Sunday, December 13, 2009 - 11:36 AM
Houston is finally on the radar of the national culinary map. Everyday national food writers are asking themselves with surprise, what is this chef doing in Houston? This week all eyes in the Houston area turn to Tesar’s Modern Steak and Seafood in the Woodlands. While everyone else is looking there, I decided to visit the restaurant voted as the number one seafood restaurant in the US by Bon Appetit. Reef Houston was also voted one of the top 50 new restaurants in the US by Travel and Leisure. Chef Bryan Caswell was also voted best new chef by Food and Wine. All of these accolades would lead you to believe that Reef would be in New York or San Francisco, but Reef is indeed in Houston. Reef is a simple yet effective restaurant designed in cool blue, where the sea is the focus. The meal begins with the bread, which is a basic southern roll that is covered in sea salt and complemented with a sweet, candied, jalapeno jelly. The saltiness of the bread, combined with the sweetness of the jelly, is a perfect contrast and is purely Texan.
For the appetizer we ordered the baked oysters. The oysters were baked perfectly, not too well done, but just enough, and topped with Swiss chard and parmesan bread crumbs. They were served on a bed of rock salt and were a perfect taste of the ocean on your palette. Next, I had the redfish on the half-shell with fried mac and cheese. The redfish was very fresh and the filet was of good size. There is no better local fish in the gulf region then redfish. The redfish was spicy, cooked in smoked paprika and chile powder. It had a great flavor, and lucky for me I like spice. The fried mac and cheese was exactly that. It is macaroni and cheese served in a square block of fried batter. It tasted good but found the outer frying to be unnecessary. My wife and I both agreed that the size of the mac and cheese needed to be reduced, as it appeared bigger on the plate then the fish, and so aesthetically it detracted from the dish. My wife order the grilled scallops which come served on a bed of truffled polenta and mushroom ragout. The dish featured 3 large scallops cooked to perfection. The truffled polenta and mushroom ragout were both rich and complemented the scallops well. These had a great flavor but are merely bonuses, as the scallops could suffice well on its own. For dessert we had the buttermilk panna cotta, which was light and delicious. It was served with fresh strawberries along with strawberry sorbet which sat on top of crumbled sugar cookie. The dessert was a perfect ending and we were also brought mini milkshake shooters of vanilla ice cream and brandy. I left full and content.
Reef has a great wine list as well and features many of the smaller wineries that we have visited in Napa such as Del Dotto and Reynolds Family. Cocktails here are also taken to the next level. I tried a drink called thyme before lime, which featured gin, thyme, grapefruit juice and lime, served shaken and served in a martini glass. The cocktail was well balanced and refreshing.
The story of Chef Caswell himself is a great story. It is a story of a young man who decides to go to culinary school and then travels the world, only to return home to become a success. Houston itself may share a similar story. Houston is about to surpass Chicago, and become the third largest city in the US. Houston chefs and restaurants can no longer be ignored, and it will be local ingredients like that used by Caswell, that move Houston to the forefront of the culinary scene.