Rienzi, the gilded former home of philanthropists Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III that boasts an extensive collection of European portraits, porcelain, and furniture, is a formidable setting for any event. Having lectured in the space as part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Salon at Sunset series, I can tell you from experience that the diversely ornate environment readily distracts (as it should!) even the most captive of audiences. The fact then that for two-and-a-half hours Tuesday night, all pairs of eyes of 100 or so lucky BBVA Compass clientele were on the plates in front of them is no small feat indeed.
This dinner was one of three, held August 4, 5, and 6, which represented one leg of a very limited tour set up by BBVA Compass to reward their most generous customers via a grand series of repasts designed by renowned chefs and restaurateurs the Roca brothers. But to label the meal as simply a corporate perk understates its value as a historic event in Houston dining scene and obscures the fact that attendance was a true privilege.
Seriously, no one deserves or earns the chance to eat food this good. Well, maybe, Mother Teresa. But me and a lot of lucky bastards go to anyway. And, you can, too, if you can a swing plane ticket to the Roca brothers’ current three Michelin-starred venture, El Celler Con Roca.
Comprising approximately 18 dishes organized into 14 courses, the dinner was not so much a symphony of flavors but rather an intricately designed gustatory drama performed in multiple acts. The authors were head chef and oldest brother Joan Roca, sommelier and middle kid Josep Roca, and pastry chef and youngest brother Jordi Roca. Even working in a rather makeshift kitchen in a tent on the grounds of the property, the fraternal trio managed to recreate the fantastical, post-modern cuisine for which they have become famous.
Each scene left one intrigued and wondering what was still come. At a twilight cocktail hour guests were greeted with plates of succulent Iberico ham slices whose salt was tempered by sips of honeyed sherry. On the balcony overlooking Rienzi’s Roman bath-style pool, servers steamed shrimp over pebbles laced with tequila, a technique that gave the prawns a latent smoky heat that emerged after a bite or two of the briny flesh.
Dinner proper was served, or rather performed, inside Rienzi’s main gallery. After seeing such perfectly synchronized service of multiple courses (plus wine pairings) to 100 guests, you’ll never catch me again lamenting that large seated dinners (re: your cousin’s wedding) are inevitably clumsily executed and ill-timed. We began with a lollipop tree of sorts that presented global bonbons of different flavors, such as the sweet, crunchy "Colombian basket" of caramel, peanuts, and coconut cream; a miniature corn taco with mole; and a baby green tomato stuffed with piquant guacamole and coriander.
Those opening bites were followed rapid-fire with a series of playful, increasingly hearty dishes. A seemingly light but ultimately fiery green salad of tomatillo seeds, avocado cream, and mescal candies found balance alongside peachy 2001 Boony Doon Alberiño, while the following course of panko-fried oysters and watermelon gazpacho struck a compromise between the tastes of the Gulf and the garden.
Another pleasant surprise came in the form of the striated layers of Oaxaca cream cheese and something called lyophilized corn. Even two of Houston’s most famous chefs and restaurateurs seated at my table didn’t know what that meant; Google piped up to tell us lyophilized was fancy way of saying "freeze-dried." I saw then why the Roca brothers avoided that term as it is a poor descriptor for a dish that was rich, lively, and anything but effete.
Flirtatious tequila cream and jalapeño and pecan vinaigrette did much to improve an inherently bland fish such as seabass, but still that course was overshadowed by the “piglet” belly with a crackly, butter crust that followed. Also superior was the majestic, supple shaving of veal shank dusted with cumin, oregano, coriander, cinnamon, and red pepper, accompanied by a grilled avocado slice, and dotted with the damn best “cheddar sauce” (salas cheddar?) I’ve ever had in my life.
And is the case of many excellent dramas, the final act—an ethereal dairy cloud of dulce de leche ice cream, foamed curds, and yogurt—left one exhilarated but just a bit uneasy. With the knowledge that food is being taken to such a level of sophistication, even by just a few Spanish chefs in the ultimately small culinary sphere that is ultra-haute cuisine, makes me wonder (and hungry for) what’s next. In the meantime, I’ll be talking about this dinner for the rest of my life.