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Coming to America’s, part 2 – Plini’o Desserts

In my last post I covered the food at the new America’s in The Woodlands. To cap things off, Plinio prepared a dessert tasting that turned out to be incredibly entertaining.

Quote of the day:

We (the royal "we"): So, how do you make this powdered peanut butter stuff, anyway?
Plinio: Oh, the same way you’d make powdered olive oil.
We: Um….. so yeah, how do you do that?

Plinio is a very talented chef who clearly spends a lot of time refining his craft, but that’s doesn’t quite capture what makes his food so interesting. The desserts Plinio creates could only really be made by a food geek, which is an emerging breed in the chef circles.

These guys get really excited about playing with food. I am talking Dungeons and Dragons excited. That sort of unbound enthusiasm is fundamentally changing how we eat the same way geeks in Silicon Valley changed the way we thought of computers a few decades ago. That’s what Plinio, along with a number of other talented chefs in Houston, are doing today. And it makes the driving up to The Woodlands more than worth the trouble.

The lineup:

Picaron, aji amarillo honey, peanut butter powder, frozen custard
One of my favorite desserts was served right up front. I’ve never had a picaron, a traditional Peruvian beignet that uses sweet potatoes for starch, so this was all new to me. Combined with aji chile flavored honey delivered in a tiny pipette this thing had a depth of flavors you normally don’t find with a fried ball of dough. I especially liked the aji flavored honey, which added a touch of heat to the flavor, but just enough to give the honey more dimension.

The powdered peanut butter had really interesting texture. Not quite dry, not quite viscous, but sort of fluffy, clumpy goodness in between. Combined with the frozen custard it created a really interesting flavor, temperature and texture interplay. I don’t know if this is on the regular menu, but it was awesome.

Lucuma souffle, candied bacon, granny smith apple juice
A riff on breakfast featuring lacuma – a fruit popular in South America, but not very common in the US.  Lacuma has slight maple undertones, so the souffle served in an egg shell and topped with candied bacon really is reminiscent of pancakes and bacon. I thought the souffle was a touch too sweet, until I took down the shot of apple juice and everything fell into place. The textures are new, but the flavors are familiar. Very nice.

Texas goat cheese, white truffle honey, shaved hazelnut, blueberries 
Another contrast in flavors in texture, but this time allowing very straightforward ingredients and clean flavors to carry the dish.  I especially liked the carefully chosen sprinkling of shaved hazelnuts, sesame seeds and other crunchy bits to add the necessary texture. The only thing I cannot identify from the description is the transparent gelee served with the goat cheese, which was similar to the striking dessert I had at Orson that was constructed exclusively from white and transparent elements.

Chicha morada sorbet, spiced pop corn
Another Peruvian specialty I have never heard of. Turns out chicha morada is a popular drink made from purple corn kernels, cloves, nutmeg, brown sugar and cinnamon. Spiced popcorn? Another example of very subtle play on contrasting texture and flavor.

Guanaja "Torchon", chocolate pop rocks, liquid açaí, creme anglaise
Absolutely brilliant dessert and the single coolest thing I have eaten in Houston. I am going to try to describe it, but you really have to try this to get the full experience. Here’s how it goes – you cut into the perfectly shaped torchon made of chocolate and discover that the cavity (there is a cavity?!) is oozing liquid açaí. What the hell is açaí? It’s a South American superfood that tastes like berry chocolate. Apparently Oprah digs it. Just as you think to yourself that this açaí stuff works brilliantly with chocolate, pop rocks begin to explode in your mouth and send things into overdrive.  The final effect is sort of like a chocolaty 4th of a July celebration (all fireworks, no hot dogs).

I asked Plinio where the idea for this dessert came from and the source turns out to be a foie torchon with beet juice created by Wylie Dufresne at WD-50. I think Wylie would have appreciated the remix.

Oaxacan hot chocolate, vanilla meringue, alfajore
Deeply flavored hot chocolate topped with a dollop of meringue and a Peruvian Oreo-line cookie filled with dulce de leche. Very nice finish to a great meal.

 

Is the new America’s a bastion of progressive cuisine? No, its still a populist restaurant with an established brand at the end of the day. Is it chef driven? I sense that it’s not entirely – yet. Somehow I think that given free reign over the menu, you’d see an even more radical departure from the original concept than it already is. It would be a positive turn of events as far as I am concerned, but I am not sure how long time American’s patrons would feel about it.

I am not sure I care about any of those things too much. I had a great time at America’s. By the time we were done, 3.5 hours had passed and I hardly noticed. The experience was good enough that I cannot wait to come back to explore more of the menu, which builds on flavors I have not come across anywhere else in the US. Not bad for a place deep in the suburbs.

The most exciting thing about what JJ and Plinio are doing at America’s is that it’s an opportunity to establish Houston at the forefront of culinary progress, rather than an also ran. The notion that we have to "compete" with other cities by emulating hyper fine dining in New York, farm to table eating in Bay Area or spacelab cooking of Chicago is patently absurd. It ignores the unique advantages awarded by our own geography and demographics.

Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the US. Besides creating our own indigenous regional cuisine (similar to Louisiana) and being a gateway to Mexico and South America, this is a true international city. I don’t mean international the same way United Nations makes NY international or the way proximity to Canada makes Seattle international. Houston is an immigrant city, where immigrants work with each other and cook for each other, rather than serve red wine reduction sauces to the highly educated elite class that frequents restaurants in leading cities in the US. The range of flavors you can experience here every day is mind blowing.

America’s is one of the best examples of highlighting Houston as a gateway to Latin America and creating something truly new – a place where you can taste flavors you have never seen before. Yes, they use progressive techniques when appropriate. But it’s the ingredients and flavors that are really exciting.

Go check it out for yourself. It’s worth the trip.

June 20, 2008   12 Comments