Live-fire-loving LA chef duo opens Basque-style restaurant in the Heights
An innovative new restaurant has brought a fresh culinary perspective to the Heights. Baso has quietly opened its doors.
Located next to local wine shop Reata Cellars (633a W. 19th St.), Baso describes itself as a Houston restaurant with a Basque personality that’s led by two chefs, Jacques Varon and Max Lappe ("baso" is the Basque word for "forest). The duo met in Los Angeles when they worked at Angler, the live-fire seafood restaurant created by star chef Joshua Skenes. Lappe’s resume includes a number of high-end Los Angeles-area restaurants, including Dunsmoor, Rustic Canyon, and Animal. Varon’s resume includes time at Inua, a restaurant in Tokyo founded by a former Noma chef that held two Michelin stars.
As the chefs explain, they formed a fast friendship based on shared heritage — “you don’t find many handsome Mexican Jews in the industry,” Lappe quips — as well as shared interests in live-fire cooking and fermentation, among others. When Varon’s original partner Fernando Recio opted to take a position working for the hospitality group that operates Spanish fine dining restaurants BCN and MAD, Varon approached Lappe about moving to Texas.
“It took too long for Fernando. I respect him for the time he gave. He needed something immediate. I couldn't provide it. It was sad to him go,” Varon says.
“I’ve always known me and Jacques are compatible in terms of collaboration,” Lappe says. “It’s also a new restaurant, a new kitchen. It’s something that will evolve and be fun to put together.”
Part of the compatibility stems from a shared passion about sourcing the best ingredients possible. All of Baso’s produce and most of its proteins come from Texas. The rare exceptions are certain items with a specific geographic pedigree like Manchego cheese from Spain or blue fin tuna from Japan. Lappe says he’s been particularly impressed by the beef and pork he’s found here. Both meats are on the menu in larger portions that are designed to be served as a shared entree.
“We’re a Houston restaurant with a Basque philosophy. Almost 99 percent of our product touches the fire,” Varon explains.
“We want to think of ourselves as Basque-inspired where we’re utilizing product that is local and doing as much in our power to do as little as possible,” Lappe says. “You get a perfect tomato. You spend hours kissing it on the fire to keep it perfect rather than masking it with other stuff. The style is putting as little on the plate as possible to make the product shine.”
The menu begins with a section of Pinxtos, bar snack-style bites meant to be paired with beer, cider, or the Basque wine txakoli. One example is a guilda, a skewer typically made with olives, anchovies, and pickled peppers. Other dishes include boquerones with olive oil, potatoes with aioli, and gambas al ajilo (garlic shrimp).
In addition to the shared entrees of pork, beef, or fish, the menu’s other two savory sections include raw items such as venison tartare, raw oysters, and caviar as well as a section titled “small” that consists of bread service and small vegetable plates. Specific dishes are likely to change as Lappe learns more about Texas and meets more purveyors.
“We’re learning our own voice and personality. I think now that there’s a home this infant will grow into something,” Lappe says.
It’s a sentiment his co-chef readily agrees with.
“We’re two guys who’ve worked at really good restaurants who want to bring everything we’ve learned to the city, because Houston’s my home. I’m going to do everything I can to make Houston shine,” Varon adds.