To The Woodlands . . .
Austin Simmons went, to cook passionately and brilliantly. Will diners follow?
“Let me get this straight,” I harrumphed to my friend Chris. “Do you really think I should drive the better part of an hour and spend $135 a person on a prix-fixe menu by a wet-behind-the-ears chef I’ve barely even heard of?” He listened thoughtfully and then said, in his trademark unruffled way, “Well, I believe you should seriously consider it.” Right, pal. Easy for you to say. You don’t have to take your life in your hands driving I-45 from Houston to the freaking Woodlands. You live there. But in the end I did go try the four-week-old Cureight—and had one of the most accomplished meals I’ve enjoyed so far this year.
As cynical restaurant reviewers know, the odds are stacked against finding cutting-edge dining in a city of less than a quarter million people. So you can see why I hesitated to blow my employer’s hard-earned money in a place with a population of 109,000. But then I began to think it over. Granted, the posh planned community in the pines is pretty bland (outsiders love to bring up The Stepford Wives when describing it). But its median household income is $115,000, and if I were an ambitious chef like 28-year-old Austin Simmons in search of a well-heeled, well-traveled captive audience, The Woodlands might be just the ticket.
“Hello,” said our young waiter, flashing the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. “I’ll be your guide on our culinary journey to faraway lands. Do you have any questions before we cast off?” Then he disappeared to fetch drinks. Looking around, my heart sank a little. Well-appointed but devoid of style, the small space was a dead ringer for the corporate dining room of a midsized bank. On the plus side, the chairs were comfy and the noise level blessedly low. But the only thing to look at was the busy open kitchen, and from our table way across the room, the chef and his crew resembled a puppet show.
In just a minute our waiter reappeared with the amuse, and my heart suddenly lifted. Atop fragile hamachi slices were what looked like small luminous pearls, which turned out to be technically challenging gel spheres filled with coconut milk. The message was unambiguous: Dear Diner, you’re in the big leagues. Then came the first course in the eight-step tasting menu (left), a shallow bowl containing a painterly arrangement of minced apple, brown-butter-touched scallops, and radish and jalapeño slices that were so thin you could read a newspaper through them. Two crimson tomato “hearts” looked for all the world like ripe strawberries. The waiter poured in a champagne-colored apple-dashi broth, and a beguiling fragrance wafted upward. Was it vanilla? No, a mysterious synthesis perfumed the dish without a speck of the real thing.
It takes a masochistic chef to embrace the demands of a tasting menu. The most renowned example is, of course, Spanish genius Ferran Adrià, at whose now-closed temple of magical realism, El Bulli, I once spent six hours consuming 37 bite-size courses of lapidary perfection. But enough reminiscing. My point is this: it was becoming clear that young Mr. Simmons was one of that tribe.
In due course, a coal-black bowl appeared containing an homage to the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. Our waiter detailed the inner workings of Simmons’s My Version of Oyster & Pearl: the Pacific sturgeon caviar, the dashi broth fortified with oyster liquor, the sumptuous butters tinged with shallot and summer truffle. In the end, it all came down to taste, and the effect was so intense that it instantly took me back to a fantastic porcini soup I had had in Houston many years ago.
Like many chefs, Simmons loves a culinary sleight of hand. So it didn’t surprise us that the next dish was a take on carbonara—made with sea urchin. Small skeins of tagliatelle were covered not in the usual Parmesan and bacon sauce but rather Santa Barbara uni blended with bacon fat, miso, and lemon juice. A bonus chunk of Alaskan king crab took it almost over the top.
The final three savory courses detoured in a terrestrial direction. We loved both the pork belly and octopus and the smoked duck breast sided by a rich torchon of foie, but there was no doubt that the crown jewel of the evening was the lavish surf and turf: lobster and a Miyazaki steak. Forget Kobe and Akaushi. The bovine du jour is Miyazaki, a supernaturally fat-marbled type of wagyu that resides on the Japanese island of Kyushu. My strip steak, surreally red inside and seared to a peppery ebony crust outside, was simply one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Ever.
By the time we had plowed through six courses, we were almost too full for Nguyet Nguyen’s ethereal, origami-like desserts. As much as I liked her fluffy tonka bean and almond cake, it was her minimalist silken pineapple-basil sorbet and sprightly carbonated pineapple conserve topped by a candied mint leaf that won my heart.
I’ve seen a lot of chefs come and go over the years. The ones who make it have something in common aside from raw talent, and that is fire in the belly (sorry, couldn’t resist). So when I called Simmons to talk, I asked him where he got his drive. “I was kind of a mess in high school in Arlington,” he admitted, “but I had cooked at home and I seemed to have kind of a natural talent for it. So when I graduated I went straight to the Cordon Bleu in Austin.” Fifteen months later, he got an externship and then a job at the prestigious Mansion on Turtle Creek, in Dallas. After three years, he left to work at Hubbell & Hudson (the larger restaurant that encompasses Cureight and of which he is also executive chef). And do you enjoy tasting menus, I inquired, already knowing the answer. “It’s a level of happiness beyond anything I’ve ever done,” he said.
As we wrapped up, I cynically had to ask, “Do you believe there will be enough customers in The Woodlands to keep this thing going?”
“I think so,” he said. But that’s not where he intends to stop. “Hopefully, I can bring in Houston diners,” he said.
“Well, good luck,” I told him, meaning it. Afterward, I thought, yes, it could work. First, tell your bosses to hire an interior designer. Then figure out a Houston promotional campaign. And hang in there. It won’t be easy, but you just might be the one to pull it off.
Cureight: 24 Waterway Ave, The Woodlands (281-203-5641). D Thur–Sat. $$$$
Opened: June 18, 2015