Monday, September 13, 2010

Is Houston Ready for a Permanent Just8?

About six weeks ago I had dinner at Houston’s first pop-up restaurant -- The Just August Project. It was an inspiring meal which showcased a range of interesting techniques and flavor combinations. My eyes were ablaze from start to finish, marveling at what was in front of me and wondering what came next. It is not a meal I would choose daily, but perhaps one I would look forward to each quarter.

(Pickled broccoli and dehydrated chorizo on a poached egg yolk at Just8)

I spent last week in San Francisco, where I had a similar experience at the more established Commis, thanks to recommendations from @tastybitz and @tetsujustin. Looking back at the exceptional meal, it’s no wonder that Just8 chef Justin Yu had recommend the place, as the parallels between the two experiences are clear. Both places offer jaw-dropping creations that play with textures and style. Both offered a range of meats and fish, including a raw course. Both played up the seasonal influences and featured a poached egg yolk. Both offer reasonably priced pre-fixe meals. And both provide an intimate setting (12 tables or so) with top-notch service that’s completely void of pretension. Commis is filled nightly in Oakland. Could the same type of place survive here in Houston?

(Fabulous fennel bulb soup with tomatoes and basil at Commis)

You tell me. At Commis, we started with a flavorful fennel bulb soup studded with tomatoes and basil. What followed was raw albacore tuna with scallion, pepper, lime peel… and gorgeous golden chunks of fried okra -- A little bit of the deep south all the way over on the Left Coast. Next came the wild hake with squash congee, clams, and spinach. The local abalone with liver sauce, potato, and seaweed was the only course I didn’t love -- The intensely fishy flavor overwhelmed. But that helped me save room for the next dish, a chicken that was first poached, and then roasted with salted butter and marjoram beneath the skin. For dessert? A compressed honeydew with blueberries and lemongrass “snow.”

(Wild hake with squash congee, clams, and spinach at Commis)

Dining experiences like Commis and the Just August Project are the culinary “someday,” connecting the aha’s in our minds and showing us what’s possible when creativity rules the flavor wheel. I walked out of both meals with the undeniable high that comes from enjoying exceptional food at a reasonable price exchange. And that’s exactly why I think a Commis or a Just8 *could* find a regular home in Houston... It would, of course, need to stay small to cut down on staff and overhead and offer a decent price for Houston's value-driven market. But these are the places we hold fast in our memories, and I want more.

(Poached-then-roasted chicken with marjoram and chanterelles at Commis)