Degust, a small tasting-only menu, is a newcomer to Spring Branch

The rambling improbability of Chef Brandon Silva’s Degust, a 20-seat tasting menu restaurant, struck me right from the front doors.

Surrounded by a sturdy iron fence, the old warehouse crouches behind a large parking lot at the eastern end of Spring Branch. On a stretch of Long Point that is home to many auto shops, it appears to be the home of a lot of fancy used cars.

But when the doors open at 5:30 p.m., the time that guests start arriving for snacks and appetizers before 6:00 p.m., Degust’s understated details come to the fore.

A wood-framed door shoots out angular arms that descend into the dark glass. A spiky succulent stands guard under a discreet sign that reads “Degust” in emerald green letters, the “u” rendered as a stylized triangle which is the restaurant’s logo. The name comes from the French “degustation”, the word for a multi-course tasting menu.

The setup resembles a secret club or private hangout.

Enter and a small mock courtyard welcomes you, as does dapper Dale Ellington, the restaurant’s butler and sommelier. I recognized Ellington when he was running the bar in Uchi, where he met Silva and urged me to taste sake that was deliciously out of my comfort zone.

7202 Long point, 281-707-4623; degusthouston.com

Dinner at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays only


Now he checks in the guests, directs them to tiny tables standing in the waistcoat pocket space, throws and chats in a welcome manner to my dinner. Ana Valderrana, wife of Silva and another veteran of the Houston hotel industry, circulates with a sparkling rosé de Cava. If you look closely, you’ll notice that her stylized necklace and earrings echo Degust’s triangular logo.

As two or four diners arrive, small bowls of crisps materialize. They’re made from Chinese eggplants, grown in the on-site garden, and they have such a tasty crackle that I find myself blurting out, “You should bag them as a side activity!”

There’s a Romesco sauce with red peppers to accompany the thin eggplant planks and a drizzle of beehive honey from the farmer’s market flavored with lemon thyme from the herb garden. The small room looks like an eccentric cocktail, the walls are covered with a thick layer of three-dimensional plastic flower vines from a DIY hallucination.

One by one, the parties are brought into the adjoining dining room, where an elliptical seating ring surrounds an open kitchen. There, 12 courses will be assembled and tackled in plain sight.

Movable plexiglass partitions (memories of the droplet phase in our knowledge of the spread of COVID-19) separate each part, so that the experience is both common and just private enough. It’s a happy accident.

Silva warmed up the room with enthusiastic jokes, as if we were the audience of a TV studio the night I was there. It turned out to be just an opening schtick, thank goodness some kind of goofy icebreaker.

We were introduced to his sous chefs, Javier Becerra and Rico Mackins. Becerra, originally from Mexico City, worked at BCN and MAD, the contemporary Spanish tapas restaurant. Mackins worked with chefs Ryan Pera and Robert Del Grande, with a stint at Martin Stayer’s Nobie’s. The team therefore brings a range of influences to the project, which swaps a friendly parade of tapas-sized plates with Spanish and Mexican influences brought to life by Japanese techniques.

Their is not a made-to-order kitchen. Preparing ahead of time is the key to making tight classes work, whether it’s the prep day or processes that take several days. Take the singing smoked tomato water that kicked off our dinner. The side garden tomatoes are slowly smoked over mesquite and Japanese bichoton wood, then pulverized and set aside to drain overnight.

The resulting clear tomato water is infused with mint marigold, the bewitching Mexican herb reminiscent of tarragon tinged with anise. It looks so simple in its curved glass. But it’s not.

Some dishes are combined instantly, such as sushi, reminiscent of Silva’s turn as Uchi sous-chef. Witness a captivating bite of lightly vinegared sushi rice topped with a tangle of cochinita pibil and a circle of pickled red onion. The pork involved is marinated overnight, then smoked for eight hours over mesquite before being cooled and pulled.

It’s Japanese and Mexican tied together in a nifty little package that’s very Houston.

I loved how Degust’s current Tortilla de Patata class blended the Spanish influences of Becerra’s dining experience with Silva’s experience at Uchi in a seamless and unexpected way.

Instead of an omelet-style cake, the squares are made like tamago, the staple of sushi, with an egg base seasoned with white soy, salt, and a little mirin for sweetness. It is baked for a short time, put in molds in the shape of golden buns, and then left in the fridge overnight.

The results are smooth and satiny, a rich and subtle canvas for a little garlic aioli plus an invigorating drop of bowfin caviar – or, for guests who come for an extra, a generous stack of Osetra.

One of the first captivating bites was a raw mussel lying in a perfectly formed “shell” that was actually a cracker tinged with squid ink, crispy like a chip. It had been made from a paste of potatoes draped over real mussel shells, then pressed, cut and dehydrated. With its hat of lively salmon roe, the track had a shiny marine funk that I still think of.

Everything does not work so well yet. A slice of charred, peeled garden tomato like a nigiri perched on a whiff of “airy bread” injected with wild garlic mousse was oddly bland, without the tangy-sweet punch I associate with vegetable garden tomatoes. .

An octopus tentacle mixed with buttermilk broth and olive emulsion seemed too salty to me and my guest; and the pretty thickets of herbs on the dish were too big to accentuate instead of overwhelm. I finally had to give up chewing on a hard, bitter carpet of Thai basil leaves and tuck it away in my towel.

I wanted to like a piece of Gulf Queen Snapper pickled and wrapped in a hoja santa leaf for vacuum poaching. The dish was gorgeous and the accompanying “MexO” sauce – a dark, vegan play on XO sauce incorporating a variety of chili peppers – also caught my eye. But I was forced to come to grips with the fact that I find the texture of most undersized fish, including this one, too spongy.

Such blips did not prevent me from enjoying the well-paced dinner hugely, even though the price of an evening for two – which starts at $ 230, prepaid, and increases with the purchase of wine) – me hope they will refine the rough edges. Silva, Becerra and Mackins are clearly having fun with the ambitious project, and I admire their common sense when it opened six months ago, when the pandemic made everything from staffing to customer supply , so uncertain.

Ideas are fun, flavors and textures can sing, and food and wine pairings are administered by Ellington with enthusiasm and intelligence. The dining room, with its games room atmosphere in the basement, has an unusual and intimate charm. Even the soundtrack is well calibrated, alternating Sam Cooke or Sly and the Family Stone with Joy Division and Radiohead.

More importantly, some dishes come back to me a week later, especially the elemental husk of homemade nixtamalized Chiapas yellow corn stuffed with adobera cheese, a hat in original Jalisco state from Silva’s grandmother. Served with a mostarda-like blend of jammy persimmon syrup and homemade whole grain mustard, this is a memorable take on the cheese course.

Even the dessert takes on a playful and nostalgic twist in the form of elegant chocolate-coated “Twix” bars, filled with foie gras mousse and crispy feuilletine leaves, sprinkled with salt crystals that the Degust band melts in it. seawater brought to them by their fisherman.

I am not making this up.

I know I’ll be back to see how this daring adventure unfolds and to sample Diversión, the experimental cocktail bar next door, run by Silva’s partner Stephen Salazar. It’s bound to be another surprise package.

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