Best new restaurant? Don't miss the creative cooking at Cureight
I owe Austin Simmons a mea culpa.
Even though I managed to include 15 restaurants in my list of 2015's best newcomers, I feel badly about snubbing Cureight, because the tasting room concept inside Hubbell & Hudson Bistro in The Woodlands is serving some of the most creative, carefully executed dishes in all of greater Houston. Recently, I had the opportunity to return for my first visit since June. In that time, Simmons has turned over almost the entire menu — only his adaptation of the Thomas Keller classic "oysters and pearls" dish remains.
Six months in, Cureight has cemented its status as a progressive, New American restaurant that's grounded in classic European technique. To compare it to other tasting menu restaurants in Houston, Cureight offers an Oxheart-style focus on treating ingredients simply with a level of luxury that wouldn't look out of place if Kate McLean were serving the same dishes at Tony's. While trends nationally are moving away from ingredients like king crab and foie gras, Simmons's menu serves as a reminder that they are still really delicious when properly utilized.
Although they have a grounding in traditional techniques, Simmons still works in a few Asian influences. For example, a dish that begins with expertly seared Hudson Valley foie gras turns into an inventive riff on the Italian classic tortellini en brodo thanks to the addition of foie-filled tortellini in an aromatic pho broth. Similarly, king crab arrives with a thin layer of charred shiso leaves.
Roast duck with crispy skin follows the foie. Then a short rib preparation that's so beefy and rich it makes spending the extra $25 to upgrade to wagyu completely superfluous. Do, however, spend the $25 for a generous shaving of truffles with the oysters and pearls: The aroma fills the room and complements the caviar.
Simmons's decision to include animal protein with every course both helps justify Cureight's lofty price of $125 and leaves diners feeling full despite the relatively small individual portions. By comparison, Tony's changes $145 for its seven course tasting and $165 for nine courses.
Cureight could improve its offerings by adding a composed vegetable dish that would bring Cureight more into line with other restaurants that are serving this style of modern American cuisine. In a conversation a few days after my visit, Simmons says he's working on a dish of ash-roasted carrots that would fill the gap. In addition, he notes that the restaurant can accommodate vegetarians, pescetarians, shellfish allergies, and even gluten-free with a little advance notice.
Now that diners are starting to embrace the concept and fill its reservation books more consistently from week to week, Simmons says he's even considering a full vegetarian menu. I hope he implements it, because it would demonstrate that Cureight doesn't need foie gras to be compelling.
If the savory menu could benefit from a tweak or two, the sweets are still very strong. Pastry chef Nguyet Nguyen recently departed the restaurant, but her replacement Erika Lucio brings a serious pedigree to the role. Trained by celebrated pastry chef David Collier at John Tesar's restaurants Spoon and Knife, Lucio brings Collier's ethos for taking classic desserts like Black Forest cake and elevating them with a focus on high quality ingredients and elegant plating.
Similarly, sommelier Derek Ryan has a knack for finding the right vintage to pair with each dish. Like Simmons, he's an underrated talent whose zip code prevents him from getting wider recognition. Cureight's mixed beverage pairing currently costs $50 and the wine pairing costs $60.
Overall, service has improved from the initial meal. Florid descriptions of each dish are out, replaced by shorter explanations that focus on the ingredients and techniques. The message of these changes is clear: Just eat and enjoy.
All of these elements come together to ensure that a meal at Cureight leaves patrons feeling like they received good value and a memorable experience. Passionate diners from Houston should eat there now. When the national press discovers Simmons's talent, reservations will be significantly harder to come by.