Two of the most ambitious culinary projects in recent memory make their debuts this week. Degust, a tasting menu restaurant, and Diversión Cocktails, an upscale bar and lounge, open Thursday in Spring Branch (7202 Long Point Rd.).
Although they are separate businesses with distinct menus and environments, their joint address and shared vision make them worth considering together. For both Degust chef Brandon Silva and Diversión founder Steven Salazar, the projects represent both a major change from the patio bars they’ve opened on behalf of The Kirby Group (Holman Draft Hall, Heights Bier Garten, etc) and the culmination of experiences and travels they’ve collected throughout their careers.
Both men retain their “day jobs” supervising food and drink operations for The Kirby Group, but their weekends will be spent in these two new spaces. Think of it a little like actors who perform in intimate plays Off Broadway after starring in superhero movies. Having spent the last five years making money in high volume projects, the time has come for a small, more creative project that doesn’t have to appeal to the masses. Rather, they intend to be destinations for culinarily-minded Houstonians and tourists — places their owners would visit if they traveled to the city they in which they reside.
“This is my passion project,” Salazar told a group of media at a preview event last weekend. [Diversión] is something I’ve been dreaming about since Kata Robata and developing over the years as I’ve traveled all over the world.”
What he’s been dreaming about is a 32-seat venue that elevates drink makers from bartenders who mix pre-made liquids into “bar chefs” who create their own bitters, tinctures, infusions, and other ingredients from a wide array of local and seasonal produce — some of which is grown specifically for Diversión at the property’s urban farm and another plot of land near Heights Bier Garten.
“We don’t make the gin, we don't make the bourbon, but everything else is from us,” Salazar says. “It’s very laborious. It’s seasonal on a month-to-month basis.”
Those efforts manifest themselves in a tidy menu of just seven cocktails divided into sections. The first, labeled Immersive Cocktails, are three drinks that cost between $25 and 35 each. Deliberately over the top, they include a champagne cocktail that combines housemade strawberry vinegar and blackberry cordial with a generous spoonful of caviar. In the Day at the Beach (pictured above), rum and gin are flavored with tarragon, topped with lemon foam, and served in an edible chocolate mug.
The “Farm to Cocktail” section offers four drinks ($16 each) made with an array of ingredients such as preserved peaches or a powder made from dehydrated citrus peels and spices. For now, those seven cocktails are the only drinks available; a customer who wants a conventional Old Fashioned or margarita will have to rely on Salazar and his fellow bar chefs to craft a version from the ingredients they have on-hand that night.
Those drinks can be paired with snacks such as a Portugese-style scallop conserva, venison croquettes, or caviar service. In addition to the cocktails, a limited selection of wine, beer, spirits, and non-alcoholic beverages are also available.
Silva describes Degust — as in “degustation,” a chef-led tasting menu — in similar terms.
“It has been my goal to reach this place since I started cooking,” he says. “It has been in the works for the past four-and-a-half years.”
The eight-course tasting menu ($75, beverage pairings $45) draws upon Silva’s personal history as a Houston native of Spanish and Mexican heritage, his professional experiences working for restaurants such as Uchi and Holley’s, and the stages he’s completed at some of the world’s great restaurants, including L20 and Blackbird in Chicago, Relae in Copenhagen, and Central in Lima, Peru.
In the current menu, diners can expect dishes that utilize masa made from corn that Silva grinds in house, such as a blue corn tostada with venison and the meal’s entree, a stack of red corn tortillas with four housemade salsas — mole blanco, almond mole, fermented blackberry salsa, and pickled shisito relish — paired with either locally-sourced proteins or vegetables, depending on whether a diner selects a vegetarian or omnivore menu.
Peru shows up in a dish of Gulf kampachi ceviche in a satsuma leche de tigre. Spanish elements include pickled mushrooms in an edible “shell” and croquettes filled with chicken liver mousse or pozole.
As at Diversión, the on-property farm serves as a source of produce, herbs, and other ingredients. That means the buttery cauliflower puree that anchors one course uses florets grown just a few yards away.
To help him bring his vision to life, Silva has assembled a team of culinary heavy hitters to help execute the menu in front of diners seated at the oval-shaped, 20 counter. They include Javier Beccera, formerly at MAD and BCN, and Micah Rideout, the well-traveled Houston chef who’s worked everywhere from Reef and Potente to Savoir. The chefs serve diners directly, through gaps in a plexiglass divider, with beverage guy Dale Ellington (Kata Robata, Camerata) to facilitate pairings.
Still, Silva is the undeniable star of the show. He introduces each course and explain its influences. The room is decorated with cookbooks and other arts that have inspired him, and he chose the playlist that hops across multiple genres.
Reservations for Degust are available via emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (Resy coming soon) with seatings Thursday - Saturday, at 5:30, 8:15, and a very Spanish 11 pm. Diversión is first-come-first-serve in its lounge; reservations for its eight counter seats may be made by emailing email@example.com.