Thursday, June 11, 2009

Taste of Haven

Is there a better chef in Houston (or anywhere) than Randy Evans? I seriously wonder. During a recent once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience, Randy prepared dinner at our home and I'm struggling with an attempt to explain how absolutely-incredibly-utterly-delicious it was.

I met Randy through my involvement with Recipe4Success. For the past three years in a row, Randy has adopted a 4th grade class for the whole year, inspiring students to change the way they think about their food in every way with the program's "seed to plate" philosophy. Randy is perfect for this gig because he clearly embodies this philosophy. Listening to Randy speak so passionately about the sourcing of his ingredients makes you want to live that way, too. Even though the whole "farm to table" thing is all the rage these days, Randy talks about his "pea farmer" buddy of a decade or so, the people he met through the pea farmer who have the best tomatoes ... and so it goes. It's about as down-home as it gets, no pretension whatsoever ... a real guy, cooking real food (really well). You can actually recognize the ingredients in Randy's food even though it tastes better than any version of that dish - or even of that ingredient - than anything you've ever tasted. And I just don't know what could be better than that.

I, along with so many other Houstonians was heartbroken to learn of Brennan's fiery demise during Hurricane Ike. The injuries sustained by their sommenlier and his daughter were devastatingly sad (fortunately both are recovering though it is still a long road ahead). During his dinner prep at the house, Randy told us stories of the Brennan's staff feeding police and fire fighters with all the beautiful food that was saved from the intact walk-in that was cooled by generator in advance of the storm - can you imagine this amongst the ashes and devastation? I know that Randy loved feeding those heroes just as he loved feeding us at the house ... the man truly loves what he does.

I wondered after the fire what would become of Randy and was happy to hear of the plans for Haven. The timing was right for him to open his own restaurant. Obviously the whole process has taken longer than expected (way too much bureaucracy/approvals/permits if you ask me!) but Randy has kept busy nonetheless until the time when he's able to put his kitchen together, bringing in all the groovy equipment he's been gathering via the internet and online auctions (just ask him about his ice cream freezer!) and preparing his kitchen in order to seriously knock Houston's socks off. He's been doing private dinners for groups of all sizes and as soon as I learned of this opportunity via an amazing dinner we attended benefitting Urban Harvest (beautifully prepared by Randy along with fab Pastry Chef Rebecca Masson), I knew I had to get in on the action with a group of our food-loving friends.

The menu for our feast was as follows:
"Ants on a Log" - mini corn sticks with Maytag blue cheese butter, local beet and granny smith apple salad.
"Local Eggplant - panned eggplant sticks, roasted garlic remoulade.
"Shrimp & Corn" - wild-caught Gulf shrimp, applewood bacon, wild Texas mushrooms on crushed sweet Texas corn.
"Tomato Salad" - Harris Moran tomato, local greens, 1015 onion vinaigrette, Texas goat mozzarella.
"Berkshire Pork Rack" - whole roasted Berkshire pork rack, gold bar squash gratin, Texas rum glace.
"Hill Country Linzer Tart" - homemade Texas peach preserves, spiced pecan crust, homemade vanilla doubled cream, candied Texas pecans.

It reads like poetry and yet that doesn't even begin to tell the story. Where to begin ... well ... every single course was divine and Randy's lovely wife Melanie provided fantastic wine pairings for each course (though I'll spare those details here - let me know if you'd like to have them). The "ants on a log" were delicate little corn cakes topped with that incredible Maytag blue cheese (which was combined with some special Vermont butter) then finished with the tiny apple/beet combo ... such a lovely combination of flavors and textures. Homey yet modern at the same time.

The eggplant was so fresh (many didn't know they liked eggplant!) and the panko crust made for a great contrast of textures atop the tender eggplant while the remoulade gave the perfect tangy/spicy finishing note. We couldn't stop eating these even though we knew we really needed to stop.

Then came the shrimp/corn appetizer ... oh my. The wild-caught shrimp were so beautifully fresh (Randy explained how I could get them at the Farmer's Market on Eastside). I don't know what he did to them other than flambe' with the Texas rum (and they were perfectly cooked, not overcooked as shrimp so often are). They were a revelation and that was just one element of the dish. The fresh "creamed corn" beneath along with the incredibly meaty mushrooms cooked with the applewood smoked bacon made for a truly resplendent combination of flavors. We were full and we were just getting started!

The Harris Moran tomato salad was possibly the highlight of the meal for me. Sweet and tangy at the same time with a fantastic texture, the gorgeous (and perfectly seasoned) tomatoes were complimented so well by the fresh Texas goat mozzarella (from Paula Lambert) which Randy let come fully to room temp for about 2 hours before serving it. It was creamy and tangy and the fresh 1015 onion vinaigrette tossed with the fresh greens offered lovely sweetness and balance. Perfect.

Taking deep breaths, we readied for the pork but we weren't able to fully prepare ourselves for the way the pork would melt in our mouths (natural pork of this quality is not something we can get at the local grocery I don't believe - never mind the technique). The rum glace was a lovely compliment but the star of the plate was the squash gratin (recipe available in Randy's Brennan's cookbook). Once again the freshest of ingredients made such an impact (along with gruyere cheese and everything else in it). We couldn't stop talking about the gratin and most had to stop about halfway through the main dish in order to prepare for dessert (I promised I would pack leftovers to go!).

Never being one to shy away from a great dessert, I clapped with glee over the linzer tart. The "spiced" pecan crust combined with the homemade Texas peach preserves was such a happy combination of flavors (and textures) - crunchy, sweet, tart, crispy, chewy ... and accented just right by the doubled-vanilla cream which was so rich but not fluffy like regular whipped cream (darn, should have watched him make that!). Randy spoke of how there will be a daily selection of homemade cakes, tarts and the like at Haven. YAY!

I truly cannot wait for Haven (currently under construction in the Kirby/59 area near the Mucky Duck). I can't imagine being happier to eat anywhere in Houston if the cuisine Randy is cooking is anything like the cuisine he was cranking out in my kitchen!


neverfull said...

totally jealous, jodie. great write-up of that fabulous meal and the touching back story.

where ya been lately? i have a bottle of wine with your name on it.

Sophie said...

ooo... i am an eggplant super fan! sigh. i want the spicy eggplant sooooo badly right now. with rice.

Here I bought a sauce pack so as to skip all the seasonings! and i will try this friday after work.