"What are your expectations for tonight," celebrity chef Ingrid Hoffmann asked me. We were standing just outside Rienzi in River Oaks between the tents housing the makeshift kitchen and the ballroom that would serve as the first stop on the world tour that had brought brothers Joan, Jordi and Josep Roca from Spain's celebrated restaurant El Celler de Can Roca to Houston.
"I hope it's one of the best meals of my life," I told her. Considering that El Celler is currently ranked the No. 2 restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine, that seemed like a pretty reasonable expectation. It's that status and the brothers' celebrity that motivated bank BBVA to enlist the Roca brothers to close their restaurant for five weeks to embark on the four-country, six-city tour.
"I think it will be," Hoffmann replied.
The meal began, as one supposes all Spanish meals should, with a generous serving of utterly luxurious jamón ibérico ham that was sliced from a whole leg. Utterly decadent, it was the only bite that offered a taste of Spain. From there, chef Joan Roca and his team of cooks who traveled to Houston from Girona, along with assistants from a local catering company and local chefs Ruben and Hugo Ortega (Hugo's, Caracol, etc) would present their version of flavors familiar to any Houstonian.
Those expecting fancy foams or unusual presentations may have been disappointed, but everyone at my table cleaned their plates.
As Roca explained during a visit to Houston in May, memory and traditions influence much of the way the brothers think about food and dining. It was not surprising, then, to find them playing with diners' expectations throughout the 18-dish, 14-course meal open to invited guests only.
In order to protect the paintings in the Rienzi ballroom, the first course, shrimp steamed with tequila flavor, was served on a patio overlooking the pool. Sure enough, the sweet shrimp contained a bit of a tequila bite and made the air around the cooking station smell like the potent potable.
As the 100 guests moved to the ballroom for the meal, we sat down in front of a menu that listed all 18 dishes (including the shrimp) along with a simple dinner roll. The first dish, dubbed The World, brought five small bites designed to represent the four countries of the tour. A corn fritter filled with a spot-on take on classic barbecue sauce represented Texas.
The series of small bites continued with a margarita bonbon — the sweet, tart liquid filled my mouth as soon as I pressed my tongue against the thin candy shell. A "liquid tortilla" contained a warm rush of chicken tinga —again, familiar flavors presented in an unexpected fashion.
As the meal moved efficiently into individually plated courses, I heard myself say things like "eat your jalapeno ice cream before it melts" and answering questions like "Why does my fish remind me of pancakes?" In the first instance, jalapeno ice cream provided a spicy kick to a liquid salad. In the second, sea bass came with "pancake sauce" and pecans, along with two spicy salsas that wouldn't have tasted out of place on a taco truck.
The savory portion of the meal concluded with a piece of pork belly in which crispy skin gave way to juicy meat and a thin, flavorful layer of fat and a thinly-sliced veal shank flavored with cinnamon and coriander. They were simple, beautifully prepared dishes that spoke to the quality of their ingredients. Those expecting fancy foams or unusual presentations may have been disappointed, but everyone at my table cleaned their plates.
Pastry chef Jordi Roca served two courses. The first, named Lemon Cloud, took its inspiration from a perfume, a sample of which was passed around to diners via paper cups. Sure enough, the flavors of the dessert and the perfume's scent matched up — a mix of floral and citrus elements. Thanks to the different components each bite tasted a little different than the one before.
These courses are the antidote to overly severe tastings and the pretentious foodies who fly around the world to devour them.
Dinner concluded with "Dairy Dessert," a cotton candy-style wisp dulce de leche atop ice cream. It was ethereal and sweet and light enough to bring the meal to a fitting close.
These courses are the antidote to overly severe tastings and the pretentious foodies who fly around the world to devour them. This meal was fun to eat and, despite the crowd and unfamiliar setting, permeated by a sense of hospitality throughout. Courses arrived quickly one table at a time. They disappeared quickly too, with only new silverware left to mark their departure. Despite the number of dishes, the whole experience only last about two-and-a-half hours.
Had a question about a wine? One of the sommeliers, including Josep Roca, was happy to come over and describe it. Even water glasses stayed full.
At the end, the lucky diners stood and applauded. The three brothers bowed.
One of the best meals of my life? Certainly so.