It's safe to say that Houston is a melting pot with a restaurant scene reflects that diversity. Chef Jonathan Levine of Jonathan's The Rub acknowledged that fact six years ago when he added the New Houston Fare section to his menu, which, to him, portrays the current Houston food scene.
Levine comes from a New York/Northeast culinary background. He grew up eating lots of Italian food and seafood. He never thought he would be a chef or owner of a restaurant. In fact, he received an MBA and a master's degree in international studies. But, food has always been a central part of his life and he realized it was an extension of who he was. He studied different cuisines, cooking techniques and skills, and over the years has learned how to incorporate more spice and flavor to "kick up" his Northeast palate.
"I've learned how to kick it up Texas-style, Louisiana-style, and it's reflected on the menus, especially now," Levine says. "New Houston is just that. New Houston is a compilation of what's happening in Houston; it's diverse... There's more types of different people in Houston than anywhere else. When I see people coming through the door and I see people on the streets, it makes me think about what is their fare? What do they eat? What do they like? Because they are our customer base."
Jonathan's The Rub's main menu includes everything from Maryland crab cakes and PEI mussels to pan-seared Gulf red snapper and chicken Parmesan. The menu is an ever-changing extension of his mainstay offerings. Levine explains that when he began serving his interpretation of "new Houston" food in 2008, he saw the Houston economy, specifically with oil and gas, became more diverse, and followed suit.
"A lot of guys are talking about the pork belly craze. It's over the top for me; I don't understand it; I don't want to cook it. Ethnic food reflects who we are," Levine says. "We have a diverse menu, but we are not reinventing the wheel. It's proven tastes that people enjoy. You won't find outrageous ingredients on our menus, and you won't find weird combinations of fried oyster pork belly things that are out there. That's not what we are about."
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Levine's menu features dishes like the Red Fish on Shrimp Creole, a giant plate filled with rice, topped with Andouille, blackened red fish and tender baby shrimp. Another kicked up dish features two boneless quail breasts that are not only stuffed with spicy Andouille and a jalapeno, but are also wrapped in bacon, then topped with one of three sauces (cherry bourbon, sesame ginger mandarin or pomegranate mango).
One of the most popular items is the Hill Country Chicken & Shrimp which features fried jumbo shrimp and chicken breasts topped with sauteed jalapenos, red and yellow bell peppers, sweet onions, bacon crumbles and Sriracha cream sauce. Classic fried chicken and shrimp blend with southwest ingredients (jalapenos, onions and bell peppers), Texas bacon and Asian Sriracha cream creating a spicy, comforting dish.
"It's [The menu is] always in an evolutionary stage," Levine says. "There are items on here that weren't on here last week. I change the menu nightly. It's right off the computer. I go with what's fresh, what's available [and] what do I feel like cooking. I change up combinations of things I've done in the past. We don't do heavy research here. We try it out before service; if we like it, we go. Having so many years of doing this, I know what's going to work."
In fact, the bourbon-infused warm bread pudding is a brand new addition to the dessert menu. Firm, yet soft, bread combines with bourbon and cranberries.A side dish of mac 'n cheese offers five types of cheese and bacon.
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Four years ago, Levine added the lobster tacos to his menu.. This highly popular dish is a "compilation of New England and Southwest food." Lobster meat is tossed with a spicy tomatillo salsa made of fresh tomatillos, and yellow and green bell peppers. Then everything is placed atop a grilled corn tortilla, and finished with an avocado mousse and Aleppo chile (Turkish chile pepper).
"It came about as a frustration that I couldn't build a lobster roll for the Northeast here because I couldn't get the bread. I was real specific about the type of roll that I wanted and I couldn't get it unless I brought it in from the Northeast," he explains. "There's a few people doing it, but not exactly how I wanted, so I kind of gave up on the lobster roll idea and went with the sliders, which comes on sweet Hawaiian rolls... That kind of took off. The next evolution was to 'Texafy' it. I guess it's fusion food; I don't think of myself as a fusion guy, but I guess it is. It just really works."