, thinly sliced preparation of merguez lamb sausage was delicious. The large-ish piece of cured beef braseola was super tasty as well. The ensemble was served with a small round of duck rillette, cornichons, and house-pickled radishes, the presentation fun and interactive--a steal for $14. Eaten with some of the best French bread you'll ever taste in Houston (prepared by the students daily at the school), it was fantastic.

Next came another popular dish at Kris Bistro, and rightly so. The foie gras torchon. And, oh man. For the people who don't like foie gras, you will not understand how utterly beautiful these two simple rounds of silky foie gras tasted, but for foie gras lovers, this is one of those "run, don't walk," type dishes. In terms of preparation, the foie gras lobes are cured, marinated with spice, rolled together, then cooked sous vide at 112 degrees for a 12 minutes, before being chilled. Served sliced with plump, cognac-soaked dried cherry, the foie spread like butter on the French bread, the rich, heady flavor of foie accented by spice and heightened by bursts of lightly alcoholic, jammy fruit juice from the cherries. Sinful decadence for just $12. You could come here for just the charcuterie, a bottle of wine, and a plate of this foie gras, and die happy.

But there's so much more. That afternoon, I sampled another one of Kris Bistro's signature dishes, his akaushi beef tartare, the strikingly red mound of meat served with an egg yolk in its shell if you wanted to make it taste creamier. The akaushi beef is from a ranch in Yoakum Texas, the meat altered so that the fats are healthier with unsaturated fats. The generous serving is plenty to share, and the textures in this dish were just amazing. Mixed with pickled onions, blanched capers, and curried ketchup for flavor, it was tangy and spicy, the spicy ketchup and pickled onion combination reminding me of horseradish or a strong Dijon mustard. Jakob said that the curried ketchup is very popular in Germany.

For our finale, Jakob served me one of the new specials, not yet on the menu. A beautiful piece of cajun-spiced grilled halibut, sitting on bed of lemon-infused Israeli couscous, with coconut fusion sauce and Vadouvan curry, and spiced grilled okra. The mixture of spices was like an explosion in my mouth, but the coconut foam topping and Israeli couscous had a softening effect that tempered the spice whenever my mouth started burning too much. Creative and unexpected, it showed how Jakob could marry classic technique with Eastern flavors to delightful effect.

Jakob may not be well-known in Houston, but he's a force to be reckoned with. In the span of five years, he's helped transform the culinary school, launched a fine dining restaurant inside the school, and created a working space where students are executing with stronger consistency than many restaurants around town. At some places, you finish dining and leave, wishing for more, thinking that you paid too much. At Kris Bistro, it's the opposite. You leave appreciative of the quality of the meal that you received -- true fine dining without the price tag.

Kris Bistro is definitely my hidden gem discovery of the year. This untraditional, out-of-the-way, located-inside-a-cooking-school restaurant should be on everyone's list of destinations to visit in Houston.

And with that, I leave you with a behind-the-scenes look at action from inside his kitchen:

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