Pretty. But is it pretty tasty?

Molecular Madness at Max's Wine Dive

What if our relationship to food was not one of physical necessity?

What if we consumed food not for corporeal nourishment but solely for pleasure and intellectual stimulation, much as a music lover consumes a symphony or as an art lover consumes a painting?

What would food look like, feel like, smell like, sound like, and most importantly taste like, in such a circumstance?

Fortunately for the food-obsessed among us who lay awake at night pondering such questions, a culinary movement known by the blanket term molecular gastronomy (MG for short) has evolved over the last 20 years to answer such imponderables. In recent years the movement has gained considerable momentum with the near-universal recognition of two MG practitioners as the "best restaurants in the world": El Bulli in Spain and The Fat Duck in the UK. The success and adulation showered upon these twin pillars of the MG movement have spawned a number of high-profile MG restaurant launches in the US -- Alinea and Moto in Chicago, wd~50 and Tailor in New York City, minibar in Washington D.C., and The Bazaar in Los Angeles.

The definition of molecular gastronomy is a moving target, often meaning different things to different people. In general, MG is described as having the following characteristics:

  • Using various cooking techniques to extract, enhance and "improve" the flavor and texture of foods and ingredients.

  • Incorporating all the senses -- touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste -- to intensify and embellish the experience of eating and dining.

  • Challenging preconceptions about food and eating -- what should be cold/hot, what should be sweet/savory, what should be, well, edible. For instance Moto restaurant in Chicago is notorious for having printed menus that are edible.

Aside from its potentially off-putting scientist-geek terminology and weird culinary alchemy, the MG movement has in fact created spectacular "advancements" in the culinary arts in the form of delicious and provocative dishes. The critical and popular success of MG restaurants all over the world is a testament to that advancement.

There are currently no true molecular gastronomy restaurants in Houston. Yes, several of Houston's best chefs and restaurants incorporate MG techniques and dishes, including Randy Rucker at Rainbow Lodge (Rucker previously helmed the restaurant laidback manor in downtown Houston, the first and only pure MG restaurant in Houston, now closed) as well as Scott Tycer at Textile.

Which isn't to say Houston chefs aren't experimenting. Recently Chef Michael Dei Maggi of Max's Wine Dive hosted a 7-course, MG-inspired tasting dinner with wine pairings. The dinner was billed as a "brief examination of clinical insanity as it relates to groundbreaking developments in the culinary world." In other words, this would be a food-focused mad scientist party with the hyperkinetic Chef Mike cooking up the goods. Count me in. I attended at no charge as a guest of Chef Mike.

Chef Mike exudes creative energy and this type of dining "event" is right up his alley. No detail is too small and no flourish too grand. Upon arriving at Max's we were greeted by an army of lab coat-wearing servers who would direct the front of house as Chef Mike worked his alchemy in the kitchen.

The tongue-in-cheek mad scientist theme was reinforced by the place settings of a reservation card made of real x-ray film and menus printed as medical prescriptions.

Having recently read about the edible menus at Moto in Chicago, I half-expected the x-ray film to be some kind of crazy, edible gelatin film. I took a bite. Alas it was just plastic and not at all tasty. I suppose the sight of me gnawing on an x-ray film was either humorous or horrifying to the other diners at Max's, but such are the occasional indignities of dining MG style.

And then the dishes started arriving in waves. I will highlight a couple of dishes and describe how they relate to MG cuisine.

Quail egg five ways

The 1st course, entitled "five little quail eggs," is a classic MG riff -- take one ingredient and apply multiple cooking techniques to extract a spectrum of flavors and textures, the more unusual and surprising the better. In this case a quail egg provided the culinary fodder. Quail egg prepared 5 ways -- pickled, fried, custard-ized, sieved, and raw. Highlights included the warm, soft, and savory custard infused with quail egg "essence," marked by a subtle gaminess and met with admittedly puzzled looks by a few of my dining companions. Even weirder, and more successful in my opinion, was the raw quail egg, oyster, and cucumber "shooter." The earthiness of the egg yolk combined with the metallic brininess of the oyster, the egg white mixing with the faint oyster liquor, and the tartness of the cucumber all combined to create a truly unique flavor experience that was both provocative and intensely satisfying.

Foie gras, shiitake, popcorn lollipop

The most overtly MG-inspired dish was undoubtedly the popcorn, shiitake, and foie gras "lollipop" that was "cooked" tableside in liquid nitrogen by Chef Mike. It was then placed on a splash of sweet/savory miso butterscotch sauce. Perhaps unexpectedly, the dish succeeded spectacularly -- the liquid nitrogen literally transforming the ingredients into a dish that is both foreign and familiar. Visually, the dish reminds you of a candied apple. Flavor-wise, the crunchiness of the frozen popcorn mixed with the fascinating hard-ice-cream-like texture of the cold foie gras (yet still retaining its salty/meaty richness), with the shiitakes creating occasional bursts of soft earthiness, offered a real taste of the MG experience. When dipped in the mellow sweetness of the miso butterscotch, this dish was a crowd-pleaser.

The full menu can be viewed here. Among the seven courses there were some clunkers like the duck and pork dumpling in a flaccid miso and kale soup. But to his credit Chef Mike spent considerable time tableside explaining the dishes and taking the occasional critical zinger from a perplexed dining guest as well as compliments for the overall creativity and humor of this mad scientist dining "event." Chef Mike readily admitted he was experimenting with this dinner, albeit with outstanding ingredients, wines, execution, service, and attention to detail.

Undoubtedly there will be more Houston chefs experimenting with MG techniques, either with the occasional menu item or a one-off dining event like the mad scientist party at Max's.

Will there ever be another pure-play MG restaurant like the trail-blazing but possibly ahead-of-its-time laidback manor? Hard to say, especially given the current economy. But if such a restaurant does open, let's hope that Houston diners will conclude that there is a tasty and satisfying method to the molecular madness.

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