The Brains, Beans and Bacon appetizer ($12.95) was a special last Friday. So was the Lamb and Turnip Pie with Green Beans and Bubble and Squeak ($23.95). Neither of these will be on the Valentine’s Day menu (4 courses for $45). That will be populated with such familiar staples as Pigs Ear Cake with Apple Chutney and Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad appetizers with mains of Tongue in Breasts with Garlic Rutabaga Mash and Mustard Greens and Coq au Vin. This menu comes from Feast in Houston, a transatlantic conceptual transplant of London’s St. John which brings a modern spin to traditional English recipes and sensibilities. One of the principals, James Silk, worked at St. John so the linage is direct. The ingredients in the list of dishes above illustrates the rustic, indeed atavistic, philosophy behind the place.
We did the Valentine’s Menu, which borrows heavily from the regular à la carte menu, so most items will still be available if you arrive after the 14th.
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First up, we had the Queen of Sheeba Pate. This is actually duck liver pate served en croute with the pastry suitably carved in heart shapes. There are two on the plate, so couples can split them. The pate really did melt in the mouth and the earthy puff pastry punctuated the flavors of pate just enough to keep it interesting. Next up was that Pigs Ear Cake with Apple Chutney appetizer. It has been a long time since I have had an appetizer, or maybe any course, with so many facets as this enigma. Strips of pig’s ear are boiled and then chopped. They are added to a flour batter with parmesan and parsley. That is cooked in a baking dish in the oven until it assumes the shape and consistency of a cake. Slices are then pan-fried and served with dollops of the tart chutney. What marks Feast’s version out from the pack is the addition of some English mustard to the mix. It packs a sinus-clearing punch similar to that of real wasabi in the center of a piece of nigirizushi. However, it doesn’t translate to heat in the mouth, so this dish is as wine-friendly as any.
English Fish and Scallop Pie Served with Roasted Brussel Sprouts is an example of a rarity on modern restaurant menus: a fish pie. This example is so thickly laden with fish that there is barely enough béchamel to cover it. No skimping on the protein here. I had to amp up the salt to fully appreciate it but this may be a taste thing. The sprouts will add enough flavor and texture variation for most people. The Tongue in Breasts with Garlic Rutabaga Mash and Mustard Greens was actually lamb breast and the tongue was pork bacon. I have not combined the two before but this one worked. The part of this recipe that impressed me most however was the Garlic Rutabaga Mash. This lowly inexpensive vegetable acquires a bewitching sweetness when mashed and the accent from the garlic only helped. Feast leaves their rutabaga coarsely mashed, probably by using a hand tool. It reinforces the rustic character of the whole
The next course was a sorbet, with a choice to be had. I had the Casanova Cocktail (for obvious reasons) which had a stellar intensity of apple flavors. The Champagne Sorbet was more subtle (too subtle for my taste).
Finally dessert and the Honey and Rosemary Ice Cream It was creamy but not sweet (the Anti-Blue Bell). I could eat this by the cart load.
The other dessert, Spotted Dick with Custard, deserves careful explanation. Spotted Dick is a traditional English dessert that is straight out of the ‘food is fuel’ school of gastronomy. It is made from suet, which has a specific gravity 100 times greater than that of the element mercury. Despite Feast’s modest-sized helping and the innovative use of Crème Anglais as the custard, I could not finish my portion. I had to save room for the Courvoisier VSOP and Dow 10-yr tawny port digestivs.
The wine list philosophy appears to be “represent every famous region of Europe without a single famous producer name”. Have you ever had Le Vin de Bob? Me neither, although it’s a Merlot from Bergerac, a region in which I have spent months of my life and which I know makes underrated reds, mainly from the Merlot grape. The limited by-the-glass selection (four whites and four reds) hardly covers the bases although the individual selections are quality representations of interesting types (for example, Rueda and Monastrell from Spain and Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc from the Languedoc and Gascony, respectively, in France). The architect of this list obviously brings a knowhow and an attitude to wine selection. There are no wine-rep.-selected ‘critter wines’ from Australian bulk piss houses to be found. Spain and France are the two countries most heavily represented.
Not all things worked however.. The service fell short in several respects. Our waitress was hard to find – which was a pain when drinking wines by the glass that needed refills. She also appeared to be short on facts about the food. She misdirected us away from the Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad as “too small if we wanted something substantial”. As we saw at another table later, it was three four inch marrow bones.
When Fergus Henderson opened St. John in 1994 it set the dining world on its head. It defied any trend or fashion. It ran the risk of an identity crisis in which diners expected the overcooked vegetables, grey meat and lack of aspiration that had contributed so centrally to England winning the “world’s worst food cup” even more frequently than Brazil won the World Cup for Soccer. At first, the local French tire company (that ran a red restaurant guide on the side) refused to acknowledge the place as the French has no equivalent expression to “Spotted Dick” (in French, the spots are assumed). Eventually, even they conceded and gave St. John a star. Anthony Bourdain proclaimed St. John his favorite restaurant in the world. Feast has big shoes to fill, but filling them it appears to be. In their own hometown, they won 2008 Best New Restaurant from the Houston Chronicle in the Year they opened and 2009 Best Restaurant. The New York Times (perhaps the only non-Dallas publication to acknowledge Dallas’ food during the Superbowl) said “What they’ve fashioned in a foreign land of big steaks and bold Tex-Mex is a restaurant that’s not just offbeat and challenging but also serious and enormously enjoyable. It’s one of the country’s outstanding newcomers.” In their brief existence they have modified their menu to include some non-esoteric items so that someone used to steak house menus need not feel left out. However they have stayed true to their founding principles and that includes listing the provenance of all the meat and eggs on the back of each night’s menu.
What they should do is move this place here. It would win “restaurant of the year” hands down and have a reservation queue longer than future development schedule for the Iranian nuclear bomb. At the moment, there is no place like it.