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The Big Salumi

I wrote this on my way to Seasalter several weeks ago and finally had a chance to finish the post. More on the Sportsman later.

Last day in Europe ends with a day trip to The Sportsman, giving me a quiet hour on the train. I’ve been looking forward to the Sportsman the entire trip and it’s a perfect way to end my visit to Europe. First week in Paris and Copenhagen was a whirlwind of great (and sometimes unexpected) dining experiences. Second week in Amsterdam and London was all work and no play, other than a mandatory visit to St John, but the Sportsman has all the elements of what I seem to enjoy most these days. No restaurant empires, iconic chefs, posh dining rooms outfitted with caviar carts and lobster presses; only a chef with a vision (yes, I think that sort of thing is sometimes important) who still cooks in his kitchen, carefully chosen ingredients and a food cooked without compromise. Sounds improbable, but these places exist and I hope the Sportsman is one. (more on that later)

DSCF5681 Road to Seasalter, UK.

As much as I enjoy traveling, I always look forward to coming back home and not only because I am hopelessly addicted to Tex-Mex and the incredible range of food found in Houston. What I’ve found lately is that there is also a young crop of chefs who show enormous promise and may shape what we eat in Houston for years to come. I’ve written about a few in the past, but failed to note Justin Basye, lately of Voice and now of Stella Sola, a new Texan/Tuscan (?!) restaurant yet to be opened by Bryan Caswell and Jason Gould.   

If there is one thing that the Tenacity dinners have taught me is that the executive chef isn’t always the only (or even most) talented guy in the kitchen. The supporting cast are incredibly passionate about food and have a voice of their own, which always takes a back seat to almost everything else – restaurant concept, cost constraints, access to tools and the need to execute someone else’s food, rather than create your own. I’ve only had Justin’s food once, but he seems like one of these guys.

Justin’s pig centric Tenacity dinner last year was one of my favorite meals of the year. The food was clearly influenced by the kitchens he has passed through. There are the bold Louisiana flavors of Restaurant August, clean precision of Voice and modern technique of Laidback Manor, but the dishes he presented that night were unique in being able to isolate a single flavor and pull it into the foreground.  Most tellingly, the dinner  had a well defined arc, something rarely found in even established restaurants with very experienced chefs.

Justin and his stellar cured meats are a great fit for Stella Sola. Most important, our chances of one day seeing him in a kitchen of his own have just improved.

Speaking of Voice, my tasting from the spring menu was outstanding. Even though Justin is leaving the kitchen, Michael Kramer remains one of the best chefs in Houston and delivers great food on the nightly basis. Other than the Mad Hatter chairs that feel like torture devices, it’s a great experience.

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