Talk about your odd couples: Felix and Oscar have nothing on Randy Rucker and the Rainbow Lodge. When I first heard that the intensely contemporary young chef had teamed up with the venerable, dare I say hoary, Houston restaurant, I laughed out loud. But that was before I ate there. When my friends and I departed, six starters, six entrées, and four desserts later, we weren’t laughing. We were smiling from ear to ear.
In case you don’t keep up with the who’s who (and who’s where) of Houston restaurants, let me bring you up to date. Rucker is the occasional practitioner of the arcane craft of molecular gastronomy who founded the short-lived Laidback Manor in 2005. The Rainbow Lodge is the beloved dining venue that moved from its bucolic digs near Memorial Park to a sprawling log cabin along White Oak Bayou in the Heights. Long story short, the avant-garde chef has thrown in with the old-school restaurant, and the happy result is one of the most intriguing dining rooms to open in Houston this past year.
Want to see for yourself? Just throw a dart at the menu (really, the ratio of attempts to successes is that high). If you’re fortunate, your first barb will land on the white gazpacho—not the familiar chilled tomato soup but something that’s more like vichyssoise. Silkily thickened with kefir and ground almonds, its flavor has a startling, perfumelike pungency. Nuggets of pristine blue crab add substance. On top of that, it’s beautiful, as are all of Rucker’s dishes (for proof, see the lamb carpaccio rolls, pictured). Entrées keep up the pace, one of the best being—are you ready?—chicken. Bryan Farm is the east Central Texas purveyor that provides the pasture-raised hens that Rucker proceeds to swaddle in pancetta before poaching sous-vide and roasting. Sliced and shaped into tall rolls, the savory fowl comes in a warm broth sided by light house-made chicken sausage and a garden of bright, tender summer vegetables.After such a bravura performance, Rucker would be forgiven for slacking off at dessert. But two of the four desserts we tried were superlative (the other two quite good), particularly the heart-stoppingly-rich cinnamon croissant bread pudding. Dense, drenched in crème brûlée custard, and lavished with bourbon caramel, it gives that tired old warhorse a new lease on life.
At the end of an exceptional meal (the second of two), I felt almost giddy as I walked toward my car. “Let’s do this again—soon,” I shouted to my friends across the darkened parking lot. “Definitely,” they answered. I think we all realized that the union of Rucker and the Rainbow Lodge, while solid now, might not last forever. The guy is obviously on the way up, and it won’t be long before he gets a far trendier, and irresistible, offer. Brigadoon could vanish at any moment and I, for one, intend to visit it while it lasts. Bar. 2011 Ella, at East T.C. Jester (713-861-8666). Open Tue–Fri 11:30–10:30, Sat 6–10:30, Sun 10:30–10:30. Closed Mon. Reservations recommended. $$–$$$ W+