The Great Gadsby

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Robert Gadsby, long considered one of the most creative chefs in Los Angeles, opened his new restaurant, Noé, in the Houston Omni Hotel in mid-November. And in a surprise move, Gadsby announced he is pulling up roots in Tinseltown and relocating to Space City. Over the phone, Gadsby explained what prompted the decision.

"Having lived a long time in Los Angeles, I think I can say life is shallow and meaningless there," Gadsby said in his crisp British accent. "I never much wanted to live in Los Angeles in the first place. I was a victim of circumstance, if not misfortune."

Hired by chef Thomas Keller to work in the Checkers hotel in downtown L.A. in the 1980s, Gadsby became famous as one of that city's new breed of creative chefs. "Keller hates L.A., too," Gadsby added. "He's from San Diego."

After the death of his ten-year-old daughter in a car accident in Germany, Gadsby went into a funk, closing his restaurant, Gadsby's, in 1999. He worked at various restaurants before going into partnership with the Omni in downtown Los Angeles, where he opened the first Noé a little over a year ago. The restaurant's moniker is his real first name, he said. He started going by Robert "because no one knew how to pronounce Noé." (It rhymes with Joey.)

The Houston Noé replaces La Réserve, which was the Omni's highly rated, if somewhat stuffy, French haute cuisine restaurant. "La Réserve was on its last legs," he said. "So they asked me to come out and take a look at Houston. I arrived here, and I was so impressed with the hospitality, I decided to move here."

Gadsby defines his highly original cooking style as progressive American or Franco-Japanese. "It's French for its classicism, Japanese for its discipline, and American for its ingenuity," said the black British chef, whose parents were originally from Bermuda and Jamaica. While his fish and foie gras dishes are well known, his signature dish at Noé in L.A. is "ginger-butternut squash with almond cloud and hazelnut veil." "I grew up vegetarian," he said. "There is no cream and no butter in my food."

Gadsby doesn't grill, which may come as a shock to the charred-meat-loving set in Houston. "Back in the early 1980s, it was grilled meat, grilled vegetables, grilled everything. It was supposed to be healthier, lower-fat. But the food was always undercooked. You can do the same thing in an oven. Anyway, it wasn't part of my training." Gadsby learned to cook in Japan, Italy, France, Singapore and Thailand before moving to California.

The Houston Noé won't have the same menu as the one in L.A. "The demographics are different -- you don't have the finicky eaters here that you have in L.A.," Gadsby said. "They have so many restrictions out there: low sodium, no carbohydrates, Atkins, you name it. They are so concerned about their figures. I guess they have to be, after all the money they spend on their reconstructions." Houstonians are more friendly and down-to-earth, the chef said with a sigh of relief. The menu here will include lots of upgraded comfort food: "It's the same basics, but with different presentations."

The critics have been divided about Noé in L.A. "I found his cooking overreaching into fusionary giddiness," John Mariani wrote in his Virtual Gourmet newsletter. Citing the plethora of ingredients in Gadsby's dishes, Mariani gave him the same critique Emperor Joseph II gave Mozart: "too many notes."

Meanwhile, an admiring Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly wrote that Gadsby "plays with the inside of your skull in ways that Gerhard Richter or Thomas Pynchon might recognize." By way of illustration, Gold mentioned Gadsby's "foie gras three ways," which features foie gras in the classic French style, foie gras served like a slab of ham with a miniature skillet of truffled scrambled eggs, and foie gras mousse glazed with Coca-Cola. "Foie gras -- yesterday, today and tomorrow," chuckled Gadsby.

As for Mariani's criticism, the chef explained, "I was opening a new restaurant after a lot of years out of the spotlight. People were asking, 'Does Robert Gadsby have the same creativity he used to have?' I thought if I came back on a slow note, people would say, 'He is finished. He doesn't have any gusto.' So I came back with really creative items. A lot of people loved it. But that kind of cooking is not for everybody. And evidently it's not for John Mariani.

"Houston is more conservative. I am not going to dumb it down here, but I am not going to put foam on everything, either. Expect something like Bank or Aries, creative food, but not 'what is this guy smoking?' food. I don't want to get caught up in intellectualism like Charlie Trotter. I want to do food with lots of clear flavors that are orchestrated. I am going to start out slow in Houston and see what people like. But by the time I get to my second menu, after the first of the year, I will start pushing the envelope." Once he gets the lay of the land, Gadsby promises to give Houston what he once gave L.A.: cooking that will blow our minds.

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