Years have passed since I last had Randy Rucker's food. It was at Bootsie's Heritage Cafe, his ill-fated venture in Tomball that closed in 2011, where the food was rightfully acclaimed yet the drive to eat it proved too long even for commute-hardened Houstonians. But it's not that last meal at Bootsie's I remember so clearly; it's the first, eaten in June 2008 at a long communal dining table inside Rucker's house.
In the kitchen, fellow chefs Justin Basye and Jonathan Jones helped their buddy prep and deliver courses to the room full of people who'd paid to experience the private supper club Rucker was calling Tenacity. They served sweet Gulf crab under a blanket of dashi foam; freshly-caught tilefish cured in yamabuki miso with a kimchee consommé sparkling with Thai chiles; toasted bacalao gnocchi made with salted trout; a terrine of compressed pork, marinated in Coca-Cola and Indonesian spices, made from a wild hog that Randy's brother had killed that week.
A series of such Tenacity dinners over the course of that summer changed my entire perspective on dining. I'd never experienced a pop-up dinner or supper club before; I'd never known food like that in Houston. Chris Shepherd's Catalan had opened two years prior, Bryan Caswell's Reef the summer before in 2007, but the city's dining scene was just starting to gin itself up into the nationally-recognized, highly-acclaimed creature it's become today. Rucker's food, to my eyes and mind, was utterly avant-garde, and I was hooked.
Dinner at his newly opened, long-awaited restaurant, Bramble, this past Friday night made me feel things I hadn't in a long time. When you eat out for a living, you quickly tire of trends, once novel and now recycled endlessly; you can become a little jaded when you perceive restaurants capitalizing on innovations in order to appeal to a new generation raised on the Food Network, rather than cooking from their own hearts and minds; too much of anything is a bad thing, and this certainly applies to dining out on the regular. But the feelings at Bramble were pervasive: the feeling of falling in love with food again, the feeling that there are still new territories left to explore, the feeling that Rucker is performing at his highest possible potential in this jam-packed Tanglewood restaurant, eagle-eyed at the pass as each dish came across for his inspection.
Those feelings are a direct result of the clean, bold, decisive flavors of a chef who seems more focused now than ever before. They're the result of a vibrant zucchini pistou, the fresh flavors of garden and green grass condensed into a gentle puree, further encouraged by pops of sweetness from elegantly skinned tomatoes and a generous pile of Gulf blue crab. They're the result of the perfectly crispy skin of a sweet tea-brined half-chicken, its flesh tender and juicy and honest and pure and good. They're the result of the deep dish of lady creamer peas served on the side, bearing the slight smokiness of bacon, tugging at memories of my East Texas childhood with every bite. They're the result of a clever dish of roasted sunchokes served on a gleaming, highly-polished tree ring that functions as a plate if plates were made by Tolkien characters, the sunchokes themselves seeming to come from a fantasy world where potatoes and mushrooms are combined into one knobbly root vegetable that looks like ginger but tastes of sweet, soft earth.
This has always been the allure of Rucker's food—these crisp flavors, these rustic yet elegant presentations, the truthfulness in his creations, all of which spring from a palate shaped by the abundance of the Gulf Coast—and Bramble, as a result, feels like a rock in the midst of the swirling eddy that has become Houston's ever-swelling tide of new restaurants. Only weeks old, Bramble feels like the sort of restaurant that will become foundational and serve the sort of pivotal purpose as Underbelly, Coltivare, Caracol, Pax Americana and the whole host of smart, serious restaurants who are still keenly focused on building Houston into even more of a dining powerhouse than it already is. There's no laurel-resting, no cruise control here. There's nothing obnoxiously trendy, no precious affectations, no confusingly plotted menus that require a full three-minute explanation from your harried server.
Bramble is honest and honestly exceptional—and the word, of course, is already out. Wait times in the evenings (Bramble is only open for dinner) begin piling up around 7 p.m., and there's a palpable energy in the air as customers ring the cozy dining room, cocktails or beers in hand, waiting for their table to open up. You can call ahead and add your name to the wait list, which helps tremendously, but Bramble otherwise does not take reservations except for large parties.
Looking around the dining room last Friday night as my friend and I polished off the last few bites of a peach cobbler made with the sweetest crop of peaches Texas has produced in years, I wondered if those waiting would remember their meals the way I still remember my first Tenacity dinner. I wondered if they'd come away feeling as refreshed and excited as I was. I hope they will; I think they will.
Bramble, 2231 S. Voss Rd., 832-940-1100, restaurantbramble.com