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The Missing Ingredient (Part 1)

I like reading end of the year recaps. Not the smarmy Michelin star measuring contests, but the ones that capture how diners feel about their city at at a point in time.  These stories can be very telling and if you read the latest crop for 2010 you get a clear sense that the natives are getting restless.

In 2010 a number of food writers suddenly stopped exalting the virtues of upscale comfort food and started taking the restaurants in their cities to task for phoning it in. With notable exception of Bay Area (and maybe Chicago; I am not so sure about New York), restaurants across the US are lowering their standards and generally lacking in ambition you tend to find in truly vibrant food communities around the world. A year ago fried chicken, gourmet burgers and “bacon-as-a-major-food-group” were the prevailing trends and now the backlash is slowly building. Suddenly diners want more, even as their dining budgets get lower.

John Kessler took the unusual step of expressing his frustration with the state of dining in Atlanta in the form of an open letter to the city’s chefs, but the story that captured this sentiment best came from Hanna Raskin of the Dallas Observer, who pulled no punches when she called Dallas “dining nowhereville”. Say what you will about her limited perspective and only being on the job for 5-6 months, but the story is well researched and rings true for many cities like Dallas and beyond.

As tempting as it may be, it’s a mistake to treat the disappointment expressed by these writers as gratuitous whining. Critique has it’s place and can be a catalyst for change. Five years ago Daniel Patterson threw down the gauntlet in what I consider to be a seminal essay on lack of ambition in cooking (To the Moon, Alice?) and in a lot of ways the restaurants and dining public in San Francisco responded. Bay Area is now the most exciting place to eat in the country and Patterson is one of the chefs leading the way.

Is Houston one of these cities hopelessly stuck in a do loop of food clichés? Yes and no.

In her annual recap of best openings of 2010 Alison Cook scratched around the bottom of the barrel and couldn’t come up with 10 openings worth noting, finally capping the list to 8 entries (including a crepe stand). This is a sad state of affairs in a city of 6 million people, who are increasingly resigned to restaurants that charge premium prices for interchangeable menus of comfort food staples.

Yet there is a distinction in outlook and tone held by food writers in Houston, who mostly express optimism and genuine excitement about where the city is going.


DSCF2243Pastrami Carbonara at Bootsie’s Café in Tomball, TX

The source of this optimism are not the established restaurants or named chefs who have the resources to push dining to new heights. Improbably, the best cooking in Houston now comes from the gastro-underground – pop-up restaurants, supper clubs, special events thrown together in obscure locations,  farm dinners co-produced by young chefs without a kitchen of their own and farmers themselves. In some cases these renegade chefs graduate to running their own underfunded, bare bones restaurants in remote suburbs (think: Roberta’s in Brooklyn), but continue to maintain a decidedly DIY bend focused on food first and commercial appeal second. This isn’t because these chefs are allergic to money and success. It’s just that restaurateurs with resources to back these chefs place their bets elsewhere.

If you follow along with Alison Cook’s recap of Houston dining trends of 2010, you won’t find a word about burgers, cupcakes or the fast-casual land grab that usually dominate such lists. You do find her admiration for Houston’s vibrant food underground – progressive dessert tastings by daring pastry chefs, off the record multi-chef events at restaurants like Chez Roux (instigated by Randy Rucker) and a couple of renegade chefs who shook up the city with their Just8 concept and continue to do disruptive work in other venues, like Kata Robata (best restaurant operating within city limits today). Even the bastion of corporate steak, Vic and Anthony’s, gets a nod for their non-traditional approach to beer dinners.  

Sweetbreads and Romaine, 10/10/10 Dinner

Other writers took notice, too. Justin Yu, who in 2010 cooked and eaten at some the best restaurants in Bay Area, New York, Belgium and Denmark, writes “In all the cities I’ve been in this year, Houston’s dining scene probably has been the most exciting and thriving”. Alan Richman of GQ Magazine pushed a dish at Bootsie’s to the top of his annual list of best dishes in the country. Underground cooking in Houston sits right besides such restaurants as Commis in Oakland on the list of best meals of the year by Ruthie Johnson Miller of CultureMap.

Having eaten my share of amazing meals this year, I have to agree. Some of the most exciting food I came across was right here in Houston. Just not in venues where you’d expect to see it.

Texas rendition of “Into the Vegetable Garden”

Wood Duck Farms Dinner

If you buy what I am selling and believe that something is really happening in Houston’s food underground, the question becomes this – how is it possible that in a city distinguished by it’s rich multi-ethnic cooking traditions much more so than restaurants that push the boundaries of food, a crop of young chefs emerge out of nowhere and manage to ignite such excitement? Where do they get their inspiration, their drive, their training? Bigger question is, how do we support their efforts and make sure this movement continues to grow? What’s the missing ingredient?

I’ll follow up with my thoughts in my next post. For now, leave a comment and give me your take.

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