Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New Menu at the Rainbow Lodge

The menu

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.

The rest of the menu reflects this careful balance. The menu retains some Rainbow Lodge classics, like the wild game appetizer and beef tenderloin. It also has some highly creative dishes that we have not yet tried, such as oyster bisque with salsify noodles and poached egg.


For dessert, we started traditionally -- a vanilla bean creme brulee that was remarkably by-the-book. It was appropriately littered with black specks of vanilla bean, and had a textbook crust.

Decadent chocolate involved fudge-like chunks of chocolate with a blood orange syrup. The intense fudge may be too much for some.

At that point, Rucker emerged from the kitchen, and I waved him down. He insisted on bringing an off-the-menu dessert. It looked like a bowl of granola topped with cream and mint -- not very exciting. But after a few minutes, we discovered the surpirse, a layer of smoked chocolate granules on the bottom. I'm not sure how chocolate can be smoked, but I love the flavor. Ultimately, we found this new dessert much more interesting than the other desserts we tried from the menu.

So far, Rucker's new menu looks like a success. The Lodge has given him freedom to boldly go forward with new dishes. He has the wisdom to use part of the menu to please long-time customers. Plus, everyone benefits from his recent focus on the pure flavors of ingredients.

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.


John C said...

I had never heard of Tasmanian sea trout before a meal at Cova a couple weeks ago. Very salmon-like, as you described. I liked it. Wonder if that's the real name or a marketing name like Patagonian toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass) had to take on to sell.

anonymouseater said...

John -- That thought had crossed my mind too. So I did some research. The site "troutguidestasmania" says:

"Sea trout are simply brown trout which choose to spend most of their adult life in the ocean. They grow especially fast, become distinctively silver and are highly prized by serious trout anglers the world over. Whilst there are modest sea trout fisheries in southern Victoria, the runs in Tasmania are far superior."

I never heard of these fish before this week.

Anonymous said...

I just had dinner at Tetsuya's in Sydney where the signature dish (as annoying as those are) is a confit of Tasmanian trout topped with nori. A most excellent dish. Another surprise was Tasmanian been, which was quite nice as well.

anonymouseater said...

Misha - What was the second surprise dish you mentioned?

Anonymous said...

Typo. Tasmanian beef. I tried asking the waitress if there is something special about it, but she didn't really know.