When did the Energy Corridor become the center of Houston's Peruvian food scene? While Lemon Tree in Midtown crashed and burned after a few months, the Westchase location has thrived for years.
Now former Samba Grille executive chef David Guerrero hopes that the same neighborhood will welcome his take on the South American fare at Alma.
When I made my way out to Eldridge for a media preview of the restaurant, I was surprised by how put-together the restaurant looked after a transformation that took place virtually overnight. The strip mall space is spare and slightly formulaic, with earth toned walls and a Delilah-approved music mix playing in the background — none of the Juanes or other Latin pop jams that Guerrero is known to be fond of.
This is where Guerrero excels — I'm pretty sure he could make a solid cebiche blindfolded.
If the aesthetics of the restaurant were meant to cast a wide net of appeal at the expense of a little personality, it's not a flaw that extends to the food. Guerrero first got my attention at Samba for his excellent Peruvian-style ceviches, and they also form a large part of the Alma menu.
The tasting menu I tried featured choclo (South American corn) still on a strip of the cob (pretty, though also challenging to consume) as well as fleshy chunks of wild Peruvian white fish, a tangy citrus leche de tigre sauce and the typical corn nuts, red onion strings and orbs of sweet potato.
Another tiradito featured a spicy rocoto pepper leche de tigre, thin strips of flounder (plated to look as if one was attempting an escape from the bowl) and the usual suspects. This is where Guerrero excels — I'm pretty sure he could make a solid cebiche blindfolded. Both were light and beautiful, balancing the bright flavors of the fish with the tart sting of leche de tigre, a bit of crunch and a slightly earthy undertone.
A Caesar salad was deconstructed and given a South American spin thanks to the addition of Peruvian huncaina dressing and some extra queso fresco instead of the typical anchovy base for a lighter, sweeter and slightly less complex flavor.
I was slightly underwhelmed by a murky green fava bean soup full of herbs like mint, basil, cilantro and huacatay but that tasted oddly bland when my spoon came up lacking any of the sweet corn kernels.
The dinner left me with a few questions. Will food like this work for an Energy Corridor lunch crowd? Can Bremont come to my house and make me dessert every night?
The second half of the dinner showed range and a facility with non-seafood proteins. Guerrero turned the traditional beef lomo saltado into an Asian fusion dish, replacing the red meat with corvina drum fish and adding soy sauce, green onions and sesame seeds (among other things) over a bed of white rice to create a bowl worthy of chop sticks.
The next dish had a similar East-West theme, combining stir fry noodles with beef heart, peas, queso fresco and cilantro. Both were hearty and flavorful, the kind of comfort food best consumed on a couch while watching Real Housewives of Whatever.
When it was finally time for the meat to take center stage — Samba Grille was a steakhouse, after all — it was a tender, sous vide version of a lomo saltado hangar steak with a juicy dark pink streak throughout it, given even more flavor from a bed of au jus. The potato puree it came with was mediocre at best, but with a piece of meat like that, who cares?
Dessert by pastry chef Alejandro Bremont was similarly sublime and perhaps the most modern dish served at the meal, with a small slice of moist vanilla sponge cake topped with a dollop of dulce de leche and a hint of lemon paired with a familiar ovate scoop of caramel sea salt ice cream on a bed of crushed hazelnuts. The layers of sweet and sweeter might be overwhelming for some palates, but the hint of salt reigned it in for a truly delightful last bite.
The dinner left me with a few questions. Will food like this work for an Energy Corridor lunch crowd? Is the menu a bit too intellectual — and too expensive — for the atmosphere? Can Bremont come to my house and make me dessert every night?
I think the key is in the name — Alma is Spanish for soul, and Guerrero's food is best when it feels soulful. If he can focus on that and find a balance between his vision and his audience, Alma has promise.