In November, Randy Rucker became the Rainbow Lodge's new head chef. Last week, he unveiled his new menu.
I have been anticipating this menu. It presents an interesting challenge for Rucker -- the balancing of two very different crowds.
Crowd 1 are the traditionalists. They are the long-time fans of the chops and wild game at the Lodge. And from the look of the crowd last Saturday, most are over 50.
Crowd 2 are the fans of Rucker's innovative and creative cuisine. Three years ago, I called him Houston's the most revolutionary chef. Since then, he has developed a following of local foodies. And they expect some fireworks.
So last Saturday I snuck in with my wife and daughter, hoping Rucker wouldn't see me and offer up some fabulous tasting. After all, I wanted to try this new menu. Until the end of the meal, my plan worked.
Balancing act 1 - charcuterie and sausage
We started hardcore. Rucker offers an amazing cold charcuterie plate for only $12. The meats include foie gras, pancetta, and terrines of pork, duck, and lamb. Rucker told me later that the Lodge had a lot of wasted meat - pieces that were not the most prized cuts. What better way to use it?
The variously-textured terrines highlighted the flavors of the meat, but added complimentary spices and flavors. The meats were accompanied by "seasonal marmelade" and large chunks of grilled sourdough bread.
One of my favorite breakfasts is bacon and jelly on toast. This is sort of like that. But better. In fact, for fans of charcuterie, I know of no better dish in Houston.
A more mainstream dish (technically, also charcuterie) consisted of roasted rabbit sausage, smoked bacon, green apple, cabbage and a creamy mustard. I liked the combination of savory, spicy sausage with tart, sweet apple and the spicy mustard. The sausage dish was a winner - even if it could not quite compete with the stunning charcuterie.
Balancing act 2 - trout tartare and duck breast
For our second course, my wife ordered still another daring starter -- Tasmanian sea trout tartare. The trout was served with watercress, avocado, and a creamy miso dressing.
The raw trout had a thick, salmon-like texture and a remarkable fresh fish taste. The fish was far more flavorful than most sushi. The creamy, meaty trout and avocado contrasted with the sharp bitterness of watercress. For me, my wife, and daughter, this delicious fish may have been the dish of the night.
I ordered a more traditional second course - duck breast lacquered with smoked honey, sweet potato puree, braised endive, and candied orange. Again, Rucker did a nice job of balancing flavors - meatiness, sweetness, and earthiness. This is a full flavored dish winter that would please both of Rucker's crowds.
Based on one lunch and a dinner, it appears that the Rainbow Lodge under Randy Rucker is not likely to become Houston's most revolutionary restaurant. Given its size and the nature of its crowd, it can't be. Yet I would argue that the local game and seafood emphasis of the Lodge puts Rucker in a unique position to help define our local cuisine, in a way that Cafe Annie did 20 years ago. Will this be one of Houston's best restaurants? I certainly think so.
On this Saturday night, I carefully watched the older diners as they left. Most looked quite happy. And so were we.