Kemah isn’t known for the most diverse dining scene. A quick Google search of the city yields a list of seafood restaurants, interrupted by the occasional burger joint, plus a few other concepts here and there. So it may come as a surprise to know that Kemah is also home to a world-class dining destination. Eculent, located at 709 Harris, just three blocks from the junction between Trinity Bay and Galveston Bay, has earned a reputation for its modern, whimsical, and boundary-pushing cuisine. The orchestrator of the experiments – which can feature dozens of lessons (many of which are unique, but memorable bites) – is part chef, part mad scientist David Skinner. Lest you think the second nickname is derisory: Skinner refers to his test kitchen as a “laboratory.”
If the test kitchen is a laboratory, the dining room is the theater. Here, Skinner orchestrates the entire dinner experience like a master of ceremonies and explains – but not overdone – every bite. Part of quirky’s charms is keeping some of the mystery intact, and you might spot Skinner with a gleeful smile as guests try to guess what exactly they’re eating. He and his team spend months transforming both common and unique ingredients into new textures and shapes, sometimes even changing states of matter.
Houston Food Finder was invited to a dinner featuring some of eculent’s most beloved dishes, as well as a try-out of many new creations. It all started in a private party space that was transformed into a fairy tale forest. Despite being indoors, grass carpeted the floors and the ceiling was decorated with vines, trees and crystalline birds. As befitted the surroundings, guests were seated at picnic tables for appetizer courses.
However, they first received a booklet, created and researched by Skinner, with a detailed timeline of food evolution. (To make the most of the squishy, it doesn’t hurt if you’re naturally curious and a bit of a foodie.) Second in line was a picnic basket with several small bites, each presenting common starters in an uncommon way. Skinner guided the tasting order, starting with a few sleazy classics: Leaf on a platea single leaf of romaine lettuce topped with all the aromatic components of a Caesar salad, and the French onion candy (a 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 the flavors of a BLTa Ambros Salad in the shape of a mandarin slice, salad of deer-sized watermelon spheres and foie gras garnished with smoked trout roe.
After completing the first round of bites in the wooded setting, diners were escorted to the main dining room. The venue is small and dimly lit, with a parallel set of six-seat craft bars. “Meticulous” best describes the layout, as the seats have compartments in front of them providing 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 cater to the latter, each course even has a distinct plating, lighting arrangements, and sometimes even the air is fogged with certain aromas.
Appetizers start with the bread course. Called the Tree of life, it is made up of French bread medallions creatively placed on the branches of a metal tree. In addition to the “foliage” of the bread, there are also nests for onion and pumpkin jams, as well as European butter and Tête de Moine (semi-soft alpine cheese) cut in a rosette.
Another back 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, snails and dried mushrooms.
While it was wonderful to revisit old favourites, the main focus of the meal was to sample Skinner’s latest dishes. the smoked salmon mousseline is associated with a berry bush and a brittle made from (and shaped like) fish bones. Between the brittle crunch and the soft, unctuous mousse, the dish successfully tackled multiple textures. The textures paired with the smoky aroma, salmon flavors and vinegar bite in the shrub all made for the most complex bite of the whole night. Crab in a stained glass window is a bite-sized cut of crab leg resting in a seafood broth and draped in a sheet of multicolored, translucent pasta. There is a Milk and Cookies of course – but make no mistake about it. It’s not a dessert. It’s a surprising combination of squid ink-tinted wafers encased in a filling of scallops with a seafood broth in a milk carton-shaped glass. Another course was made of steam, while another featured perceivesor gooseneck barnacles. These are not only edible, but incredibly difficult to harvest and highly prized in Spain, where Skinner obtained his.
For mains, eculent pivots from presenting mind-blowing and playful one-off bites to more traditional, substantial and elegant plates. The first featured a Rabbit roulade, turnip and potato pie with carrot sauce, all served on a mole sauceand the second is composed of sirloin, morels stuffed with cheese and mimolette. (Mimolette is a hard orange cheese from France that has been briefly banned in the United States by the FDA due to the mites inherent in its production.)
Two desserts concluded the test dinner. The first was the huge Texas truffle. Skinner poured hot cream over this large chocolate sphere to melt it and reveal a small slice of cake. The dessert is served with both a spoon and a straw allowing the guests to taste it in its entirety. The second special guest of honor Clayton Andersona former astronaut who was part of the ISS Expedition 15 crew in 2007. Skinner hollowed out an orange to represent a planet and filled it with cream ice cream. It has been neatly housed in a small globe stand to complete the solar system themed presentation.
For beverage pairings, wines and spirits are available at Skinner’s Clear Creek Vineyard cellar and meticulous minds. The restaurant also has an adjoining 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 quite good, they’re not nearly as outstanding as the food. (On the other hand, the $59 cost for pairings is quite reasonable for this type of restaurant.) The most successful of the wines tasted was Clear Creek Vineyard’s saucy blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah, which was served alongside the larger starters. 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 the slickest restaurant peer in Chicago. Certainly, the environments couldn’t be more different. eculent is much smaller, darker, seats far fewer diners – just 12 a night – and doesn’t have an impressive “cast of thousands” running the dining room and kitchen, but the food is just as mystical – okay, fine, scientific – and mind-blowing. There’s another similarity: it takes a bit of planning to get a reservation at either. ecuulent releases reservations on the first of each month for the Following a T depending on the website, it reserves itself in “minutes”. An important and advantageous difference: dinner at ecuulent costs only $239 per person plus taxes, tip and optional drinks, well below the real mortgage payment required by Alinea. (By the way: Experiences at some of the newest additions to the tasting menu restaurants in the Greater Houston Area, such as Le Jardinier and March, can cost about the same — or more — for two people, depending on the price. selected options for much less course.)
You now have the choice between two experiences: Daydreams and Memories“a multi-sensory culinary experience of more than 24 dishes” which is the original offer of eculent, and the most recent Gastronomic Expedition“a historical tour of food through the ages with some of the rarest ingredients on earth.” Either can be booked onlineand potential customers 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 eclectic knock it out of the romantic restaurant category. That said, for diners looking for something fun, eye-opening, and conversation-worthy long after the experience is over, ecuulent is a must-visit restaurant — not just among those in the region, but in the country. You may never look at onion soup the same way again.