British invasion: Feast brings Nose-to-Tail cooking to Houston
I couldn’t make it to Feast for almost week after opening day. Every day another dish that normally requires a trip to London would appear on the menu. The next day it was gone. Knowing that some of the most interesting cooking is entirely inaccessible across the ocean is one thing. Knowing that it’s across town is quite another. So after a string of unfortunate events that kept me away from duck hearts, livers, tongues and other unmentionables I dragged three of my friends to Feast for lunch.
It was a little odd to see the space recently occupied by Chez George transformed so much. A few months ago it was a charming old house with creaky floors and ancient diners in suits eating continental food. Walk into Feast today you might think you’re in a neighborhood diner on Notting Hill. The space looks more open and full of light. Where a place like Ristorante Cavour feels like a facsimile created by an interior designer, Feast with it’s dark woods, family photos and subtle touches throughout the restaurant make it feel as if someone actually lives there. It’s a great place to eat.
I was a little apprehensive about my fist visit to Feast. Would it live up to my expectations? More important, would it meet the expectations of the other three people I took with me or would this be yet another place everyone except for me hates? I need not have worried. Feast is spectacular. And it pulls off broad appeal far better than I expected.
I had an rather uneven experience at St John, where one of the chefs behind Feast spent some time and perhaps the closest proxy to what Feast is bringing to Houston. My food was better than good. It was special. Fergus Henderson may not have invented whole beast eating – people have been doing that for centuries – but he did take "nose to tail" cooking to the level previosly found only in fine dining. What Henderson is doing is very bit as important to evolution of what and how we eat as Ferran Adrià. While St John is far from a high end restaurant, it is ground zero for people interested more in eating than dining. Problem was that while I was digging into brain terrine and deviled kidneys at St John, my dining companions were rather miserable.
Deviled Kidneys at St John
St John caters to the faithful and it’s small menu lacks reasonably safe options for a diner that stops by for a casual meal. It’s a destination restaurant and the menu choices reflect that. Feast succeeds in being a neighborhood joint on the cutting edge, delivering interesting options with rare cuts and unusual ingredients alongside non-threatening dishes most people would can easily identify as "normal food". A vegetarian at St John feels like an unwilling participant in a cannibal dinner party. At Feast you find not one, but two vegetarian dishes that look like they took far more thought than the "veggie surprise" platter that most restaurants serve.
My first lunch at Feast visit drew rave reviews from everyone at the table, which didn’t happen at St John (which is not to say one is better than the other, they operate in different worlds). Juniper braised lamb shank with mashed potatoes and carrots was executed well enough that my friend declared that he could easily go for 3-4 more and not get tired of it. Shepherds pie wasn’t met with quite the same enthusiasm, but I was assured it was an excellent shepherds pie as far as shepherd pies go. I had a chance to try the cabbage stuffed with braised oxtail and it had a very nicely balanced flavor. Wine based braises tend to be strong, but the charred cabbage provided a slightly bitter contrast in both texture and flavor to the meat. Very nice dish.
Not one for restraint I discarded the "have a small lunch" logic and ordered an appetizer and a main dish. Although not on the menu that day, I was lucky enough to score the last few servings of duck hearts and liver, which came out with on top of a few slices of grilled bread and served with an almost viscous reduction sauce. Livers and hearts have long been my favorite part of making roast chicken, which along with the oysters become the cook’s spoils. Toss the contents of the gizzard bag with some salt and pepper, throw it into the roasting pan once the chicken begins to release the juices and within 15-20 minutes you have yourself a perfectly cooked appetizer of tasty bits that require nothing more than some french bread to soak up the drippings. The duck heart at Feast was good and reasonably well cooked, but hearts typically require either aggressive seasoning or some other flavoring agent, like the chicken hearts at Nelore that come marinated in wine. By the time I figured out that the red wine reduction could have solved the flavor problem for me, the lonely duck heart I got was long gone.
The duck livers delivered a much bigger flavor hit. Duck liver is a bit more mild and much more smooth than chicken livers, giving it a great texture that works very well with bigger flavors in rustic cooking. Few places cook liver right (even Da Marco falters here sometimes), but the liver at Feast came out pink and perfectly tender. It’s overcooked liver that people most often have such a revolting reaction to, so if you want to try it again look no further than Feast. These people know their liver.
My entree of Ox Tongue delivered on every point. The tongue was braised just long enough to soften the meat fibers, but not turn them into mush. The tongue was pan fried, giving it a nice brown crust with not a hint of oil or grease. The combination of mashed potatoes and the sweet savoy cabbage was a spectacular side. The cabbage was too sweet to eat on its own, but combining the two in the right proportions gave you just the right flavor that didn’t overwhelm the subtle flavor of the tongue.
So, we finally have a place in Houston where you can get some testicles or pigeon to start, order a swordfish for dinner and finish with a perfectly unassuming chocolate cake. Whether you like offal or more "normal" food, go to Feast before it gets mobbed like all hot new restaurants tend to. You won’t be sorry for long.
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