"I'm expecting this lunch to change my life," said the girl next to me as we sat down at the "Yes, Chef" lunch, held at Hofheinz House.
Normally expectations like that would border on insane, but when you're talking about a menu created by internationally renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson and soon-to-open Pass & Provisions restaurant founders Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner (who trained in New York under Samuelsson at August and Aquavit, respectively), anything is possible.
Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan left the kitchen rarely, but Samuelsson was front and center throughout the three-hour luncheon, signing copies of his memior, Yes, Chef, beforehand, mingling with diners and answering questions from the audience between courses, from what spice he would be (berbere, the one pictured on his book cover) to giving details on preparing the first-ever state dinner of the Obama administration.
"You're going to have a great restaurant in your community," Samuelsson said.
Several of the questions also covered his unorthodox sense of style, on display in the form of a black embroidered vintage Western shirt from Texas combined with a multi-colored tie and pegged red jeans.
Four of the five courses were inspired by Samuelsson's recipes as presented in his cookbooks Aquavit, The Soul of a New Cuisine and New American Table, and according to Gallivan the preparations took the greater part of three days.
The first course had a subtle nod to both Gulf coast and Houston's traditional Vietnamese cuisine, featuring a feather-light spring roll in which the wrapper was a soft, pliable sliver of green apple and the filling featured a deeply rich shrimp mayonnaise accent by a spicy shrimp consomme on the plate as well as some potato salad. It was extremely satisfying, especially when paired with a ginger mule granita cocktail made by Pass & Provisions beverage director Fred Jones, fresh back to Houston from a stint working in New York.
The second dish of the afternoon was the one that changed all my definitions of mind-blowing cuisine. Led by an egg sublimely poached in an Ethiopian doro wett chicken stew and topped with berbere spices, it also featured a terrine of foie gras, a bit of lettuce, some (fennel?) flowers, popcorn and a couple pickled grapes that added a bright bitterness to contrast the sweet umami flavor of the yolk and the fois on top of a thin berbere broth.
This was a bite that was so perfect that I've struggled to find words to convey its depth and perfectly balanced complexity, the kind of dish in which each bite must be carefully constructed and savored slowly.
A toasted seashell caraway pasta from a forthcoming (in 2014) Provisions cookbook made up the third course. Thick and slightly chewy, it was bathed in a light, slightly fishy creme fraiche sauce with juicy bits of salmon roe, grassy dill leaves and a pink onion corkscrew. It was hearty without being heavy with a dose of bright yet creamy flavor.
The fourth course was arguably as incredible as the second. (I'm arguing with myself on the subject right now.) A coconut milk-steamed square of veal wrapped in fresh bok choy shared the stage with a triangle of fried sweetbreads over a thick coconut milk cream with tiny slices of orange and grapefruit. The richness of the veal and the sweetbreads mixed with a saucy sweetness, marked citrus tones as well as just a hint of bitterness from the bok choy — another dish that seemed to hit every note just right.
Dessert was comparatively simple and yet still intriguing — a curry peach cake with an ice cream center and a cascade of mini cubes of watermelon and berries.
It's somewhat fitting that Hofheinz House is so frequently the site of wedding celebrations. The meal felt like an inspiring marriage between Samuelsson's influence and Pass & Provisions signature style, as well as a celebration of a new beginning in the Houston food scene.
"You're going to have a great restaurant in your community," Samuelsson said, but really the food did all the talking for them.