"I kind of stay away from pretentious food, but I try to bring something a little different to the table," says Ben McPherson before launching into an explanation of his re-imagined hushpuppy. It's more like a beignet than a dense ball of cornbread, but it retains the sense of the south that McPherson and his partner, Matt Wommack, have embraced.
The two chefs are the masterminds behind The Bull and the Pearl, a series of pop-ups and supper clubs that they hope to parlay into a restaurant sometime in the near future. They met while Wommack was at Goro & Gun and McPherson at Batanga, both part of the Market Square revival Downtown. When they started talking about future goals, they realized their plans meshed nicely, and they set out to begin building a brand for an eventual restaurant.
For now, they're feeding hungry Houstonians at pop ups, most recently at Paulie's and Good Dog, and monthly supper clubs featuring more upscale menus. Even the more upscale menus steer clear of "pretentious food," though. The most recent supper club meal on April 15 had a seafood theme and featured dishes like red snapper crudo, gulf fisherman's stew and smoked pork rillete with shrimp toast.
The seafood-heavy menu refers to the "pearl" part of the duo's name. And the "bull"? That's all steak.
"The restaurant that we're ultimately working toward will be steak and seafood," McPherson says. "Hence, The Bull and the Pearl."
He says the pop-ups are more indicative of what the food at the restaurant will be like, calling it more accessible than what's served at the supper club. The supper club is a ticketed event, RSVP only, often at a location other than a restaurant. McPherson says more emphasis is placed on presentation at the supper club than at the pop-ups, but based on the most recent pop-up at Paulie's, the restaurant will be serving some good-looking (and tasting) stuff with a focus on local meat and produce.
On the menu was a dish called "biscuits and briskets" composed of smoked brisket and poached eggs atop flaky thyme and black pepper biscuits with green tomato jam. On the sweet side was the chicken and waffle plate with chicken that had been first smoked and then fried in a peppery batter with malted pecan waffles and vanilla syrup.
It's the kind of stick-to-your-ribs Southern food that McPherson grew up with. He was born and raised in the deep South. In spite of these southern and coastal roots, though, McPherson says his style of cooking shies away from the heavy, fried gulf seafood that many Houstonians are probably familiar with.
"We want to ditch the whole french fry, dense hush puppy and boring coleslaw thing to make it more modern and more composed," McPherson says. "But we're still using ingredients people are used to from the Gulf Coast."
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As for the steakhouse component, McPherson says the meat will involve smaller, lesser-known cuts, as opposed to the Texas-sized steaks presented with little fanfare than many of us are used to.
Until they're able to find investors for the restaurant, though, McPherson and Wommack are continuing the series of pop-ups and supper clubs. There aren't any scheduled yet for the future because the duo have been so busy with private catering and party gigs. But when the time comes for more dinners and eventually a new restaurant, McPherson is ready.
"The idea is a big, communal, lively, festive atmosphere," he says. "I'm not trying to re-create the wheel; I'm just trying to find a new wheel."
And damn, that new wheel looks good.