There are a lot of misconceptions about Texas. I would know because I had a lot of preconceived ideas about what Texas would be like before I got there. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been to Texas before but that was more than a decade ago and since, all I’ve know about Texas has been George W. Bush, Super Size Me and being stuck at the worst airport on the planet, Dallas Fort Worth, for eight freakin’ hours. I don’t know about the rest of Texas but Houston, at least, is fantastic.
I expected everyone to speak with a heavy NASCAR fan accent and while some folks have quite a drawl, I didn’t really come across any cowboy talk apart from the omnipresent use of “y’all”. People were kind, cheerful and helpful. If Houston is indeed America’s most obese city as Super Size Me says, then everyone responsible for that statistic must’ve stayed home. It’s summer and it’s sundresses and Daisy Dukes rather than Rascals and sweatpants as Morgan Spurlock would have us believe.
But even if everyone was enormous, I couldn’t really blame them because Houston is simply one of the most exciting, interesting culinary cities in America. Everyone’s putting modern spins on old favorites, re-imagining classic dishes with contemporary technique. Creative young chefs are opening restaurants on every corner, free of New York’s barrier to entry or Brooklyn’s need to be cool by not being cool. Food seems to be a great mix of rustic and fine dining that reflects the city’s unpretentious, relaxed approach to food.
Although the food blogger population in Houston seems rather small, there’s no shortage of opinion if you Google “best restaurant in Houston”. I settled on Feast after sifting through the results because their website didn’t have any annoying Flash animations or silly lounge music…just a picture of a pig and that day’s menu. Oh, and a list of all the various awards the restaurant has either received or was nominated for, including a couple of James Beard nominations and a place on Bon Appetite’s “Best New Restaurants in America” (2009). It was also just 10 minutes away from my hotel. Again, no shortage in Houston. My other choice Oxheart, I discovered, made the same Bon Appetit list this year (2012).
Feast is located in an old house in a rather unspectacular suburban area. If you didn’t know, you might just drive by without much of a look. There’s no parking lot although a couple of attendants up front will valet your car. I didn’t know until after that the valet service is free (apart from tipping your attendant). The Friday dinner rush was just starting so they were getting busy so I thought I could park my own car across the street myself.
The old house that…houses Feast is full of character, from the slightly creaky wood floors to the dangerous first step through the door that the staff quickly warn you about right after “Welcome!”. Old photos line the walls but the space is brightly and warmly lit so it’s charming rather than creepy. Even though the restaurant spans both floors, there’s probably less than 50 seats available. Although it was empty when I arrived at 6pm, Feast’s dining rooms were at capacity by 6:30ish.
Feast gained national attention in 2009 when it showed up in rave reviews by The New York Times and Bon Appetit and haven’t missed a step since. The name of the game here is locally sourced ingredients with a focus on cruelty-free farming. The British pub-inspired menu changes daily in more ways than one. Some of their specialties and favorites are available all the time but half the entrees are daily specials that use whatever is particularly good that day from nearby farms.
Feast stresses that none of their meat comes from factory farms and emphasize cruelty-free meats. The menu lists where each ingredient is from and even the names of the people that produced what you’re eating. I don’t think I’ve seen this done with so much detail before. Closest I’ve seen is the server telling us when the fish was caught.
The complimentary bread is a delicious, fresh and soft sourdough with a light, creamy butter. I believe it’s baked daily in house.
I wasn’t particularly impressed by the salad, which had romaine, cucumber, radish, celery, herbs and raisins ($6.95). All the greens were fresh but there wasn’t anything particularly special about it.
This is the crispy pork belly with potato cake and red cabbage with apples ($23.95). When I saw “crispy pork belly”, I was already sold and I knew I was right when it got to the table.
That slab of pork smells amazing, with a crusty, crispy skin and layer upon layer of moist, juicy meat in all sorts of textures. There is a bit of greasiness to the dish and it’s certainly quite a heavy entree but if you’re ordering pork belly, you knew what you were getting into.
I’ve never quite had mashed potatoes this way with a nice seared crust on the top and bottom and nicely seasoned. The tartness and acidity of the red cabbage and apples balances out the richness of the pork belly.
I love me some bacon but this dish was the star of the table was the shoulder of beef braised in red wine, served with mashed potatoes and carrots ($23.95). The red wine reduction sauce has some amazing depth of flavor. It’s sweet, savoury and a little sour…absolutely perfect for the fork tender beef shoulder.
Our last entree was a braised lamb shank with root vegetables and kale ($22.95). The large bone-in piece of lamb comes in a thick stew and you can taste the hours that went into getting it tender. A very rustic, old-school sort of comfort food dish.
Feast is a gem. I don’t know how remote the location is or how much buzz the place gets in Houston but I doubt they’re much of a secret judging by the long list of accolades and the fact that the restaurant is usually fully booked. It isn’t hard to see why as prices are very good considering the caliber of food and above average portion size. The service from the lively, passionate staff is excellent. Just the way our server described each individual dish I inquired about showed how well they know the menu. They aren’t simply in the restaurant business.
And who could blame them? The food is just as exceptional. Everything is prepared with care by people that understand the natural flavors of the meat and how to best showcase them. Not only that but it’s very cool knowing exactly where your food came from and how it was produced. This harmony between the restaurant and the ingredients makes Feast feel extra special.
Summary: If you find yourself in Houston, Feast should be on your list of places to try. The vintage restaurant space is charming, the food is superb and the menu varies depending on what local produce is best. Each visit is potentially a new experience so make sure you ask your server what’s good on the day of your visit. If Feast’s focus on local, cruelty-free meats has somehow upped prices, I don’t think anyone would notice as the menu is very good value for money considering the quality you’re getting.