It's Sunday morning, just 15 minutes shy of 10 a.m., and already, a small line had formed as I entered Paulie's on Westheimer for an encore of Chef Justin Yu's popular Money Cat Brunch pop-up. A fundraiser for the newly formed OKRA (Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs) non-profit, the event featured an all-star cast of some of Houston's best and brightest.
The host in charge of seating was none other than Anvil owner Bobby Heugel himself, the man responsible for spearheading the OKRA organization. Paulie's owner Paul Petronella was manning the cash register. Greenway Coffee's David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto were doing coffee, sommeliers Justin Vann and Antonio Gianola were among the many volunteers acting as servers and bussers, and a whole slew of some of Houston's best chefs were working the line in the kitchen: Justin Yu, Peter Jahnke, Chris Shepherd, Seth Siegel-Gardner, Terrence Gallivan and Antoine Ware.
And the chefs weren't just in the kitchen. As I entered the door, I bumped into Grant Gordon, Tony's four-star Executive Chef, one among many who had turned out in support of the fledgling OKRA organization. Also spotted were Xuco Xicana's Jonathan Jones, Restaurant Conat's Chris Leung, Eatsie Boy's Matt Marcus and Revival Market's Morgan Weber. But enough name-dropping. If I wanted to, I could probably fill the entire page with a veritable who's who of industry folk -- chefs, restaurant owners, servers, bartenders, and more.
The Money Cat Brunch is all about the food, and as usual, the spread was glorious.
For those who had been to previous Money Cat Brunches, there were small echoes from the past: bright yellow Money Cat coloring books and crayons, small money cat figurines on each of the tables, and repeats of favorites from the past, like the crispy spicy potatoes topped with garlic, fried egg and kewpie mayo -- spicy, bursting with flavor, and oh-so-good.
But for the most part, the menu was entirely new, and though I couldn't get myself to order the controversial lightly boiled balut (fertilized duck embryo), my two girlfriends and I took at stab at more than half of the menu.
First up, four buttered black pepper biscuits topped with fresh uni acted as a palate teaser, the creamy uni set against the crisp, shortbread-like biscuit doing just enough to whet the appetite.
From there, the meal took off like a jungle jeep on an adventure in the rain forest. It was a wild food ride, but we were committed from the start to the exhilarating end. Crispy-on-the-outside but soft-on-the-inside rice cakes, covered under a mountain aromatic herbs, fried rapini, peanuts and chili-miso sauce, were undeniably delicious. Little touches, like the bright red slash of chili-miso sauce, and the crunchiness of freshly roasted peanuts, added pleasurable components of spice and texture.
We were encouraged to order everything at once so that the chefs could get them out quickly, and that they did. Within minutes of the first couple of dishes coming out, our entire table was filled with an array of dishes.
There was the whole crispy fried Gulf whiting, with miso-garlic butter and a dirty-rice that they called "guts & glory." I don't know how the fish was marinated, but the white flesh and crispy skin topped with miso-garlic-butter was savory and full of flavor, reminiscent of a sea-salt baked fish I'd had in the past. The crispy parts were the best for me, and I ended up breaking off the head and tail and eating as much of the crispy skin as I could.
Two slabs of skirt steak, smothered in greens and crispy fried onions, and flavored with fish sauce aoili, chili-shrimp sauce, and peppers over white rice, was a steal for $15. We ordered the skirt steak medium rare, and the combination of sauces and toppings were, like my friend said, "an explosion of flavor in my mouth!"
The rice congee soup with slab of seared Spam, boiled egg, and generous topping of wispy thin salmon colored bonito flakes, had me counting the ways I love Spam. The Chinese-Hawaiian-Japanese-esque concoction is something I could probably eat every Sunday morning if given the chance.
Feeling as satisfied as fat money cats after massacring all the dishes, my girlfriends and I got up quickly so that waiting patrons, many of whom were standing on the sidewalk outside, could get seated.
In fact, at one point, there were so many people waiting, a stand was set up outside with iced coffee and small white bags of Money Cat-stamped Doughboi's pandan-glazed donut holes, so that people could nibble on a little something while they waited.
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As we were leaving, Bobby Heugel told us that all the proceeds from the brunch would go to funding OKRA advocacy and initiatives, including quarterly food events, like a whole pig roast for 2,000 to 3,000 people they have planned at the end of April to early May.
"I don't think people really realize how committed we are to this organization," Heugel said, "After getting Hay Merchant and Underbelly off the ground, I view my full time job to be OKRA going forward, and to really turn this into something that captures the soul of the independent restaurant in Houston, to try and build that relationship between the community and the restaurant establishments."