Monday, September 01, 2008

17's Wesley Morton and the new minimalism

17 Restaurant in the Alden-Houston has a new executive chef, Wesley Morton.

17 has had a string of talented chefs come and go. That isn't a bad thing. The frequent infusions of new blood let us see what is going on in that national food scene.

The national hotel chef scene

The American restaurant system is a lot like the hierarchical French model. Baby chefs come out of culinary school. Then they train as underling chefs at many different restaurants as they slowly rise up the ranks. Many of these restaurants happen to be in hotels.

The result of all this moving is that the top young chefs get to know each other. They all speak the same language. They follow many of the same trends.

Take Wesley Morton. After culinary school, he worked in D.C. at Circle Bistro, Cityzen Restaurant, and Citronelle (D.C.'s best restaurant). He last worked in Half Moon Bay, California at the Ritz Carlton's restaurant.

The next step is natural. For your first exec chef job, you start in a small, elegant hotel restaurant in some backwater market, or in this case, downtown Houston.

Morton's stated themes

17's website lays out Morton's themes, which happen to be many of the current culinary trends:

•local foods: "his passion for bringing the 'farm to the table'"

•seasonal ingredients: "his philosophy of creating dishes that are at their seasonal peak in terms of flavor and eye appeal"

•organic: "I hope to play an instrumental role in helping change the way Houstonians eat in terms of local, fresh, and organic."

The unstated theme: minimalism

17's website doesn't mention the most accurate description of Morton's approach -- minimalism. His dishes focus on simplicity, with remarkably few ingredients and basic flavors.

Consider Morton's ceasar salad, called "gita's baby romaine." Under Chef Ryan Pera, 17 served a wacky, fried ceasar salad. [Correction: the fried salad was prior chef Jeff Armstrong's creation, even though it was served for a while under Pera]. Morton returns it to basics: large strips of romaine leaves stacked in neat rows, with a light dressing on each leaf, a few crutons scattered around the edge of the plate, and a single large anchovy draped across the middle.

Similarly, "crudo of kona kampachi" is a beautifully simple dish raw fish, dressed with lime juice and sea salt, and served with thin slices of cucumber and baby shiso leaves. The lime and granules of salt highlighted the flavors of this fish, making it much more interesting than the sashimi version served in many sushi restaurants. But it was the spirit of minimalism that guided the appearance, distinct flavors, and small size of this dish.

My only question: if Morton is so high on local foods, why use a Hawaiian kona kampachi, a type of amberjack, when we have outstanding amberjack right here in the Gulf?

Under the header "local market fish," the special was king salmon. Again, king salmon is hardly a local fish, but I guess you can buy at "local markets." The waiter said it would be served with morels. I told him, "Morels, really? those are my favorite mushroom." He assured me it had morels. When it arrived, it had a completely different kind of mushroom, probably a chanterelle. Deprived of morels, I still enjoyed the dish. The salmon was thick and cooked rare. It sat atop a small bed of soft potato gnocchi and mushrooms. On the side was a small dab of tartar sauce -- not the kind you get in Luby's, but a delicious, smooth, herbed tartar sauce.

Perhaps the best dish of the night was an heirloom tomato salad. The tomatoes were a mix of different sizes and colors, all tasty. They were served with baby arugula and burrata cheese, from Puglia, Italy (hardly local). If the dish had stopped there, it would have fit perfectly into Morton's minimalist aesthetic. But it was topped with a delicious, fried squash blossom stuffed with a soft cheese. This one excess made the dish a home run.

The verdict

Morton undercuts his "local" theme by serving salmon from Alaska, amberjack from Hawaii, and cheese from Italy. But the truth is, Houston does not have a wealth of great local ingredients. And the market for good local ingredients may have been locked in by Monica Pope. So in Houston, unless you are Monica, you almost have to ship in some non-local foods to make a good meal. [Correction: Ok, that was a silly exaggeration. But seriously, in Houston good local foods take a lot of work to find.]

Morton's real theme -- minimalism -- works. Minimalism is hard to pull off. You have to have great ingredients. You have to use smart techniques to highlight an ingredient's flavors without changing them. And you have to have thoughtful ingredient pairings. This type of approach is hard work.

But when it does work, minimalism can bring out the pure flavors of distinct ingredients. It can make you look at an ordinary ingredient in a new light. And it can make you feel good because you know exactly what you are eating.

I recommend that you try Wesley Morton's minimalist cooking at 17 before he moves on to bigger and better things.


Misha said...

Must there be a thinly veiled disdain for Houston in most of your posts?:)

BTW, I don't think Wesley Morton is going anywhere until he learns how to run a decent kitchen. My first dinner had several basic execution missteps. Second dinner was far, far worse:

Anonymous said...

Many chefs like to use the word "local" but very few walk the walk if you know what I mean. Chris at Catalan, Monica and Caswell are exceptions to the rule. BTW know one cal lock up product in that way. These farmers and small producers are ultimately business people and know the more exposure of the product the better. BTW Misha, you could give your opinion without seeming like an elitist ass, and their is no need for personal attacks. You dont know if he knows how to run a kitchen. Does it make you feel good to trash other peoples work little man?

Misha said...

Given my diminutive stature it's utterly impossible for me to provide any opinion (or fact for that matter) without sounding like a complete jerk off. And I do enjoy trashing other people's work.

But seriously, if I paid good money for foie that's ruined by too much salt - do I still have to be congenial or have I earned a right to be a little bitch about it? And if nearly an entire table of diners is visibly disappointed with their food, do I still have to treat their "work" with kid gloves or can I just say the food was crap?

BTW, avoiding basic spelling and grammar mistakes goes a long way to effectively staying anonymous. Sometimes cowardly omitting your name just isn't enough. Act like you know.

Anonymous said...

Oh no, you've wounded me. Well, now that I've looked the spelling and grammar was weak. Although, I can always learn to spell, you can’t get rid of being born a douche bag.

justin said...

I'm gonna go ahead and stay out of the fight above, but two things:

1) the fried ceasar salad was a concotion from Jeff Armstrong, not Chef Pera. It won best ceasar salad a few years ago and was on the menu for Chef Pera's early editions before he was allowed to take it off.

2) I'm not sure if they're selling yet, but I know there was a farm trying to raise kona kampachi off the gulf coast. I forgot what the farm's name was, gotta look into it.

As for Chef Morton, I personally believe him to be one of the absolute best chefs in Houston. Learning to run a kitchen is one thing, but with being stuck in a kitchen in a hotel that *maybe* has 15-20 covers a night makes it exceptionally hard to keep quality cooks around, especially with what the going rate is for the Alden compared to what else is downtown. Is it a good excuse to make customers pay full price for it? No, but hopefully you can understand a bit better. I know you've eaten at very good restaurants around the world, but I will say that Chef Morton is an exceptional chef, and hopefully you can give him one more chance.

Okay I guess that isn't staying out of the arguement.

Anonymous said...

Here Here!

Misha said...

Justin: I trust your opinion and probably will come out for another visit at some point.

anonymouseater said...

Misha: "thinly veiled disdain"? -- No really, I think Houston is great. My very first post three years ago was about all the reasons why Houston is so great for food. As a realist, though, I can say that downtown Houston is something of a backwater for food, not because of a lack of good chefs, but because so few diners are willing to go downtown at night. The places to go for high-end food now are Midtown, lower Westheimer, and Washington Ave.

Also, Houston isn't so hot for local foods. With some great local farmers, I see the situation improving. But we are no Napa Valley and never will be. What makes this city's food great is its willy nilly importing and mixing. That makes it hard to have a "local food" theme here.

I found your take on 17's minimalism amusing -- especially as a Robb Walsh tribute. Especially at this time of year, I don't mind small servings. It sounds as though the quality of my dinner was a bit better than your HRW dinner.

anonymouseater said...

My quip about Monica Pope cornering the market on local foods was a hyperbole and a joke. Perhaps I should have put a smiley-faced emoticon next to it. :)

Before I wrote this, I wondered whether the kona kampachi might be grown locally, but I couldn't find any evidence of Gulf-grown kona kampachi online. Still, what's wrong with amberjack?

Misha said...

I didn't catch the distinction between downtown Houston and the rest of the city. I did notice the huge disparity in crowds when I left *17 after my first dinner a few months ago. At 10pm, the restaurant was empty except for some guy in a Lamborghini who stopped by for a night cap. I drove through Midtown and the party was just getting started there.

I actually don't mind driving downtown for a dinner, but it's almost as if restaurants there want to discourage it as much as possible by charging for valet parking in a city where it's always free (I know, we are spoiled). It's too bad. Downtown could really use a scene of it's own.

sheeats said...

Wow. I'm not gonna even comment on the craziness above... Hee! :D

Just wanted to say that it sounds like you had a far better experience at *17 than I did, and I'm glad you did. All of the dishes sound fantastic and I'm still slightly upset that the restaurant didn't take Houston Restaurant Week as seriously as they could have. They could have won over some people that way, especially foodies who'll travel anywhere -- even the desolate streets of downtown Houston past sundown -- for a wonderful meal.

Either way, I'm interested to see what path Chef Morton takes in the future, because he's clearly talented. :)

iMidget said...

I've found the food at Monica Pope's eateries to be pedestrian. Sure, anyone can make a decent meal if theys start with quality ingredients. Try making something that we can't all make at home for a weeknight's dinner.

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