Vinoteca Poscol surprised me.
I expected a trendy tapas / wine bar. I expected a cheaper casual version of Da Marco. I expected what Alison Cook called a "useful restaurant" with modest portions.
And I expected more of a crowd.
What I found was something far more interesting. Along with Feast and to a lesser degree Dolce Vita, Poscol is an example of a new type of food in Houston -- a revolutionary style that overturns our preconceptions about food.
But with all the excitement, where are the masses? On recent Friday and Saturday nights, we easily got a table at 8 p.m. at Poscol with no reservation.
Like Feast, a lot of people don't "get" Poscol. It doesn't match their idea of great cooking or fine dining. In fact, it goes against our culture's idea of fine dining.
This isn't a review of Poscol. It is an argument for what I call new peasant food. And it's something of a manifesto. (Sorry.)
What is new peasant food?
"Peasant food" may not be the best phrase. It may sound derogatory. It may unfairly suggest authenticity. But it is uesful for a related-set of ideas:
1 - Under-appreciated, inexpensive ingredients. Peasant food is inherently cheap. Like poor people anywhere, European peasants made do with the ingredients they had -- left-over animal parts, easy-to-grow vegetables, simple grains. No precious ingredients. The feudal lord ate those.
2 - Traditional preparation. The focus is often roasting, braising, cooking over a fire. (I suspect the guys at Feast, like Marco Wiles, know some pretty advanced techniques; you just don't see signs of it on the plate.)
3 - Modest presentation. No abstract art here. Peasant food is usually slopped in a bowl or on a plate. It often isn't pretty.
Examples? Bacala may be Poscol's best dish -- a gooey, unattractive casserole of salt cod served with toast. Salt cod is a cheap way to preserve a once cheap fish. It's a pre-modern version of canned fish. Yet this cheap dish explodes with flavor and a rich, creamy texture.
Poscol's beet and hazelnut salad - These aren't expensive multi-colored baby beets. They are simple chunks of soft, red beets, simply roasted, and mixed with nuts and goat cheese.
Poscol's Bruschetta - Poscol's offers 5 toasts topped with simple ingredients -- chicken liver, fava beans. Feast does something similar -- topping toast with chicken hearts, and chicken liver.
Feast's roasts. Feast is the place in Houston for simple roasts with cheap cuts of meat (lamb leg, roasted pork belly) and cheap veggies, like potatoes and kale.
Why peasant food?
I can see a lot of arguments for this type of food.
One is environmental and economic. If you eat meat, it is cheaper and greener to eat the whole animal. Cheap produce has benefits too. Fava beans, potatoes, and rutabagas are less costly and environmentally damaging to produce -- and ship -- than black truffles or even California heirloom tomatoes.
Another is argument is cultural. Modern cooking -- from standard cooking-school techniques to molecular gastronomy -- may be too far removed from our primal activity: foraging for food, cooking it on a fire, and eating.
But for me, the real argument is this:
It's all about the Revolution
The best argument for new peasant food is its deconstructive/revolutionary effect. American fine dining is still too constrained in its choice of ingredients. We still expect great restaurants to serve the same set of items: lobster, fillet mignon, sea bass, truffles, foie gras, morel mushrooms. So pricey restaurants almost all focus on these types of ingredients.
Expensive ingredients are expensive because of supply and demand, not necessarily quality. For instance, in 19th c. New England it was a sign of poverty to eat lobster. In the 1970s, sport fishers in Canada would dispose of blue fin tuna after getting their photos taken with the fish because it had no market value. These ingredients are no better now than when they were dirt cheap. Similarly, cheap ingredients taste no worse simply because they are cheap.
Expensive ingredients are a tool to fleece the customer. Because there isn't a huge supply of Hudson Valley foie gras, restaurants can charge us more for it. Pricey ingredients prop up the entire price restaurant cost structure. Sure, foie gras is really good. But so is chicken liver.
Pricey ingredients are what customers have been conditioned to expect. That may be why some people have such a hostile reaction to Feast, and why Poscol isn't getting the crowds it should.
When great chefs focus on cheap ingredients, it is an act of revolution. It is a way of opening our mind to foods right under our noses -- brilliant foods we have ignored because they lack social status.
So please keep showing me what you guys can do with cabbage, turnips, and fava beans. As you drive around throwing bricks out windows, I am having a great time just being a passenger.
And if some of you still don't get it, let me paraphrase George Clinton: "Free your mind and your palate will follow."