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Going full boar at Catalan September 24, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, Houston, Sustainability, Texas.
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Every now and then, a meal becomes an event you’ll never forget. That’s what happened Sunday at Catalan, one of Houston’s top-rated restaurants.

Chef Chris

Catalan, an anchor of the newly thriving Washington corridor, has caught the eye of many a writer in the couple of years since it’s opened, right up to the New York Times, and master chef Chris Shepherd is a big reason why. His bold, no-holds-barred, what-the-hell style has earned him a following that’s as passionate as his own commitment to his art. But what really drew me was his staunch advocacy of the buy local movement. He plans his entire menu around what he finds at the local farmers’ markets and what local growers can provide him.

“It’s not just the right thing to do; it means better quality,” he explained when I met him on Friday. He was already cooking up plans for Sunday’s feast, and when he invited me, of course I couldn’t resist.

It all started when Farmer John Laughlin showed up on his doorstep with a wild boar. Laughlin’s farm kept getting raided by these wild hogs, and nothing he did could drive them away.

“Finally, he decided to bring them in and fatten them up,” Shepherd said.

One of those boars ended up on Shepherd’s menu, and he decided to make an occasion of it.

It’s hard to imagine an animal as inelegant as a wild hog becoming the chief ingredient for an occasion as classy as this one, but Chef Chris pulled it off. “We’re going to take you on a little trip around the world with this wild boar,” he promised – and he did.

My friends and I showed up at the appointed time and were greeted with kumquat-infused vodka iced tea (“There was a little lady with a bucket of kumquats at the market, and she was excited that we were willing to pay an exorbitant price for them. We just soaked them in some Dripping Springs Vodka… it seemed like the right thing to do.”

Now I am not a huge eater of meat, especially of the red variety. And I confess I did have some passing thoughts about the boar who gave his life that we might feast. But Shepherd reassured us on this point. “As Laughlin likes to say, ‘Our pigs have only one bad day.'” I was also impressed with his commitment to use every ounce of the 300-pound creature, from the snout to the tail. But that would take awhile. First, there was the feast.

The tour began in Mexico, with a savory pozole that called to mind my days living in a village in the south of Mexico, where the ladies gather on the plaza every Friday to serve this style of “white pozole.” This savory soup, topped with fresh chopped cilantro and onion and a squeeze of lime, highlights the pork, unlike the tomatoey version served in Jalisco that dominates Mexican restaurants here.

As an aside, I must mention Shepherd’s fascination with street food of different countries. His menu of small plates is a tour of street food from around the world, topped with the flakiest empanadas imaginable. His flair with the commonplace gives his work an imaginative twist that can only be seen to be appreciated. But commonplace his meals are not. If the delicious freshness of the pozole weren’t enough, there was the 2006 Jacques Puffeney Arbois Rouge Trousseau “Cuvée Les Bérangeres” to accompany it – the first in a lineup of pairings that elevated the excellent to the exquisite.

Next we took a sharp turn to the Far East with a tender, flavorful Wild Boar Satay.

“Every Southeast Asian country calls this their own,” said Shepherd, who came out between courses to visit with the group. The Oklahoma native’s entertaining, down-to-earth style is as much an attraction to these meals as the generous spirit with which he infuses his cuisine.

The satay was followed by another Eastern palate-pleaser, Indonesian Boar Rendang, a rich stew with a melange of spices and topped with a delicate arrangement of sweet potato leaves — so delightful to the palate that I could have stopped right there and called it dessert.

But that was not to be: heading back toward the Mediterranean, the Wild Boar Bolognese with Crispy Eggplant was my personal favorite, with butternut squash layered in with a cheesy mixture that I confess I was enjoying too much to remember his generous explanation.

By now I was ready to grunt and roll into bed. This was followed by a full-circle trip back down home to Mama’s Sunday Night Boar Meatloaf, paired with an elegant Italian red. And it’s not nice to say no to Mama.

This is when I really should have said enough is enough. But dessert was nigh, and how could I refuse? Local Pear Crumble, with boar bacon and maple gastrique, topped with vanilla ice cream, awaited, along with a sweet Rhone wine.

At the risk of severe overindulgence, I partook. I could always fast on Monday. But Sunday, down to the last drop, was divine.

Local pear crumble

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