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a taste of Voice

How often can you say that a restaurant in Houston prepares something better than the French Laundry, a restaurant so critically acclaimed it seems to wobble a bit under the weight of unrealistic expectations?

Normally, I wouldn’t resort to such punditry, but I am not saying this to take anything away from Thomas Keller – 7 Michelin stars, the only chef with two Top 10 entries on World’s Best Restaurants list, countless accolades. My only point here is that Voice, the new restaurant at Hotel Icon under direction of Michael Kramer, is capable of cooking at a very high level.

Before I get flamed for a careless comparison, it’s worth noting that I visited both restaurants less than 30 days apart. While the dishes and lobster parts weren’t exactly the same, I am fairly certain that both rely on butter poaching, a technique popularized by Thomas Keller (I am sure someone from Voice will correct me if I am wrong) and both pair lobster with avocado.

There are no bad dishes at French Laundry, there are just dishes that are “less good”. The lobster wasn’t botched. It’s only flaw was that it was less than perfect. I thought it was a touch underdone and a little stringy. My dinner companions agreed, having to force their knives into the tail.

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Lobster preparations at French Laundry (left) and Voice (right)

The lobster served at the degustation arranged for us by Randy Rucker (who deserves loads of credit for dragging us out on a school night) was cooked perfectly and had a delicate texture I have trouble describing without resorting to really silly adjectives. The orange drizzle became a subtle backdrop, rather than take center stage. The avocado provided just the right amount of creamy texture to boost the lobster with more body. It all worked flawlessly.

This is as good as lobster gets. Your only problem is that you won’t find it on the regular menu and there is no guarantee that you’ll see it in your tasting, which seems to be an ingredients driven affair.

There are already several posts about Voice, so I’ll focus mostly on food. It may be worth your time to check out the photos on Flickr, if you are into full resolution food porn. There are over 90 shots in all, some quite nice.

Quartet of Amuse Bouche
Mushroom Soup “Cappuccino”, Truffles, Truffle Foam – could have easily come across as gimmicky and trite, but it really worked. Perfect facsimile of the cappuccino texture with a deep mushroom flavor. I think more dinners should start with a soup shooter. This is one recent trend worth overusing.
Quail, Pomegranate, Crispy Quail Egg – typically quail is under or over cooked, this one was just right. Pomegranate added just the right amount of acid without overpowering the dish. A soft boiled quail egg with a bigger crunch would seriously put this dish over the top.
English Pea Risotto – if the peas had flavor it was mostly lost in the rice. Not bad, but seemed more like a side than an amuse.
Maine Lobster, Pushed Avocado, Orange – best dish of the night. See above.

Patchwork of Baby Beets, Texas Goat Cheese, Micro Arugula, Beet Caramel
One of those dishes where everything comes together and nothing seems out of place. Although far from simple, it didn’t seem overworked either, layering several beet preparations to create multiple dimensions of flavor. Even the cheese seemed to have more body and air than usual, having an almost elastic quality. Although not listed on the menu, I seem to remember a few cubes of beet gelee that, along with micro arugula, put the dish over the top. Plus, I just really love beets. Excellent.

Sashimi of Yellowfin Tuna, Mango, Watermelon Radish, Yuzu Juice
Crudo and sashimi are almost a bad cliche, going hard on sugar or acid in even in the most experienced kitchens (like Da Marco). Voice goes with the mainstream here, but the flavors are extremely well balanced, with just enough acid from yuzu, texture from watermelon radish and sugar from mango. The only real problem is that the thin strip of tuna can’t quite carry all the flavors. It’s close though. Very close.

Potato Gnocchi, Morels, Asparagus, Prosciutto
Very much a California dish, where superior produce is often in the foreground. I know Alison Cook took exception with the way this dish reads, but that’s not the way it tasted. Normally served with shiitake mushrooms, this version came with more seasonal morels, which were easily the best thing on the plate. The dominant ingredients were morels and asparagus, while the gnocchi was little more than a delivery system. Excellent.

Foie Gras, Medjool Date, Pistachio Emulsion
Either I was still processing the morel explosion or maybe I am just spoiled by the mind blowing foie gras at Le Reve several months ago, but I didn’t get the typical rush I get from eating this stuff. I think I prefer my seared foie gras a bit more rare. Good overall, especially the pistachio emulsion pairing.

Alaskan Halibut, Fennel, Baby Carrots, Truffle Emulsion
Everything worked in this dish. Halibut was exceptional, baby carrots tender and sweet. Even the truffle emulsion wasn’t obnoxious as truffle sauces can often be, adding to the overall composition, rather than distract from it. I don’t know what the little petal looking things were, but they were a most excellent touch.

Pork Belly, Heirloom Potato, Cippolini, Truffle
This little piggy wanted to be more seasoned. With a little salt this could be a great dish, especially served with something fresh and crisp, like English cucumber. (I add these little notes so people who cook for a living can have a good laugh at my attempts to engineer recipes)

Honey Lacquered Duck Breast, Morels, Fava Beans, Black Pepper Gastrique
Another dish that felt like a throwback to California, with big morel and fava bean flavors. Fava beans, in season and seemingly at their peak, were especially great here. Oh, and the duck was great too. Out of the three meat courses I think I prefer this one. (BTW, I am glad Kramer’s kitchen doesn’t have any silly rules about using an ingredient only once in a tasting menu)

Venison Sous Vide, Caramelized Apples, Spring Onions, Sour Cherry Sauce
Very nice venison preparation. Chefs often use sous vide as a blunt force weapon in the kitchen, but it really is perfect for venison. I rarely order lean game, because it’s nearly impossible to cook without drying out a good portion of the meat. Sous vide solves that whole problem in a spectacular way. The venison was uniformly rare, with all the complex notes of game perfectly in tact. Sour cherry provided such a bright and unexpected contrast to the meat that I didn’t even realize what I was eating at first. A cube of a caramelized apple and a sweet onion off on the side was a perfect addition. Most excellent.

I have to admit, meat dishes rarely get me going on tasting menus. Maybe it’s worth reversing the order, starting with heavy proteins first, working your way down to vegetable dishes and amuses? A regressive degustation. How about it? A whole restaurant dedicated to regressive dining.

Dessert Wave
Peanut Butter Custard, Caramelized Banana, Hazelnut Crunch – ridiculously good in every way. Not sure if I would have ordered this on my own, but this dessert landed in front of me and I had a really tough time passing it around for others to sample. Something this good makes your mind wander a bit and I started thinking about Elvis, for some reason. I don’t even like Elvis.
Warm Chocolate Cake, Crunchy Vanilla Ice Cream – great molten cake with a really good ice cream, although after visiting tasting some of Elizabeth Faulkner’s desserts at Orson I’d like to see something a bit more fun than vanilla. Jalapeno, cayenne, BBQ sauce or avocado, maybe. We’re in Texas after all.
Study in Chocolate, Warm Cake, Mousse, Milkshake, Mint Ice Cream Cookie – I didn’t try the mint ice cream cookie, but the mousse and milkshake were really nice. Second best chocoholic dessert in town, after the C5 at Catalan.
Warm Apple Crisp – ok, but somewhat overshadowed by all the others

Mignardises – another signature sign of a well put together tasting menu. Nice bit of lagniappe for those intent on going all the way. I did.

I like Voice. I like it a lot.

Closest proxy I can draw to Voice is Restaurant August in New Orleans, where John Besh creates some of the most interesting and regionally focused food in the country with far less fanfare than you might see in New York or San Francisco. Besh uses advanced technique as a means to an end and that’s what makes Restaurant August very special. Kramer’s Voice seems to be cut from the same cloth.

I expect Voice to get better and better. I also expect to see Michael Kramer’s menu reflect more of Houston as he becomes a Houstonian himself and discovers the wild palette of cuisines and flavors that make this a great city to love good.

What I like most about Voice is that it isn’t hell bent on proving a point. Order a tasting menu at Nana in Dallas and you will find yourself wondering why there seems to be an irrelevant dab of foam on almost every plate. At Voice, the foam isn’t even called “foam” – it’s an emulsion (which may or may not be foamy) and it’s as integral part of the dish as any other element on the plate. A means to an end.

Kramer is smart enough to combine tongue in cheek concepts (mushroom cappuccino) with down to earth dishes that won’t scare the natives (rack of lamb). You find complex technique right next to tried and true classics. Yes, there is a thermal circulator in the kitchen, but they also seem to use pots and pans.

And that’s a good thing.

(Justin: thank you for taking care of us. You and Michael are doing excellent work.)

May 4, 2008   12 Comments