Is it 'trashfish' or 'bycatch'?
The term "trashfish," which headlined a recent Chefs Collaborative fundraiser at Lowndes Grove, has gradually given way to "bycatch," as chefs have tried to make sustainable eating habits more appealing to average diners. But the Houston fishmonger who's largely responsible for popularizing the practice of turning traditionally unmarketable seafood into gourmet meals is standing by the original descriptor.
"When you say bycatch, that's a pretty unfamiliar term," says PJ Stoops, who started selling fish in 2006. "Well over 95 percent of people don't understand it."
From the time Stoops started dealing scorpion fish and sand trout to a crew of chefs, who in the span of a few short years transformed Houston into one of the nation's most-watched culinary scenes, he called himself the trash man. Although seafood distributor Louisiana Foods insisted he soften his terminology when he was added to the payroll (a partnership that ended amicably in 2012), he continues to talk trash when referring to unwanted product.
"There's no confusion, no ambiguity," he says. "I get it has an image of nasty stuff. But it leads to conversation."
According to Hominy Grill chef Robert Stehling, who participated in the Lowndes Grove event, there was "some grumbling" about the phrase's negative connotations. "I think there might be a point here if the intent is to really market new species," Stehling says.
For Stoops, though, marketing new species is a risky proposition. He'd rather use the blanket term "trashfish" for what lands on fancy plates than celebrate individual species considered bycatch. Since the movement's ultimate goal is to ease stresses on the ocean and its populations, Stoops worries that chefs who fetishize a previously unloved fish may perpetuate the problems they're trying to solve.
"It's difficult to tell a fisherman you can get money for something," and then ask him not to catch it, Stoops says. He gives the example of an obscure eel species that he offered to buy off a Gulf fisherman.
"He said, 'I can go after that. I'll get you 1,000 pounds.' There's a history of this happening," he continues, alluding to the surging popularity of seafoods such as wreckfish and triggerfish. "It's not conjecture. The potential for unintentional abuse is terrifying."
Shoot a tomato, win a pig roast
A randomly chosen eater who participates in Limehouse Produce's annual Heirloom Tomato Trek will receive two tickets to a "special VIP invite-only pig roast." By contrast, the event's winning chef gets more tomatoes.
The event runs through July 12 and is designed to celebrate tomato diversity. Eighteen restaurants have signed on to serve dishes or drinks showcasing varieties, including Mr. Stripy, Pink Brandywine and Mortgage Lifter.
Patrons are being asked to document the creations and post their pictures to Facebook or Instagram, using the hashtag #tomatotrek. Patrons also can vote online for their favorite tomato concoctions. The item's creator will receive 100 pounds of tomatoes and a trophy.
Restaurants slated to join the Trek include O-Ku, FIG, Caviar & Bananas and Poogan's Porch. Go to limehouseproduce.com.
Charleston Place's wine camp
Charlestonians are eligible for discounted tuition to Wine U, Charleston Place's immersive weekend wine program.
Discounted, in this instance, doesn't mean cheap; the session still costs $2,600 a person. But staying at home amounts to at least a $400 savings.
Charleston Place's wine Director Rick Rubel will lead the program, which will cover "wine varieties, deductive wine tasting, the chemistry of food and wine (and) stocking strategies for the home cellar." The fee includes materials, a pair of receptions, lunch, an eight-course dinner with pairings selected by participants and more than 100 wine tastings. Wine U will convene on July 18-20 and Aug. 22-24. To learn more, go to CharlestonPlace.com/WineU or call 800-383-2335.
R. Kitchen open on Rutledge
"It's really more of a kitchen than a restaurant," says my server at R. Kitchen, which opened in the former Mia Pomodori over Memorial Day weekend.
Ross Webb, who's served as Leaf's head chef since 2011, clearly had something casual in mind when he launched R. Kitchen, described on his LinkedIn page as "my pet project." There aren't any tables in the shotgun space; patrons have their pick of brown leather stools facing the kitchen bar or a bar affixed to the opposite windowed wall. An outdoor patio is being fixed up for seating.
And while the staff is tremendously earnest about quality cooking - the front door's propped open with a stocky copy of the "Food Lover's Companion" and "Mind of a Chef" episodes are on the approved list for the small television screen on an overhead pantry shelf - they're liable to step away from their stations to enthuse over a guest chef's planned menu. The standard menu is equally whimsical, hopping from jambalaya to grape leaves to paella to Cincinnati chili.
Maybe it was the wandering focus that tamped down my expectations for R. Kitchen. Or maybe it was the eyesore of a website touting a "pre fix" menu and a guest chef "calandar." (I know, they're just words. But for folks who make their living from them, neglecting a vowel is about as indefensible as forgetting the salt.)
In any case, I was pleasantly surprised by the restaurant when I dropped by for lunch last week. R. Kitchen's daytime menu is divided into sections for soups, salads, sandwiches and sides. Of the sandwiches, the duck-and-brie and steak-and-onions have emerged as early favorites; I went with the latter on a cook's recommendation, although there are lighter-sounding options, including grilled chicken on pita.
Since my informant gravitated toward the sandwiches, I nixed my original plan to assemble an order solely from the sides column, which includes mac-and-cheese and Brussels sprouts.
Judging from my lunch, R. Kitchen's specialty is remarkably generous portions of food that's just a few butter pats away from filthy rich. One of the two average-size men working the line said he routinely gets two meals out of the massive sandwich.
The $8 shaved steak, ornamented with red winey onions, is seated on a slice of soft brioche that's half the thickness of the book holding the door ajar and swathed with sharp white cheese. The spark of mustard is a smart touch.
A $4 serving of lima beans share a small bowl with five delicate, perfectly cooked pink shrimp, submerged in a white wine cream sauce.
The most austere dish I tried, a split corn cob, restrainedly garnished with chili and cheese in an homage to Mexican street food, was the least impressive, although all might have gone well if the corn wasn't underdone.
I'm not sure how R. Kitchen will fare once it starts filling every stool in the house. It may have to adopt some of the restaurant conventions it's trying to buck. For now, though, eating at R. Kitchen feels like showing up at a high-performing restaurant before service starts. That's a fun concept at any price, and an irresistible one when it's affordable.
R. Kitchen, 212 Rutledge Ave., is open daily from 11 a.m. to "10-ish" p.m. Lunch service ends at 3 p.m., but snacks are available until dinner begins at 5 p.m. On Monday evenings, guest chefs take over the kitchen. Call 789-4342 or go to rutledgekitchen.com.
Fish and sides are at a “Trashfish” dinner at Lowndes Grove earlier this month.×
R. Kitchen opened on Rutledge Avenue over Memorial Day weekend. Among the offerings are corn on the cob (clockwise from top), a shaved steak sandwich and shrimp salad.×
There aren’t any tables in R. Kitchen, but patrons have their pick of stools facing the kitchen bar or a bar affixed to the opposite windowed wall.×
Lima beans share a small bowl with five delicate, perfectly cooked pink shrimp, submerged in a white wine cream sauce at R. Kitchen.×
Limehouse Produce is giving away tomatoes, as well as a pig roast, through its annual Heirloom Tomato Trek.×
R. Kitchen’s shaved steak sandwich is topped with red winey onions, a thick slice of soft brioche and a touch of mustard.×