At Tasting Menu Restaurant Eculent in Kemah, it’s Willy Wonka Meets “Mad Science”
Kemah is not known for the most diverse restaurant scene. A quick Google search of the city pulls a list of seafood spots, interrupted by the occasional burger joint, as well as a few other concepts here and there. So, it may be surprising to know that Kemah is also the home of a world-class food destination. Eculent, located at 709 Harris just three blocks from where Trinity Bay and Galveston Bay adjoin, has carved out a reputation for its modern, whimsical, boundary-pushing fare. The orchestrator of the experiences — which can feature dozens of courses (many of which are single, but memorable bites) — is part-chef, part-mad scientist David Skinner. Lest you think the second moniker is derisive: Skinner refers to his test kitchen as a “laboratory.”
If the test kitchen is a lab, then the dining room is the theater. Here, Skinner orchestrates the entire dinner experience like a master of ceremonies and explains — but not excessively — every bite. Part of eculent’s charms is keeping some of the mystery intact, and you might spot Skinner with a gleeful smile as guests try and guess what, exactly, they’re eating. He and his crew spend months transforming ingredients both common and unique into new textures and forms, sometimes even changing states of matter.
Houston Food Finder was invited to a dinner showcasing some of eculent’s best-loved dishes, as well as a test-run for many new creations. It started in a private party space that was transformed into a fairytale forest. Despite being indoors, grass lined the floors and the ceiling was decorated with vines, trees and crystalline birds. As befitted the environment, guests were seated at picnic tables for the appetizer courses.
First, though, they were given a booklet, created and researched by Skinner, with a detailed timeline of the evolution of food. (To enjoy eculent to the fullest, it doesn’t hurt if you’re naturally curious and a bit of a food nerd.) The second arrival was a picnic basket with several small bites, each presenting common appetizers in uncommon ways. Skinner guided the tasting order, starting with some eculent classics: Leaf on a Plate, a single leaf of romaine lettuce topped with all the flavor components of a Caesar salad, and the French Onion BonBon (a personal favorite bite of the night), a solid beef broth sphere filled with concentrated French onion soup, which explodes with savory flavor the moment you bite into it. Other items included a cherry tomato containing all of the flavors of a BLT, an Ambrosia Salad in the shape of a Mandarin orange slice, roe-sized spheres of watermelon salad and foie gras topped with smoked trout roe.
After finishing the first round of bites in the woodland setting, diners were escorted to the main dining room. The room is small and dimly lit, with a parallel set of handcrafted, six-seat bars. “Meticulous” best describes the set-up, as the seats have compartments in front of them supplying the exact number and types of utensils needed for the meal.
Skinner calls his research and development methodology FATS, and it stands for Flavor, Aroma, Taste and Senses. To address the latter, each course even has distinct plating, lighting arrangements and sometimes even the air is misted with certain aromas.
Entrées start with the bread course. Called The Tree of Life, it’s comprised of French bread medallions creatively placed on the branches of a metal tree. In addition to the bread “foliage,” there are also nests for onion and pumpkin jams, as well as European butter and Tête de Moine (a semi-firm Alpine cheese) carved into a rosette.
Another returning dish, Out of the Forest, is served in a smoke-filled, glass dome. Once the dome is lifted and the smoke clears an entire ecosystem is revealed, including greens, escargot and dried mushrooms.
While it was wonderful revisiting old favorites, the main goal of the meal was to test Skinner’s latest dishes. The smoked salmon mousse is paired with a berry shrub and a brittle made from (and shaped like) fish bones. Between the crisp brittle and the soft, creaminess of the mousse, the dish successfully tackled multiple textures. The textures paired with the aroma of smoke, flavors of salmon and the bite of vinegar in the shrub all made for the most complex bite of the entire night. Crab in a Stained Glass is a bite-sized cut of crab leg resting in seafood broth and draped with a multicolored, translucent sheet of pasta. There’s a Milk and Cookies course — but don’t be fooled. This isn’t dessert. It’s a surprising combination of squid-ink dyed wafers encasing scallop filling with a milk carton-shaped glass seafood broth alongside. Another course was made of vapor, while yet one more featured percebes, or gooseneck barnacles. These are not only edible, but incredibly difficult to harvest and highly prized in Spain, which is where Skinner sources his.
For the main courses, eculent pivots from presenting mind-bending and playful single bites to more traditional, substantial and elegant plates. The first featured a rabbit roulade, turnip and potato tart with carrot sauce, all served on a mole sauce, and the second is comprised of strip streak, cheese-stuffed morel, and a Mimolette pastry. (Mimolette is a hard, orange cheese from France that was briefly banned in the United States by the FDA due to the mites intrinsic to its production.)
Two desserts concluded the test dinner. The first was the enormous Texas Truffle. Skinner poured warm cream over this big sphere of chocolate to melt it and reveal a small slice of cake. The dessert is served with both a spoon and straw allowing guests to enjoy its entirety. The second honored special guest Clayton Anderson, a former astronaut who was a member of the ISS Expedition 15 crew in 2007. Skinner hollowed out an orange to represent a planet and filled it with creamsicle ice cream. It was carefully housed in a small globe stand to complete the solar system-themed presentation.
For drink pairings, wines and spirits are available from Skinner’s Clear Creek Vineyard winery and Meticulous Spirits. The restaurant also has an attached bar that serves drinks from both brands. While all of the wine selections — which include standards such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Malbec, are pretty good, these are not nearly as remarkable as the food. (On the other hand, the cost of $59 for pairings is quite reasonable for this type of restaurant.) The most successful among the wines tasted was Clear Creek Vineyard’s eculent blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah, which was served alongside the heartier entrées. On the other hand, the Meticulous Spirits — currently a small selection of white rum, vodka and gin — are quite good.
Skinner’s mastery of molecular gastronomy and other cutting-edge culinary innovations may make Alinea in Chicago eculent’s closest restaurant peer. Granted, the environments couldn’t be more different. eculent is much smaller, darker, seats much fewer diners — only 12 per evening — and doesn’t have an impressive “cast of thousands” running the dining room and kitchen, but the food is equally mystical — okay, fine, scientific — and mind-blowing. There’s another similarity: it takes some planning to get a reservation at either. eculent releases reservations on the first of each month for the following one, and according to the website, it books up in “minutes.” One big and advantageous difference: dinner at eculent only costs $239 per person plus tax, gratuity and optional drink pairings — far below the veritable mortgage payment required by Alinea. (For that matter: experiences at some of the more recent tasting menu restaurant additions to the Greater Houston area, such as Le Jardinier and March, can cost around the same — or more — for two people, depending on the selected options for far fewer courses.)
There are now two experiences from which to choose: Daydreams and Memories, “a multi-sensory culinary experience of 24+ courses” that is eculent’s original offering, and the newer Gastronomic Expedition, “a historical tour of food through the ages with some of the rarest ingredients on earth.” Either can be reserved online, and prospective guests can add themselves to the waiting list through the reservation service, Tock.
The show-and-tell, group dining and Skinner-as-perpetual-chaperone aspects of eculent knocks it out of the romantic restaurant category. That said, for diners looking for something fun, eye-opening and worthy of conversation long after the experience is over, eculent is a must-visit restaurant — not just among those in the region, but in the country. You might never look at French onion soup the same way again.