Donnette Hansen has hired her share of chefs at Rainbow Lodge, starting with Lance Youngs what feels like a million years and at least one location ago. That time, I remember it was cold and rainy outside, but owner and chef conspired to warm me up with gumbo and wild game dishes fit for, well, a hunting lodge on the banks of a bayou. With warm temperatures getting even warmer and young chef Mario Valdez in the kitchen, I can’t think of a better time or better excuse to reacquaint yourself with a three-decades-plus Houston favorite.
My lunch today was a definite case of “something old, something new,” though not exactly in that order. My mission was to taste items from Chef Mario’s new springtime list, starting with a super appetizer (pictured up top) made with fried green tomatoes from Donnette’s several gardens. In this case, the fried green slices were topped with a delightful ceviche of sea bass, grouper and snapper. No matter how hot it gets in Texas this summer, however, I can’t see myself going to Rainbow Lodge and not begging at least a cup of their exemplary smoked duck gumbo, which has outlasted several chefs and just may outlast us all.
Another nifty spin on spring is provided by the Rabbit Boudin Balls. Much lighter to eat than they are to think about, the balls have found an audience both as an official appetizer and as a snack in the Lodge’s oh-so-popular, fly fishing-themed bar. The shredded rabbit confit inside each ball is enhanced with pork butt and belly, while the choucroute garni (a kind of mild French sauerkraut) is sweet-sour with red wine vinegar and molasses. The squirts around the dish are Tabasco aioli.
As in the classic movie about baseball “It Happens Every Spring,” a number of things happen in the kitchen and garden as well. And several of them end up on this plate. Yes, that’s a chop of terrific Colorado spring lamb, which kind of speaks for itself. But underneath you’ll locate paper-thin slices of spring potato and roughed-up editions of English spring peas. There’s a spicy touch of Moroccan-style harissa waiting at the bottom of the pile.
Since Chef Mario doesn’t like the word “deconstructed” – and I don’t either – my lips are basically sealed. It is undeniable, though, that Rainbow Lodge’s latest desserts are lighter versions of heavier things, all-American favorites all. For instance, who would guess that the mound on the left is carrot cake…- de-, well, at least divided into elements like carrot cake and cream cheese mousse. Moving to the right is a memorable lemon meringue in a jar (it’s usually bigger, but the chef was having mercy on me) and a chocolate torte with espresso creme anglais. For a decade or more, I’ve always longed for Rainbow Lodgfe whenever the weather turns cold and rainy. Obviously, based on today’s tasting, I’ve been missing out on a lot.