turn, turn, turn
Innovative Kemah restaurant closing for new concept devoted to indigenous cuisine
The recent celebrations surrounding the 25th anniversary of The Sopranos serve as a reminder that even the most successful projects inevitably come to an end. In that spirit, the chef behind Eculent, Kemah's destination-worthy tasting menu restaurant, is ready to change things up.
In TV parlance, it's time for a spin-off.
Chef David Skinner tells CultureMap that the time has come to close his modernist tasting menu restaurant in favor of a new project that will bring his unique perspective to the indigenous culinary traditions of North and South America.
Ishtia, named for the Choctaw word for “beginning,” will debut later this spring after Eculent closes at the end of March. The new restaurant will serve as a counterpoint to Th Prsrv, the restaurant Skinner opened last year in partnership with Street to Kitchen owners Graham Painter and James Beard Award-winning chef Benchawan Jabthong Painter that traces the historical evolution of Thai and Native American dishes (Skinner has Choctaw ancestors).
At Eculent, Skinner’s innovative, 30-course tasting menus take inspiration from his travels around the world dining at great restaurants. In 2019, Eculent drew the attention of Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema, who said the restaurant compared favorably to peers such as Alinea in Chicago and Minibar in Washington, D.C.
“When I opened Eculent, I said I’ll stay open five years and see how it goes. By five years, we were booked all the time," Skinner says. "Ten years was my magic number. I’ve told all the stories I can tell in that space.”
Despite that success and the restaurant’s enduring popularity, a trip to the Best Chef Awards ceremony helped inspire the decision to close Eculent and replace it with Ishtia. While there, he had conversations with other chefs who wanted to hear more about his Choctaw-inspired dishes at Th Prsrv. As he began to develop the ideas for Ishtia, Skinner says he couldn’t identify another restaurant anywhere else in the world that’s bringing a modernist perspective to indigenous dishes. That helped convince him to switch things up.
“There’s an opportunity to do something again that no one is doing,” he says. “That was my whole goal with Eculent, doing something that nobody was crazy enough to do. I built a modern gastronomy restaurant in a little town. Who in there right mind would do such an idiotic thing? [But] It worked.”
To prepare for opening Ishtia, Skinner traveled to the Yucatan, where he met with locals to develop recipes and research ingredients. He’s also adding more ingredients from the native suppliers in America who are already working with him for Th Prsrv.
Skinner is still refining his ideas, but he’s decided that most of the dishes will be prepared using live fire and the menu will change seasonally. The chef expects that the 12-15 course menu — down from the 30 or so he serves at Eculent — will begin with a version of his signature corn butter that’s served like a liquid olive. From there, he’ll be guided by a simple principle.
“Traditional recipes with a very modern spin, but all delicious,” he says. “If it’s not good, who cares?”
Ishtia will open after the space undergoes some interior renovations. Skinner is installing a wood-burning hearth that will allow him to cook with live fire. He’s also adding a bar that will allow him to accommodate solo diners for the first time. If all goes according to plan, diners will get their first taste of the new restaurant in April.
While Eculent’s time as a restaurant may be coming to an end, the ideas behind it will live on in the form of large-scale culinary events. Skinner says he’s already booked a dinner in San Antonio where each course will incorporate an industrial gas — including a root beer float that will waft through the air by using helium — and another in Galveston built around recipes created by legendary cookbook author Julia Child. In addition, he’s hosting high level culinary tours that begin this week with a 10-day trip to Copenhagen that includes several Michelin-starred restaurants.
As for Th Prsrv, Skinner plans to open expand its service from two nights a week to five later this spring after the Painters return from a month-long trip to Thailand. He adds that both chefs are working on new dishes for the restaurant. If all of these endeavors sound like a lot for anyone, the chefs provides a simple explanation.
"Well, you should know I'm a workaholic. I'm always working. I'm always thinking of things," he says. "Now it's time to let the cat out of the bag."