Friday, June 26, 2009

Something Yummy Over the Rainbow

My husband and I have friends whose daughter is seriously in to food. Sure, part of it is how she is raised. Her parents love to eat well; her father is an amazing cook; they drink great wine and entertain a lot and travel. Still, a lot of kids grow up like that and don’t eat like Grace. There is a definite nature over nurture about the way the girl eats. I was first struck by her natural foodie-ness when, at the ripe age of six, we were at Glasswall and she ordered for herself off the menu. There was no wondering if they could make her some chicken fingers or could she get the pasta with just butter. She read the menu herself and placed her own order: vegetable soup and, I remember so clearly, the salmon entrée. This was at SIX. More recently, at the wise old age of nine, Grace was with her parents at one of our city’s more upscale restaurants celebrating her mother’s Fortieth birthday. After perusing the menu, she went with foie gras to start and the lamb shank as her entrée. This was, of course, only after considering the evening’s off-the-menu selections. This is the kind of girl who is going to be the next Gael Greene. Me? I am not.

However, I do have 10+ years in the restaurant biz and certainly like food enough to be able to talk about it. And I really want to talk about Rainbow Lodge. The husband and I celebrated a wedding anniversary recently and decided the occasion was worth getting out of the house without the kiddos. We needed to be close by, though, considering the wee one is a mere 2 months old. The beautiful thing is we have so many options near home now. We could have done Glasswall or Shade, Bedford or Textile. However, we hadn’t been to Rainbow Lodge in a couple of years and were curious to see what young chef Randy Rucker, who likes to create crazy funky food, was doing with one of the most old school and traditional of Houston’s restaurants.

We were seated at a little table tucked in the center room. Sure, a view of the grounds is preferable but all the window tables were taken up by a more… mature crowd (it was 6 pm on a Saturday, if you get my drift) who were probably regulars. Bread and water were delivered promptly by the bus boy/back waiter. Our waiter was nice, efficient without rushing, attentive without stalking, talked without being too chatty, knew his menu and understood the wine list. Doesn’t get better than that from a service standpoint.

Now, the food. If you’re familiar with Randy Rucker than you know he favors a cooking style that is definitely outside the box. Enough people watch Top Chef to be familiar with molecular gastronomy and that whole movement of challenging the way we prepare and eat food. If you’re not, read up on El Bulli. So, how was Rucker’s food going to fit in to a hyper-traditional, meat and potatoes environment?

Trophies a must for a wild game restaurant to provide that lodge atmosphere

We can start with the scallop. The last time I was at RL was just after my first son was born, Mother’s Day 2 years ago. I ordered the scallop appetizer. It was good, solid. Seared just right with a delicate sauce that didn’t distract. Simple and expected. This dinner, I also ordered the scallop appetizer, but it was different. “sea scallops, toast, chorizo, fennel” is how it’s listed on the menu. What came to the table were 2 perfectly cooked scallops, halved and turned on their sides. Each piece was sandwiched in the slimmest sliver of grilled (?) bread, just enough to give it that good white bread sponginess. I didn't even notice the chorizo, but I have to imagine it added some flavor without being so obvious. The scallops were lightly dressed in a broth and then topped with a seafood foam. Foam is a hallmark of the laboratory way of cooking. It was light, fresh, delicious. For me, the difference between the 1st scallop and this scallop is the best example of how Rucker has been able to change things up yet keep them the same.

The scallops

My husband, Ray, went with the "tuna wrapped watermelon" to start. The watermelon was lightly salted, which gave it great flavor with the raw fish. The sliver of jalapeno on top added some heat and another dimension of flavor. Hubby felt the watermelon should have been crisper, but enjoyed the taste overall. I thought it was refreshing and light. Yum.

Tuna wrapped watermelon with watermelon gazpacho

For salad course, I went traditional with heirloom tomatoes. Rucker adds “compressed black plums” to mix it up. They all sit in a literal bath of very fine Spanish olive oil. The plums were interesting- I can’t tell you what “compressed” really means, but they were paper thin yet still dense. I had to add a little salt to bring out the flavors but I was very happy. Hubs got “local peaches, goats milk feta, peas & shoots,lavender vinaigrette.” I thought to myself “peaches for a salad course?” but it was delicious. Sweet but earthy, refreshing and the lavender was something different for me that I really enjoyed.

Heirloom tomato salad, garnished with edible flowers

Peaches make a surprisingly earthy salad

Entrees. I am not as adventurous an eater as the husband and wild game generally does not appeal to me. So, when I go somewhere with a game-focused menu, I always seek out the steak. I love steak anyway, but it is definitely the most appealing option to me when faced with the likes of duck or elk (although boar chop was a solid 2nd choice). The “mignon of beef” on Rainbow Lodge’s menu is smoked. This made the outside dry and kind of crusty. The inside was tender, flavorful and meaty. It was like eating filet wrapped in beef jerky. My first few bites were kind of a disappointment. After all, I didn’t come to a restaurant of this caliber to eat beef jerky. Once I got in to the meat of the meat, though, it all came together. The potato crusted potatoes were like fancy tater tots. How could that be bad? The bordelaise was wonderful. The serving was large and I actually left some on the plate to save room for dessert. I definitely recommend the dish, just be prepared to question your 1st couple bites…

Filet, lightly smoked = well done outside, perfect medium rare inside

Ray got one of the nightly specials. Options included Soft Shell Crab over Greens with Avocado and Miso Dressing and Grouper Over Crab Risotto. He went with Bison Two Ways- a filet and short ribs. He didn’t feel the filet offered much. It was a little bland and nothing special. However, he raved about the short ribs (I sampled and very much enjoyed) and wished he had a whole plate of those alone. They were as tender as they should have been but just had really good flavor. Mashed potatoes- solid. Some baby zucchini was a nice veg and very much enjoyed.

Buffalo makes for great short ribs

One thing that Ray was really happy about was a significant expansion/ upgrading of the wine list. He swooned over 3 different varieties of Turley, but when it was time to order went with this little gem from Schrader:

...which is not supposed to available retail. Having just had a baby, it’s been a while since I really got to enjoy some wine and I really, really enjoyed this Bomber X. There was about a glass left in the bottle when it was time to head out and, with wine this good, that one glass was worth walking out with the bottle in a paper bag.

Dessert. I love bread pudding and will almost always order it. I especially love it when it’s made with croissants (Shade, I really wish you would bring your Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding back. Please?). Theirs was delicious and rich and warm and everything I wanted it to be. A great way to end a great meal.

Super rich and just sweet enough, with vanilla bean ice cream

Ray and I were both so happy we decided to head just barely out of The Heights. We had 4 courses of great food in just under 2 hours and were home before the baby woke for his next feeding. I love having good food in The Heights.

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