By JOHN DeMERS
It’s not every day you find yourself invited to a 10-course seasonal dinner prepared by not one but two excellent chefs, the courses paired with creative cocktails and other liquids you’ve never tasted together or even separately before, all in the soaring studio space of one of the nation’s best-known food photographers. Yes, all in Houston, Texas. Ain’t life grand?
The occasion, though of course no occasion was required, was Farewell to Stone Fruit, meaning the seasonal end of peaches and an ever-growing number of kin associated with the sweet taste of summer. The chefs were the ever-wonderful L.J. Wiley of Yelapa Playa Mexicano, obviously enjoying the freedom to create outside the box of his tropical Mexican cuisine with unexpected cameos by Asian flavors, and Rebecca Masson, Houston’s reigning diva of all things sweet. The mutual respect the two chefs felt was obvious in their remarks before each course, the very willingness of each to let the other shine.
The event took place inside a long, high-ceilinged room – in less rainy weather, in would have been held outside, in and around the lush gardens that didn’t mind the rain at all – beneath mammoth portraits of produce and other ingredients turned into art by photographer Ralph Smith. It came as no surprise that Smith is considering opening up his studio as a venue for weddings and the like. Anybody in their right mind (who wants to get married anyway) should want to get married here.
As for the dinner itself, I had only two quibbles. In some of the presentations, Wiley trotted out such small portions (as you need to with 10 courses) with their components spread so far apart on such huge white plates, it was an exhausting effort to play Culinary Connect-the-Dots. I found myself fantasizing about a ceremony like they had for completing the transcontinental railroad – meat, here’s your sauce; sauce, here’s a vegetable you’re supposed to go with but haven’t ever met. All plates used for the dinner were white, of course, since chefs are the last people on earth who think this is attractive. But white plates do force us to stare all night at their food, which is all they ever want.
The second quibble concerns the idea of pairing food with cocktails. I have now been to six or eight “cocktail dinners” put on by talented chefs and gifted mixologists, and I feel comfortable declaring that the idea simply doesn’t work. Ever. I have had things that tasted pretty good side-by-side, and I’ve had things that tasted horrible side-by-side. But I’ve never tasted a single food-cocktail pairing – not one – that equaled what happens when even moderately good food combines in your mouth with even moderately good wine. Does no one see this except me? Food and cocktails do not merge, do not marry – they remain only two good tastes, and that’s if we’re lucky. That’s an important metaphor to remember as you plan your next wedding at Ralph Smith’s studio.
The evening began with one of its greatest hits: a nifty spiced peach gazpacho in a shot glass with a crispy pickled peach clinging to the rim. Paired with a wonderfully fresh-tasting Bellini, this dish said it all about what our best chefs are thinking and cooking these days. Mixing sweet and a little hot, mixing smooth and a little crispy. All unexpected, all exciting, all ultimately satisfying. As with the evening’s other pairings, the food and cocktail here would have been as great separately as they were together, something that seldom happens with wine. Early entries that followed included a champagne shrimp cocktail with lychee, torch ginger flower and violet (paired with something called a Japanese Blue Moon), and littleneck clams with plum sake, a sprinkle of crunchy pork cheek and pluots (see what I mean about those odd varieties?). That last turned up with a glass of nigori sake scented with jasmine flowers.
By no means was meat about to feel slighted here, not with L.J. Wiley in the kitchen. No fewer than five meat dishes followed close upon each other, in fact. The most impressive was the lamb with “cherry coke” (Coke and fresh cherries, not the bottled soft drink of that name), sunchoke and deliciously tarragon-y Mexican marigold, served with a sour cherry Manhattan. All the other meat dishes were enjoyable, from the Greek-style pork souvlaki with nectarine to the foie gras with apricot and pistachio, to the quail with green tea and loquat jam. After this assault, I’m not sure anybody needed oxtail with plums – but out it came anyway. One nice touch with the meats was sending each guest a bottle of Pyramid apricot ale. It sort of became a beer dinner for a while, which (in my opinion) always works better than a cocktail dinner.
Dessert was Masson’s realm, naturally, and she masterfully walked her usual tightrope between exoticism and familiarity. With desserts, more than the other courses, if you topple off the tightrope, be sure to do it on the side of familiarity. In other words, don’t send a candied pork belly to do a pecan pie’s job. Masson’s courses were creative enough to taste and feel brand-new, but not so much that we didn’t wipe up our plates with any utensil that was handy.
A quick breather of peach sorbet with Szechuan meringue (just the slightest tinge of heat) paired with a “fuzzy’ cosmopolitan only put us in the mood for Masson’s incredible poached plum financier, a spin on the classic French recipe that combined the best parts of lush cake and crunchy cookie, with ginger and muscat, and then some quick-nibble mignardines. Somewhere along the way, Italy’s spumante-fied brachetto d’acqui showed up, tasting for all the world like a glass of good port shipped to Houston by way of Dom Perignon.
Photos: (top) Chef L.J. Wiley’s lamb with cherry coke; (middle) pork souvlaki with nectarine and dry Greek pesto.