“It’s going to be fantastic. I guarantee it,” I told someone who was on the fence about buying a ticket to Rebecca Masson’s bi-annual Sweet and Savory dinner. Her charity fundraiser dinners benefitting the Lucky Dog Rescue have become the equivalent of the NBA dream team drafts, with dream chef lineups like the one she’d put together this past Sunday night for her “All Male Revue.”
In all, there were nine male chefs, one bartender mixologist, one sommelier, and a beer expert: some from Houston (Randy Rucker, Andrew Vaserfirer, Nathan Lemley, Philip Speer, Ryan Lachaine, Antonio Gianola and Ricardo Guzman Venegas), and some from other Texas towns (Matt McCallister of FT33 in Dallas, David Gilbert of Tuk Tuk Tap Room in San Antonio, and Plinio Sandalio and Nathan Lemley from Austin).
All of them men, all of them uber-talented, and all of them bringing their A-game to the dinner. It was a definite recipe for a success -- one which I’d predicted -- and by the night’s end, my prediction was validated when the team received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the 120-plus guests.
What struck me when I entered the open kitchen at Ralph Smith Studio -- the venue where the event was held -- was the sense of camaraderie among the chefs. Though each chef was in charge of a single course, everyone seemed eager to lend a helping hand, with as many as 10 chefs plating dishes side-by-side. It was a joy to watch as they produced course after course of delicious food.
Certainly, there were courses that wowed, like Matt McCallister’s seemingly simple peas, lavender yeast, and ham. “It was perfectly conceived and perfectly executed,” pronounced one of my dining companions as he dug into the dish with gusto. Pieces of 11-month, house-cured culatello ham (described by McCallister as the king of hams) laid atop a verdant sautee of perfectly cooked, still crisp snow peas, snap peas, and English peas. Finished with a sauce of caramelized whey, the textures were amazing, while the flavor -- the natural sweetness of the peas against this salty ham and this sort of creamy whey sauce -- was fantastic.
Andrew Vaserfirer’s brisket sausage dish was pretty amazing as well. Proclaimed “The best dish of the night,” by Lachaine, I watched as chef after chef grabbed pieces to taste from the cutting board as it was being sliced. “It’s brisket!” Tracie Hartman, a private chef and one of the organizers, exclaimed excitedly as she grabbed a piece for me to try. And indeed, Vaserfirer had managed to fully capture the flavor of the brisket in that sausage, serving it over some of the creamiest grits I’d ever tasted, with a bit of greens and a generous topping of house-made beef brisket jerky.
The brisket sausage was such a hit that when Masson offered up a final sausage to the highest bidder, an impromptu auction took place. Bidding started at 20 dollars, but quickly escalated, closing on a whopping final winning bid of 350 dollars -- for one single sausage.
Another knockout dish came via Plinio Sandalio, whom many might remember from his time at restaurants like Noe, Gravitas, and Textile years ago. Now in Austin, he came back to do a cheese course which was extraordinary. “How do I dessert-ify cheese?” he said, when explaining what he’d done with the the bleu des basques cheese. The cheese took the form of white panna cotta half domes applied atop a date moist date cake, and was garnished with bacon brittle, bacon powder, mango puree and radishes. The dish exemplified the theme of “sweet and savory,” with the sweet flavors of mango and date bread balancing out the creaminess of the cheese, combined with this crunchy brittle texture and a sort of bitter palate cleansing finish from the radish. It was one of those things you taste and immediately want more of, so we asked for seconds, and scored another one for four of us to share.
Of note, guests that evening also experienced a full beverage program. Triniti restaurant’s Ricardo Guzman Venegas served several delicious cocktails, like his tangy, spicy “The Southside” (Thai chili-infused gin, lemon, mint, sugar), which paired with McCallister’s dish. Antonio Gianoloa of Houston Wine Merchants did the wine pairings, choosing wines like an 2011 Mulderbosch Sauvignon Blanc to pair with Lemley’s spring vegetables served over lardo bagna cauda, with pickled lemon and chicken skin chicharron. Lennie Ambrose brought Saint Arnold’s beer a-plenty, pairing Lachaine’s pickled shrimp dish with Saint Arnold’s Weedwacker, Vaserfirer’s sausage dish with Saint Arnold’s Endeavor IPA2, and Speer’s dreamy chocolate dessert with Saint Arnold’s Icon Blue: Brown Porter. Katz coffees served coffee throughout the event, complete with latte art for anyone who ordered a latte.
In the end, as is typical of Masson’s Sweet & Savory dinners -- and a reason why they are always sellouts -- everyone went home happy. Guests went home with goody bags filled with things like chocolate bars and chocolate cookies from Whole Foods. The chefs continued with an after-service party and bonding session at local bar Lei Low. And the Lucky Dog Rescue charity went home with nice big check so that stray dogs and abandoned dogs all over Houston can find themselves loving, permanent homes.
For more information on Lucky Dog Rescue, please visit www.luckyrescue.org.