Feast's friends and fans packed the little house at 219 Westheimer for a final taste of hearty delights such as fish and scallop pie and coq au vin. The sold-out final night was a fitting end for a place that convinced Houstonians that offal was not awful. Indeed, under the skilled hands of chefs James Silk and Richard Knight, it was often delightful.
When Feast opened five years ago, the Houston dining landscape was very different from today. Few casual diners knew what "bycatch" was and the idea of being able to order meals made with humanely-sourced meats was practically a pipe dream. The idea of using as much as possible from a whole animal seemed like a good notion, but how did that work in practice?
As Feast taught us, it worked deliciously. British food could be interesting and eye opening. We learned that pig's ear cake was similar to a savory bread pudding imbued with cracklins and brought alive with the tang of mustard.
(Since you can no longer buy it, you can try your hand at making Feast's Pig's Ear Cake yourself, if you dare. The recipe is available online at The Daily Meal. If you contact Revival Market ahead of time, they can acquire pigs' ears for you. Houston chef and former MasterChef competitor Alvin Schultz says they're also available at Asian markets such as Viet Hoa.)
The bacon-like "Bath chaps" dish helped more people realize that pork cheeks were cuts to be coveted. I doubt many Houstonians knew what "Exmoor toasts" were at first, but I bet a lot of us quickly learned that the cream-slathered, anchovy-topped delights were the required beginning to a wonderful meal.
Even well-known dishes were treated with special care at Feast. I'll never forget their chicken pot pie with the toasty, high dome of perfectly browned crust. How many Houston restaurants were serving roasted Brussels sprouts before Feast? I wager not many, but now they're everywhere.
That level of contribution and influence is remarkable for a little restaurant that had almost no available parking. Valet was practically required and the place got off to a rocky start trying to sell "nose to tail" dining to a bunch of steak-loving Texans. In time, they found their market of adventurous eaters and also started accommodating the more timid with offerings of tamer dishes.
Once the primal cuts are used from an animal, the rest can be used for other delights like charcuterie. The chefs of Feast, along with Ryan Pera (formerly of The Grove, now co-owner of Revival Market) and Chris Shepherd (at Catalan at the time, now co-owner of Underbelly), were leaders in the field. They proved that charcuterie could be created in Houston that was as high-end as that imported from Spain and Italy. And it got them some unwanted attention.
Former Houston Press restaurant critic Katharine Shilcutt wrote a James Beard nominated story on the leading edge charcuterie programs in Houston. In a case of unintended consequences, the article served as a handy reference list for inspectors from the City of Houston Health Department. The department's inflexible rules don't take into consideration the special temperature and humidity requirements of charcuterie.
Although it was certainly a nerve-racking trial for the restaurants involved, the overall effect was to raise awareness and start figuring out exactly what it takes to both make charcuterie and stay in compliance with city regulations.
That was only one of the trials for Feast. Another was an ill-fated attempt to establish a second location in New Orleans. The fact that it was located just down the street from the convention center made it seem like a winning proposition. What Feast's owners discovered, though, was that the clientele of the Crescent City were actually less adventurous that that of the Bayou City. A small, barely visible exterior sign didn't help matters and the location died an inglorious death about a year later.
The failure and related financial burdens of the second location marked the beginning of the end. 2012 was a phenomenal year for new restaurant openings and most of them were just down the street from Feast. The same foodies and writers who waved the banner of Feast so ardently when it first started were now down the road chasing the new hotness, as we do. During the last night of service, chef Silk said "If every night had been like tonight, we wouldn't be closing."
I am remarkably lucky to have spent that last, glorious night at Feast amongst friends that I adore. We played round robin with the various wines we'd brought and delighted in meaty snails on toast sprinkled with hearty bits of garlic, the quintessential fish and scallop pie and earthy beef kidneys that demanded a hearty red wine to dance with. I keep replaying those flavors in my mind, because I don't want to ever forget what they were like.
James and Meagan Silk are moving to Brooklyn. They don't know what's next for them. "Maybe something working with dogs or kids," James said jokingly. "Anything but work in a restaurant."
The following morning, Feast sold everything in garage sale fashion... the pots, the pans, the glassware, the collectible pigs and the art off the walls. The sale started at 11 a.m. People started showing up at 10. By the time we arrived at 11:30 a.m., there was little left. One restaurant bought nearly all the furniture.
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By 11:45 a.m., I wondered if people were going to start offering money for the paint on the walls. One framed personal photograph on the wall had a sticky note on it that simply said "No!"
Some buyers were there to find a bargain but many just wanted a few mementos from the restaurant that they loved. Leslie Sprague, blogger at Lushtastic.com, summed it up posted on Twitter: "Tried not to cry again, but got wine glasses, water bottles, those cute salt containers and a pig figurine. Farewell, @FeastHouston."
Most striking was the empty floor with no tables and chairs. There would be no more couples sipping cocktails from the small but well-curated drink list or families partaking of the Sunday roast lamb and parsnips in the homey dining room. The finality of the scene caused me to fight back my own tears.
Richard Knight, along with Chris Cusack and Benjy Mason of Downhouse, will be establishing a new restaurant in the Heights later this year and new memories will be created there. I hope they'll occasionally treat us to some old Feast favorites. I don't really want to go without ever having A Chicken Onion again.