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Little Big’s man getting his due

It’s odd to call someone with as much experience as Bryan Caswell a new chef, but that’s exactly what Food & Wine magazine did yesterday when they chose him as one of the 10 Best New Chefs of 2009.

I don’t take awards very seriously, but this one seems to be the real deal. The 10 Best New Chefs chosen annually by Food & Wine tend to have real talent and usually go on to have stellar careers for years to come. Most tellingly, Food & Wine editors somehow avoid the coastal trap James Beard Awards so predictably fall into every year (Caswell was bounced out from the list of final nominees to make room for chefs in Las Vegas who share the Southwestern region with Houston – WTF?) and go out of their way to find truly great food around the country.

IMG_6766 Carnitas, cooling raita at Reef

In a lot of ways the “new” designation makes perfect sense. Caswell spent years working in the Jean-Georges Vongrichten empire, but Reef is where he really began to cook his own food. Reef channels Houston at it’s best – an effortless blend of Gulf Coast ingredients and cooking traditions inflected with international flavors found in all corners of this giant city.  Visitors may never truly get a feel for the real Houston the way the locals do, but restaurants like Reef, Catalan, Rainbow Lodge, Beaver’s and soon to be open Haven give them the best chance to get a taste. There are a handful of chefs defining Gulf Coast cuisine in Houston and Bryan Caswell is right in the thick of things.

IMG_6757 Jalapeno mint jelly at Reef

Peel away the layers of national recognition and Reef’s critical acclaim and you find a guy who spends his free time in the Gulf Coast waters, obsessing about often overlooked local fish species. Or opening unassuming burger shacks that show an uncommon understanding of what really works in Houston.

IMG_6760 Sweet potato and bacon ravioli, 
Oloroso sherry, green apple at Reef

Reef is a great place to eat, but few restaurants have become instant classics as quickly as Caswell’s latest venture – Little Big’s. The slider shack has only been open for a few short months, but on a recent night during March Madness a large crowd was gathered around a rear projection TV on the patio. It looked as if Little Big’s had been a fixture on Montrose for years. The night I picked up my very tired new puppy from the airport, Little Big’s seemed like the most natural place for a late night dinner.

IMG_1322 Zoe’s first night at Little Big’s

The sliders at Little Big’s are a mirror image of the ones served at Reef. Given all the things to sample on the Reef menu, I never paid much attention to them until my company booked our holiday party at the 3rd Bar. I ended up eating four that night. I have always thought the concept of tiny burgers was a little silly, but for me the perfect burger comes down to good meat and the right beef to bread ratio. Little Big’s nails it on both of those counts with freshly ground beef and big yeasty rolls.

IMG_9978

Little Big’s is almost universally loved – the only complaint you ever hear is that the beef sliders sometimes come out a little dry; most likely a side effect of the Big’s kitchen running at near capacity at all times. I found little to complain about on my first visit strategically timed at 6pm to avoid the rush. The fries are some of the best in town, walking a fine line between being crisp and hopelessly over fried. The chocolate milk shake was exemplary. The staff at Big’s were already overrun with orders that night,  but my sliders were  cooked to medium and still made a respectable mess.

IMG_9985 Slider trio at Little Big’s

The beef was a bit more dry on the second visit, but even though I prefer burgers medium rare, the meat is of high enough quality that it tastes good even when cooked a bit beyond ideal temperature. I think at this point it comes down to figuring out just the right combination of toppings before these things are perfectly tailored my tastes. Jalapeno, Sriracha mayo and processed American cheese? If Big’s only served processed American cheese…

In any case. The Food & Wine blurb on Caswell mentions that his dream is to open to 2,000 sq foot oyster bar. Given his successful interpretation of Houston’s fast food with Little Big’s, I for one hope he takes on the taco truck next instead.

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