Houstonians love to eat out for a good cause. And when eating for good involves a celebrity chef pop-up? Even better. And that’s what happened last night, when celebrity chef Michael MIna and executive chef EJ Miller of International Smoke teamed up with hometown celeb chefs Hugo Ortega and Ruben Ortega on a special five-course menu benefitting Texas Children’s Hospital.
Dubbed “Grilling for a cause,” the $49 menu, which included a choice of red or white wine, was not only an incredible value but an ambitious one, and by 7 p.m., the dining room was completely packed.
Sometimes with collaborations, the menu is coordinated in such a way that each chef takes ownership of a course, but in this case, it was a true collaboration, combining smoked and grilled elements that are the signature of International Smoke with Mexican elements that characterize Ortega’s cooking.
The first course, a smoked oxtail over squid ink rice cake, with a mole pasilla, was delicious, a two-bite punch that served as an amuse bouche, setting the stage for what would come next.
A salad of of butter lettuces topped with fresh crab meat, smoked trout roe, and cumin vinaigrette followed, the simplicity of the dish, and its focus on the freshness of the ingredients, very Chez Panisse-like in my mind — a reflection, perhaps of Mina’s hometown of San Francisco.
The third course was the reason you go to pop-ups in the first place. It’s in the hopes that you’ll get to taste something unexpected or creative, and the fish course — a deboned red perch, stuffed with tamal, wrapped in hoja santa leaf, and topped with roe — totally delivered. Served with the head off, the fork-tender fish was moist and supple, the tamal adding an unexpectedly delicious corn flavor, while the mole and the unique herbaceousness of the hoja santa leaf tied everything together.
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A fourth course of grilled ribeye cap (pictured at top) — the most flavorful and tender part of the ribeye, came next. A fantastic cut that would be delicious on its own with just plain salt and pepper, the Ortega touch was to top it with mole infused with chicatana ants (a Oaxacan delicacy), and it worked wonderfully. The mole — smoky, earthy, and soulful, with incredible umami — added incredible complexity to an already spectacular cut.
For the final course, pastry chef Ruben Ortega came up with a roasted, caramelized pineapple. EJ Miller and his team came up with the pecan praline ice cream — a marriage made in heaven.