Arguably, Indigo is the most ambitious restaurant in Houston right now.
From Wednesday to Saturday there are two seatings—6 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.— of 13 chairs for a five-course tasting menu where the choice is either omnivore or herbivore. And if this sounds like Oxheart, that’s because Johnny Rhodes, the chef owner of Indigo, was a line cook at the Justin Yu restaurant a few years ago.
A chef leading his first concept with a tasting menu and limited seating (along with a pay-upon-making-your-reservation rule) is ambitious enough. But Indigo, which neighbors a convenience store in Trinity Gardens, is also literally telling the story of soul food—a style of cooking borne of oppression—through those five courses, which include smoked pastrami with Carolina brown mustard and field peas warmed in curry. To Rhodes, this food was a source of strength for the oppressed in the American South and in West Africa, a way to survive a life of cruelty, and his goal is to inform and educate as he's serving.
“We wanted distinctively to be about survival,” says Rhodes, who chats with diners during the service. “If we wanted to get into those conversations about why, and things like that, that’s a totally different conversation.”
That “totally different conversation” may happen, too, if the diner is interested in going further. But as talk about racism and slavery isn’t typical at a fine-dining restaurant, Rhodes says he tries to keep conversation on the food and its connection to history.
As for the food, the opening course pulls no punches: Affirmation of a Stereotype is chilled watermelon “Kool-Aid,” blueberry preserves, and mint. Visually it’s a stunning dish that twists the palate: the melon base tastes more like tomato soup, while the preserved blueberries star with a deep tartness.
So much of the food at Indigo is preserved because, according to Rhodes, preserves are “the base of soul food. It’s the food that we used to survive the Great Depression. It’s what we want people to cling to first.”
This is most apparent with a course called Copper Sun. Three carrots are presented with allium clippings in a dish that may be considered ridiculous if it wasn't so delicious. The vegetables were cured, hung to dry, smoked, then preserved for two-and-a-half years. The result: Carrots that evoke brisket.
The menu will change to correspond with what Rhodes has available. Jars packed with pickled vegetables sit in the dining room and fill cold storage in the kitchen. His most recent batch of figs is from 2015 because he says the weather in ‘16 and ‘17 wasn’t hospitable for growing. But this summer was great for figs, so expect them in, say, 2020?
“As we’re currently running this menu, we’re also testing dishes for winter time and summer time next year, and winter time next year,” says Rhodes.