I missed the cocktail hour at Rebecca Masson’s final Sweet & Savory fundraiser dinner this past weekend. The chef lineup she’d assembled was so extensive that the event had to be scheduled early—beginning at 4:30 p.m.—so that the event would conclude at a reasonable hour. As luck would have it, I couldn’t make it to the event until 5, when the three hors d’oeuvres—created by Ryan Lachaine of Reef, Joseph Stayshich of Benjy’s in the Village, and Adam Garcia of Julep—along with cocktails by Alex Gregg of Moving Sidewalk, had run out.
“You missed all of it!” exclaimed Stayshich in dismay as we passed one another in the corridor of main event space, where 128 lucky diners were seated and poised to begin what was, in my estimation, the pop-up of all pop-ups: One final Lucky Dog Rescue fundraiser dinner organized by Houston’s very own lovable rockstar pastry chef, Rebecca Masson, a.k.a., the Sugar Fairy.
“When Jodie [Eisendhardt] and I started this,” Masson said in the dinner's opening remarks, “we had just 40 attendees, and we raised just $3,500.” Since then, the so-called Sweet & Savory dinners that benefit Lucky Dog Rescue have enjoyed a great run: 10 dinners held bi-annually over five years, each one arguably better than the next. And unlike many charity dinners, almost everything at Masson's Sweet & Savory dinners is donated by sponsors like Whole Foods Market and the chefs themselves, meaning that all the money raised goes straight to Lucky Dog Rescue.
At this weekend’s final event, Masson went out with a bang, assembling a roster of chefs, master mixologists, wine gurus, coffee experts, stellar silent auction items, and a whole gaggle of industry volunteers for what was an unforgettable dining experience.
When an assembly of so many chefs—many of them executive chefs of their own kitchens—work alongside each other for a charity event, everyone brings their A-game. A ton of creativity is on display, and execution levels are extremely high.
You get unique tasting items like a lovely study of fermented, roasted and raw vegetables in the form of a vegetable terrine composed of orange (carrot) and green (okra) hues over one perfect round of white and purple radish, topped with a crispy fresh chunk of chicharron from chef Nathan Lemley of The Parkside in Austin. Served with a Squeeze Box by cocktail master Gregg, which had a funky fermented tang with an immediate aftertaste reminiscent of worcestershire sauce or a bloody mary mix, the pairing was an example of two is better than one. The dish and cocktail, independent of each other, were good—but together they were great, an exciting, complex explosion of flavors.
Laura Higgins, sous chef at Brine in Newburyport, Massachusetts, created a deceptively simple yet brilliant single-bite play on nigiri that had everyone at our table wishing they’d been served two pieces instead of one. Thin rectangles of snapper crudo were laid atop a smear of burnt onion puree, a mound of shredded carrot and burnt orange puree, and finished off with a broken off triangle of jalapeno meringue. This was paired with a lightly refreshing Weedwhacker beer from Saint Arnold Brewery.
A plate of farrow verde topped with puffed grains—the effect a cross between Rice Krispies and popcorn—was served with a thick-cut ring of pickled red onion sitting next to a perfectly round bone marrow and brain croquette that gushed when you bit into it. This dish was the contribution of Justin Holt of the Lucia in Dallas, and paired with a darker Saint Arnold 20th Anniversary beer.
“We have chefs from all over the country, really,” said Masson, who provided a brief introduction of each chef or team of chefs prior to their courses.
Houston was in the house, of course, with a mid-meal mini-feast and Thanksgiving preview prepared by chefs Brandi Key (executive chef of Coppa and Punk’s Simple Southern), who did all the sides and Patrick Feges (who hosts his own pop-up barbecues under the name Feges BBQ), who made a sausage-stuffed turducken smoked for five hours.
“I make this every year for my family,” said Feges. Served family style, the turducken was accompanied by huge bowls of heirloom potato salad; a pickle board of cauliflower, beets, and green beans; heirloom potato salad with quail egg; roasted rainbow carrots with Texas pecans; and an incredible cornbread dressing that went fast.
Feges's turducken was incredible, the outer skin smoked to a black, glistening char, the layers of turkey, duck, chicken, and sausage moist, with a savory, smoky element that permeated the room. “Sorry I made so much,” apologized Feges sheepishly to yelps and whoops among the a crowd that was perfectly fine with more. A leftover turducken was later auctioned off for $250.
The evening could have easily ended right there, but we’d only hit the halfway point. What followed was a light one-bite wonder of watermelon chunks topped with wild rice, burnt lemon, and torched mangalitsa lardo by chef Brandon Baltzy, the executive chef of Ceia in Newburyport, Massachusetts (who had flown in from the East Coast with his girlfriend, Laura Higgins). With this course, we received wine: a 2012 Mustiguillio Bobal “Mestizaje” selected by sommelier Antonio Gianola.
To follow, Masson introduced the duo she affectionately calls “The Tweezer Twins”—Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan of The Pass & Provisions, whose course was a duck bolognese and aspicius spiced pasta, full of textural bits and an unusual spice aroma. The dish was very representative the creative pastas found at Provisions, the more casual side of the dual-focused restaurant.
Jason Gould of Cyclone Anaya’s went Mediterranean with an incredibly tender, perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned medium rare mint marinated lamb served over baba ghanoush, spiced yogurt and pickled onion salad.
Tim Maslow, of Ribelle and Strip T’s in Boston, Massachusetts, flew in just so he could offer a dose of salt in the form of a cheese course of St. David’s raclette and sakura boshi served with kernels of cashew and thin rye crisps. He said he figured we’d need it considering the fact that there would be three desserts.
It goes without saying that the desserts—Masson’s forte—were something to remember. The dessert courses started off simply, with Masson’s contribution a simple bowl of creme fraiche over a deep purple gel of concord grape, sprinkled with crispy bits of of ras al hanout crumble and brittle.
A blackout cake from Kyle McKinney of Austin (formerly at Barley Swine) was ridiculously good, a composition of dark green lime and light brown sweet potato dollops, with torn pieces of blackout cake, coffee crumble and lime wedges that cut through the heaviness of the other elements with a bright zing of acidity.
The final dessert of Mexican corn mole chocolate cornbread came from Ruben Ortega of Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, and Caracol. Ortega topped his cornbread with corn foam, candied parsnips, drops of bergamot, and preserved kumquats from his garden. "I’ve been wanting to be a part of this for five years, the timing was never right," said Ortega as he embraced Masson. "I’m glad I finally made it to the last one."
The evening ended with Michael Savino’s Halloween-themed cookies and Katz’s coffee (who were pouring cappuccinos and lattes complete with latte art throughout the night). As the procession of chefs and volunteers entered the room for the final farewells, the crowd erupted with an enthusiastic, thunderous, standing ovation. It was a moment that spoke for itself. Five years, 10 Sweet & Savory dinners, thousands of dollars raised for Lucky Dog Rescue. Bravo, indeed.
For more photos from the evening, head over to our slideshow.