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Tenacity supper club, round one

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Hidden Kitchen in Paris, which has tossed all haute dining conventions aside and became one of the most talked about “restaurants” in town. Shortly after, I went to a similar anti-establishment dinner, served at Randy Rucker’s home, in Houston and found some truly inspired cooking. Is it really possible that some of the best food today is served outside of professional kitchens and multi-million dollar dining rooms? Seems that way.

The night turned out to be such a success, Randy is considering making it a regular event and the second dinner will be held this Thursday. Getting a reservation at this point may be difficult. Meanwhile, you can entertain yourself with a recap of the first evening, complete with over 100 photos. If you want to see a larger slide show, just click on the gallery and it will take you to my Flickr page.

Randy lives in a picture perfect house in the Heights and almost every bit of land is used to grow something that can be used in a kitchen. I am not exactly the “go off the grid and live on the commune” type, but there is something really appealing about getting the produce to the table in minutes, rather than days. When you consider the lunacy people go through in cities where population density creates the prototypical urban landscape, where there is barely any space for humans, much less other living organisms, you really begin to appreciate what Houston has to offer.

The people gathered for the first supper club were an eclectic bunch, which made the conversation almost as interesting as the food. Several chefs. A couple of art society types. More than a couple of people better at writing about food than cooking.

I had an especially good time listening to the chefs talk shop. I spend most of my time around people who get really excited about computing, and this is really the first time I am around people who feel the same way about food. You can tell these guys really feel like they are creating something. I imagine this is what the Homebrew Computer Club must have been like back in the days.

The Food

cured rainbow trout in yusu with microbasil, Korean chili threads – the trout had an interesting flavor that reminded me of the preserved roe I had at Sawa Sushi in Sunnivale, but the real depth came from the Korean chili threads, which I thought was some whacky saffron that had a hit of heat to it. Turns out they were Korean chile threads. I have no idea where you buy those, but they were good.

tilefish tiradito with lemon verbena, fennel blossoms and kimchee consomme – my favorite dish of the night. Ceviche preparations sound simple, but balancing the acidity with the delicate flavor of the fish can trip up even the most talented chefs, as I found out at Nishino earlier in June. Randy really nailed this one, despite the complexity of the ingredients involved. I don’t know how he decided to put together fennel and kimchee, but it was a brilliant combination. Although not mentioned in the description, what really brought the dish home were the Thai chilis, which added the level of heat you would never find on a tasting menu in a restaurant in NY or California. Absolute Houston.

smoked vichyssoise, foamed dashi, gulf crab, garlic flowers – a very close second best dish, this thing had perfectly balanced flavors and textures. I am not even going to try to describe it, because it wouldn’t do it justice. Read the other blog posts (links are above), if you must.

roasted gundermann’s farm peach, red komatsuma lettuce, warm lime-eucalyptus emulsion, and fenugreek meringue – one of those dishes where technique fades into the background and ingredients take over. Everything on the plate, from the meringue to the lime-eucalyptus emulsion (which could have been a disaster) worked really well together, but the peach carried most of the load.

toasted “bacalhau” gnocchi, trumpet royal mushrooms, & pea shoots – one of the best courses of the night. The bacalhau is in quotes because randy used trout that he salted for almost a week for this dish. Not sure I understand why it was hard to get bacalhau, since I come across it all the time in Houston, but this dish did not suffer the substitution much at all. At least for me, the dish flipped and the main ingredients were just supporting players to what I thought was the best thing on the plate – the pea shoots Randy cut down from his garden right before serving. The same happed to me on my first visit to Manresa, when I realized that Into the Vegetable Garden was the best dish I had all night. You simply cannot beat pristine produce.

mr buddy’s compressed pork, japanese cucumber, and “sauce” ravioli – a perfect example of how much a good story can enhance the flavor of the dish. Even with additional pork fat, the hog lacked the fat content to make the Coca-Cola and Indonesian spice braised meat truly tender, but overall the Aquavit-inspired dish was a success. I tried the compressed pork before it hit the saute pan and it was a bit more moist and had a completely different flavor than what came across in the final preparation. I think it actually would have worked very well as a terrine course.

frozen lemon balm gazpacho & opal basil – an excellent dish with very intense, layered flavors, that also displayed some skillful play on temperature and texture. If I remember right, the same gazpacho was served in a sorbet form, as well as a soft foam on top. Very nice.

strawberries, yogurt, and mint – very simple (and entirely too small) course of strawberries, which I think may have been compressed, yogurt and homegrown mint. Strange as it sounds, I think the dusting of the espresso ground really brought a whole new dimension to this dish.

“moonshine” – a rather intense bit of booze Randy brewed up in his kitchen and forgot about for 3 months. I am not a drinker, but this thing was awesome.

In the short time I have known Randy I got a sense that he is a true food enthusiast. I doubt there is anyone in Houston more curious about every aspect of food, which makes him an interesting guy to be around. But it didn’t at all mean he could cook, so I was going to the dinner with somewhat muted expectations.

I’ve been to a fair number of restaurants that walk the fine line between being a science experience and delivering really special food. Randy definitely fits into the latter category, which makes him one of the few chefs where technique and ingredients become a small part of a broader palette used to create new flavors and textures.

As long as he’d doing his supper club, I’ll be there to take it all in.

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