Finder Favorites: Cureight Is The Best Tasting Menu Experience That You Probably Haven’t Had Yet
There’s been a lot of deserved ink and accolades spent on tasting menu restaurants Oxheart and The Pass & Provisions. Oxheart’s chef Justin Yu was this year’s James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southwest and The Pass & Provisions chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan were semifinalists in the same category. Furthermore, The Pass was also a semifinalist in the Best Service category; a rare nod for Houston.
Yet, there’s a third tasting menu restaurant that has just as much to offer, but it seems to resolutely sail under the radar when it comes to national press. Cureight is a restaurant-within-a-restaurant; a secluded room nestled next to the kitchen at Hubbell & Hudson. Located in The Woodlands, it’s far outside the foodie hub inside the 610 Loop, but it is a journey that any Houstonian who enjoys outstanding dining experiences should make.
It’s helmed by chef Austin Simmons, who was at one time the protégé of John Tesar, the outspoken and controversial yet undeniably talented chef who once helmed Tesar’s in The Woodlands. Tesar currently earns his accolades for his Dallas restaurant, Knife.
The reason Cureight isn’t spoken of in the same breath as other top restaurants in the area is almost certainly due to its location in The Woodlands. Houston’s suburbs and adjacent towns haven’t been regarded as prime territory for fine fare, although some chefs have worked their tails off to change that. Ronnie Killen, for example, has turned Pearland into an unlikely dining destination with his three top-notch restaurants: Killen’s Steakhouse, Killen’s Burgers and Killen’s Barbecue. (Even he, though, has seen the need to get into Houston-proper and is soon opening his fourth restaurant, Killen’s STQ, in the former Bramble location at 2231 South Voss.)
Chef Austin Simmons of Cureight, Hubbell & Hudson and Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen is doing the same thing for The Woodlands, along with restaurateur Cary Attar who founded Fielding’s Wood Grill and Fielding’s Local Kitchen + Bar.
Perhaps it’s because none of these are easy sell, single-category restaurants that Houston diners aren’t flocking out to The Woodlands in droves. Yet, any visitor to Cureight may be shocked at the class and quality of the offerings. That includes the one of the most interesting wine lists around by sommelier Derek Ryan. His surprising and apt pairings include putting silky, smoky 2014 Centonze Frappato from calcium-rich soils in Marsala with blackened, sous vide carrots. Under Ryan’s watch, a honeyed, steamed, ricotta-stuffed bun gets a companion of 2015 Bodega Mustiguillo “Mestizaje”—a blend of mostly Merseguera tempered with Viognier and Malvasia from Spain.
We were invited by the restaurant to check out the current tasting menus. Truth be told, we could have happily just had the vegetarian one. The artistry and flavors were so engaging that we omnivores didn’t miss the meat one single bit. That said, it’s not like the meat-lovers version wasn’t equally admirable.
Here are some of the highlights on the current menu:
Carrot: This is a dish that fully realizes the sweet, dense, hearty potential of the simple root vegetable in ways previously not imagined. Half of the neat, thick sticks are cooked sous vide, which makes them dense and meat-like, while the other half are blackened. The careful, criss-cross architecture is anchored by carrot purée and enriched with yogurt emboldened by harissa, a spiced pepper paste indigenous to North African fare.
Kombu Bamboo Rice: This is another triumph in elevated vegetarian fare (at least the lacto-ovo kind that allows eggs). The rice is soaked in an umami-rich broth seasoned by kelp (a staple in Japanese fare called kombu), then pressed into dense cubes which are then seared. Dense, battered chanterelle mushrooms come alongside and big droplets of sesame-egg emulsion lend creamy richness.
25 Day Dry Aged A5 Wagyu: The beef course included in the price of the regular menu is a dry aged sirloin flap, which is quite worthy. However, it’s worth the $50 upgrade to try some of the most perfectly executed beef we’ve ever had. (Our overall theory on tasting menus is that, if you’re going to go, go all the way.) This is true Japanese Wagyu, richly marbled meat sourced from the Miyazaki prefecture of Japan. It’s regarded as the best beef in the world—literally a rare treat. Astutely prepared soup dumplings with kimchee, kohlrabi and scallions come alongside.
Halibut: Mild, white fish has never been this interesting. Cureight’s take on it is all about balance and textures. Neat rectangles of dragonfruit and compressed daikon are shaped to mirror the cube of halibut. Salinity comes from the mound of jewel-like smoked trout roe while a one-two-punch of both dried garlic and garlic oil round out the seasoning.
If there’s one wish we have for Cureight, it’s that it would lighten up a little and maybe not take itself quite so seriously. Each course is formally presented and the staff is intensely invested in how it’s received. While that’s all good and laudable, even high-level dining such as this can afford to be injected with a little whimsy.
Without any upgrades (such as the Japanese wagyu), the tasting menus are $125 per person for a whopping eight courses. There are two choices for wine pairings. Aficionados might go for the $100 premium wine pairing option for more exotic selections, but, really, the standard pairings ($50 for the vegetarian menu and $60 for the omnivore one) are perfectly satisfactory. The restaurant operates Thursdays through Saturdays from 5 to 9 p.m.
In short: Cureight is worth a drive—a long one. Diners who have more than a 45 minute slog might consider staying at one of the nearby hotels and just making a staycation out of it. While each of the eight courses are manageably small, by the time the feast is done, the best aperitif is a warm bed.