It's not every day Houstonians have the opportunity to eat like Gordon Ramsay or Graham Elliot. Or is it? Earlier this week, Luca Manfé, winner of season four of Masterchef, began the soft opening for his "farm to streets" food truck, the Lucky Fig.
On Wednesday night, Manfé fans eagerly waited for half an hour in front of Red Dessert Dive in the Heights while he and his staff of two worked through an issue with their truck's gas line. That and other technical issues will mean an unexpected first weekend off for the Lucky Fig, but it should be serving again by the beginning of next week.
And for the Wednesday crowd, Manfé flipped up the service window with the announcement, "This is our first dinner and nothing seems to work, but we'll try." The assembled group reacted with a polite guffaw. Manfé, after all, was a reality fan favorite for his Roberto Benigni-esque garrulousness.
Manfé, his wife and young son moved to Katy five months ago, and the chef is devoted to supporting local farms. "New York is a cult," he said of leaving his longtime home. Near Houston, he's closer to his wife's extended family and to a farm-to-table lifestyle in the mold of "what my mother and grandmother used to do at home."
It was a short rib dish that helped cement Manfé's reality win, and he trotted out a version using grassfed, pastured bison from a farm near his home in Katy. Milk, pork and beef all came from Fayetteville. Most vegetables, too, were local. Those that weren't were organic, said Manfé. "I usually make my menus by going to the farmers market," he added, a rite he began with his New York City catering company, Dinner with Luca.
The opening menu offered two kinds of arancini, including a version made with red beets that dyed the toothsome risotto a deep pink. It oozed Gorgonzola dolce, making the side of lemon-tarragon aioli unnecessary, but not unwelcome. There were also grassfed beef meatballs and a selection of panini on spongy housemade bread. Besides the short rib, options included pork belly with apples, carrots and house paté and a veggie-friendly broccolini with hummus, provolone and onion aioli.
Before debuting fresh pasta specials, "I want to be settled down with the menu first," Manfé said. When he does, they'll include variations on ravioli and lasagna, among them his mother's sausage and smoked mozzarella version of the latter.
Though Manfé is still working out the kinks on the truck, he wasn't shy about admitting that he's already looking at Houston real estate for a brick-and-mortar Lucky Fig. "It is a thought, but we want to establish the food truck first and make sure people like what we’re offering," said Manfé. "In Italy, we say 'If there are roses, they’re going to blossom.' One step at a time."