Last year was another great year for food in Houston. In between its being profiled as one of "America’s Best Food Cities" by Tom Sietsema of The Washington Post and being named “The Next Global Food Mecca” by celebrity chef David Chang in GQ, our city’s chefs competed in numerous food competitions (e.g. the Truffle Chef Competition, “Go Wagyu Beef Throw Down, Cochon 555, The Great Banh Mi Cookoff, Lucky Rice Competition and more), participated in countless pop-up events, embraced Anthony Bourdain for a segment of CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” and basically made it a joy to dine in the Bayou City.
Here’s a sampling of some of the outstanding cuisine from this year:
10. Caramelized cheese soufflé at La Table
Soufflé has been all the rage this past year, popping up on menus all over the city. The caramelized cheese soufflé at La Table, however, is in a class of its own, so light and airy it appears to be levitating on a cloud of Parmesan foam. Chef Manuel Pucha once confided that the preparation process takes close to two hours to complete. If that’s the price of perfection, it’s worth it: The delicate, delectable chef d'œuvre is at once a work of art as it is a melt-in-your-mouth illustration of exemplary French gastronomy.
9. Beets, Hoja Santa, Brown Butter at Thyme & Place Pop-Up Dinner
It’s not every chef who gets an invitation from famed chef René Redzepi to hang out at Noma, but that’s what happened to Brandon Silva when he went to Copenhagen for a month, eating and staging his way through the city at places like Bror and Relæ. It was at his fall Copenhagen-themed Thyme & Place pop-up dinner — which he held in collaboration with chef Ben McPherson and Houston’s newest Master Sommelier, David Keck — that he blew me away with a dish made of golden beet ribbons. Simply plated in a small golden mound, the beet had been shaved into noodle-like strands that were dehydrated, then rehydrated in a steamer with pickled beet juice. The technique gave the beet strands a delightfully unexpected dried-fruit leatheriness while still managing to retain a slight crunch. Chopped cashews and a creamy hoja santa cheese softened the dish’s bright acidity, while a sauce of beer reduction, whey and brown butter provided the finishing touch, adding a hint of muskiness that tied the entire composition together. Brilliant.
8. White asparagus velouté at Charivari
It’s easy to forget what a great chef Johan Schuster is, seeing that his restaurant is tucked away in a strip mall on one of the sleepier streets in Midtown. But when you taste his food, there’s no denying that he’s one of Houston’s finest classically trained European chefs. That’s why something as simple as a white asparagus velouté still sticks in my mind as one of the best things I’ve tasted all year. A dish that requires a deft touch, it glided like silk on the tongue, was seasoned impeccably and kind of just made me swoon. It was garnished with edible flowers, shaved white and green asparagus stalks and caviar, and I lapped up every last drop like the cat that got the cream.
7. French foie gras taco at Café Azur
Yes, the bouillabaisse is excellent at the charming new Café Azur in Montrose and so is the octopus, but the thing that gave me that kind of close-your-eyes-it’s-so-good-moment was when chef Sidney Degaine turned me on to his Texas-meets-French creation of a taco filled with shredded duck confit, chunks of just-seared foie gras, sautéed duxelles and apricot chutney.
6. Butter poached lobster and squash at Uchi
With Uchi’s expansion into multiple markets, one of the things it had to learn to do was to adapt itself to each of the local scenes that it was serving. In Houston, that’s what chef Tyson Cole did in 2016 with the introduction of some localized changes to the core menu and the introduction of a new chef de cuisine, Lance Gillum. One of Gillum’s first dishes? An unforgettable Alaskan king crab creation wherein the crab had been poached in crab butter to yield lusciously plump morsels of deliciousness. Crisp bites of perfectly cooked summer squash, and a light dressing of Lindera Farm wildflower vinegar, made for a beautifully composed dish.
5. Roasted truffle butter cornish game hen at Triniti
One of my biggest regrets this year is not having time to go back for chef Ryan Hildebrand’s whole roasted cornish game hen from his summer menu. Served on a cast-iron skillet on a bed of roasted mushroom, eggplant and summer squash, from conception to presentation, the bird was magnificent. And no wonder. According to Hildebrand, “The hen is bagged with truffled butter, garlic and herbs, then roasted and glazed with truffle butter once more.” Cutting into the plump, moist hen let out a gush of heady, truffle-scented steam that only served to heighten the experience. As if the truffle butter weren’t enough, the dish came with a small copper pan of mustard gravy fortified with giblets.
4. Caramelle pasta stuffed with veal bone marrow with a porcini Sangiovese ristretto at Tony’s
One of the things about fine dining that most people don’t realize is that it can be a lot of fun. Such was the case when I was presented with a course of caramelle pasta by chef Kate McLean during a tasting menu dinner at Tony’s. Shaped like a long candy, and topped with what looked like chocolate sauce so that it gave off the expectation of something sweet, the handmade pasta was in fact stuffed with veal bone marrow and liberally topped with a porcini Sangiovese ristretto. Decadent, earthy, delightfully surprising and totally unforgettable.
3. Pork belly burnt ends at Killen's STQ
It was a tough job figuring out which dish won the night when I dined at Ronnie Killen’s new Killen’s STQ recently. Was it the Japanese A5 Wagyu, seared until a crust formed around a molten center, with shaved truffle and caramelized onion? Or was it the lobster, grilled and served two ways, with butter-poached claws and a grilled tail topped with beurre blanc? In the end, the one that shone most brightly was the one that showed us what a master he is with meat: his smoked pork belly burnt ends. Enrobed in Killen’s barbecue sauce with a touch of honey and brown sugar, the pork belly had been smoked until charred, then deep-fried to give each bit an outer crust. The result was a crispy-on-the-outside, molten-on-the-inside bite that exploded with a rock-your-world intensity of flavor. So, so good.
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2. Sea cucumber and bomba rice Calasparra with lobster reduction at BCN Taste & Tradition
A little-known fact about chef Luis Roger of BCN: During the time that he apprenticed under Ferran Adria at El Bulli, one of his tasks was to clean and prep espardenya, a type of “king” sea cucumber found off the coast of Spain, over and over and over until he’d perfected his technique. Well, I got to experience that technique when he got his hands on a small shipment from Spain. It was flown in especially for a private wine dinner with the president of the venerable Spanish winery Vega Sicilia, and it was just my luck that he had some left over when I celebrated a late birthday dinner there a week later. How do you encapsulate the taste of the ocean in a dish? Roger did it with his “Espardenyas amb bomba de Calasparra i la reduccio de la llagosta.” Utterly sublime in its simplicity, the focus of the dish was the sea cucumber, delicate and crisp, like a young calamari that had just been fished from the ocean, complemented by firm kernels of bomba rice Calasparra (a special Catalan preparation) swathed in a lobster reduction.
1. Hokkaido scallop, torched Hokkaido uni and dashi air at Cureight
It’s somewhat ironic that the most memorable dish I had this year was served as an amuse-bouche, but you know what they say about first impressions? They last. In this case, the chef was Austin Simmons, the menu was from his 16-seat tasting-menu-only restaurant, Cureight, located inside Hubbell & Hudson Bistro in The Woodlands, and the dish — an Hokkaido scallop with torched uni (sea urchin) so perfectly constructed, I knew the moment that I had it that he was going to work hard to top it for the rest of the evening. Simple yet complex at the same time, with these intricate textures and plays on creamy and clarified, salty and sweet, crispy and silky, and positively bursting with an exquisite umami, all the elements merged together to form one mind-blowing bite. Inspired by his travels to Japan, Simmons says that his intent was to make a wholly Japanese dish entirely of Japanese ingredients. So he sourced some beautiful, sweet Hokkaido scallop, then bought Hokkaido uni, which he torched and added to the dish. The base was a Japanese dashi broth and dashi “air” (which looked like foam on the plate), with the final touches being a crispy kombu chicharrón (made from the kombu that had been dehydrated and fried) and small pearls of wasabi tobiko.