Local Spotlight

Plant-Based Dining Reigns Supreme at Aces of Taste Pop-Up Dinner

“Two days ago, you didn’t even know where you would be eating, and now you’re here. I think that’s pretty awesome,” said Ahrif Sarumi, owner of pop-up meal series Aces of Taste, in his opening comments before the meal. 

Aces of Taste is a nine-month-old pop-up dining concept that features veteran and upcoming chefs around Houston. While it has featured a great variety of chefs from chef and owner Justin Turner of Bernie's Burger Bus to Fluff Bake Bar's Rebecca Masson to executive chef Monica Pope of Sparrow, I had been patiently awaiting a meal without meat on the menu. This month's dinner featured chef Stephanie Hoban of the Ripe Cuisine food truck and the first entirely plant-based dinner menu, so I shelled out $75 for the ticket and impatiently awaited my email (which arrived two days prior to the event) containing further details on the location, parking, dress code and event format.

This event location turned out to be a shared space in east downtown, the industrial interior transformed into a worthy supper club setting with glowing candles and white furnishings, complete with a photo booth and full DJ set up. I ended up at a table with five other guests, only one of whom is actually vegan, but all of whom were up for a new dining experience.

The 45-minute “social hour” in between the 6:30 p.m. event start time and the serving of the first course provided a nice buffer in which to enjoy a couple of refreshing Cointreau-based cocktails, chat with my tablemates and nibble on some passed appetizers — mini smoked carrot tacos in a sesame mole sauce with a shell of vibrant raw kohlrabi, and bite-size nachos with pan Asian pulled jackfruit (which looks and tastes brilliantly similar to pulled pork) on a wonton chip.

Sitting near the front of the room afforded me a great view as chef Stephanie Hoban and her team hustled to prep and finish each of the courses — and what courses they were.

The first proved to be one of my favorites: salt-roasted wedges of beets nestled in a nut-based curry chèvre and two flavorful slices of seed-encrusted “everything” avocado were the highlights; ruffles of lettuce dressed in a light vinaigrette with acidic pops of pickled mustard seeds provided a delightfully fresh backdrop.

The second course was a take on the classic steak and potatoes — only with the potato moved to center stage. Browned bits of fried mushroom and a garlicky cabbage slaw helped amp up the flavors of a beautifully grilled baby potato under fresh pea shoots and sautéed sugar snap peas.

The third course was perhaps the most impressive and imaginative dish: a plant-based vegan seascape with seared king oyster mushrooms standing in for scallops and a grilled endive “razor clam” topped with juicy neon balls of sriracha “caviar.” While no one was fooling anyone aside from appearances given the chewiness of the “scallops” and the unmistakable lettuce essence of the endive, they were still tasty additions to the small pile of kombu dashi-marinated kelp noodles over an extraordinarily tasty mushroom mousse.

Dessert featured a surprise ingredient — both the flourless brownie and marshmallow-like puddle of fluffernutter were made out of black beans and chickpea liquid, respectively. While these items, along with the salted peanut butter banana ice cream, hinted at the flavors of a healthful dessert, they made for a lighter end to the meal while still retaining a decadent feel.

Dinner was followed by a 15-minute moderated Q&A with the chef, with many questions culled from the audience. A raffle sent several guests home with treats from local plant-based milk vendor Malk, Cointreau and Snap Kitchen before surprise vendor Kit and Ace made an appearance, sending each guest home with one article of the brand's “technical cashmere” clothing.

Though I had been hesitant to drop $75 on a single pop-up dinner, between my $10 Snap Kitchen voucher and my new über-comfy Kit and Ace shirt (which retails for $78 online), I had already more than covered the cost of my ticket, and that’s not counting the full spread of delicious plant-based food I got to taste. Plus, Aces of Taste really delivered a full experience with a pleasant, intimate atmosphere where I got to receive exposure to a chef I had been curious about for ages and meet other food-loving people. For those seeking a unique dining experience with great exposure to chefs, fantastic food and great people, Aces is a worthy option.
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Erika Kwee is a freelance food writer, photographer and contributor to the Houston Press who particularly enjoys exploring the many unique sweet spots around Houston. She is constantly on the hunt for exceptional pad thai, vegetarian dumplings and pancakes.