Go Around the World at Poitín in Houston
Cultural influences come together in delicious harmony at this exciting global restaurant.
By PATRICIA SHARPE
Talk about a melting pot. At two-month-old Houston restaurant Poitín, the executive chef, Dominick Lee, is from New Orleans, where he grew up eating muffulettas and accompanying his aunt on weekly trips to her favorite Korean restaurant. At culinary school in Houston, he mastered the French classics and surveyed the cuisines of six continents, after which he became executive sous chef at a prominent Indian restaurant. Then there’s Poitín’s proprietor, Ian Tucker. A native of Tipperary, Ireland, he backpacked through Africa, Australia, and New Zealand before eventually moving to Houston and opening a burger place. And, finally, let us not forget Poitín’s diverse employees, whose families hail from countries including Vietnam, China, Peru, and Mexico. Says Lee, “All those different palates help me build flavors and create dishes.” At Poitín, multiculturalism is not just coincidental; it’s the heart and soul of the operation.
And just what does this twenty-first-century global dining emporium look like? Industrial and smart. Pause at the entrance, and you will search in vain for a handcrafted textile or artifact. What you see instead are exposed air-conditioning ducts, chic black pendant lamps, and spacious taupe booths. And across the tall room, visible through floor-to-ceiling roll-up windows, is the most stunning decorative feature of all: the city skyline. At sunset, downtown buildings shimmer in the summer heat as the sky fades to black and the lights on the patio start to glow. If it hadn’t been for the temperature, our foursome would have been out there in a flash. But the heat was, well, Houstonian, so we stayed inside like the wimps that we were.
Fortified by imaginative drinks from the big bar (my favorite was the Lonesome Dove, with hibiscus, tamarind, and both tequila and mezcal), we opened our menus to ponder the evening’s travel itinerary. By a vote of 4 to 0, we agreed to start in Peru, with thin slices of raw fish (bigeye tuna on our visit) doused in the killer marinade of lime juice, garlic, and chiles known as leche de tigre(tiger’s milk). A puree of roasted corn and bell pepper, which moistened a cache of diced avocado and mango, gave the tart brew a sweet counterpoint.
From there we took a transatlantic leap to the Mediterranean to sample a loaded crostini: chestnut-brown oyster mushrooms, creamy white whipped ricotta, and fat curls of Parmesan on a light, biscuity toast (one of several great, inventive breads from pastry chef Dory Fung). Then we hopped down to North Africa for Lee’s variation on lamb tajine, the tender braised meat exotically bolstered with dates and prunes and punched up with two of the area’s most universal seasonings, the hot chile paste harissa and the fragrant spice blend ras el hanout. Ironically, the one part of the combo that didn’t work was the accompanying cauliflower “couscous,” nice alone but out of sync with the other flavors. What did work, and beautifully, was our next dish, an exceptionally delicate hummus, touched with a sprinkle of sultry za’atar.
A leap back across the Atlantic to Argentina landed us happily on the night’s best entrée: rosy-pink wagyu flank steak seared to a deep mahogany on the outside and matched up with an intense chimichurri of curly-leaf parsley and oregano. Everything about this dish sang, from the roasted carrots lightly glazed with dulce de leche to the sumptuous papas rellenas, roly-poly croquettes of mashed potato pumped up with roasted red bell pepper and deep-fried to a crunchy turn. The evening’s final touchdown was in England for dessert, an updated lemon-curd tart fortified with yuzu and pineapple juice, boxed in with crisp brown-butter cookies, and rakishly capped with well-browned Italian-style meringue.
At brunch two days later, we planned to focus on just a few destinations, but somehow we still racked up the miles. After a slow start with damp, ordinary American mini-muffins, the kitchen made up for lost time with a savory tartine, a wonder of alder-smoked cured salmon on rye brioche schmeared with whipped cream cheese and prettied up with green pea tendrils.
Out of some sense of duty, we tried eggs Benedict, mainly because they were tricked out with the Irish specialty boxty (think hash browns and mashed potatoes pressed into a fat pancake). It was fine, and we appreciated its creole-mustard hollandaise, but I was far more taken with Lee’s shrimp and grits, a usually predictable dish that he has utterly transformed, from the big, fat, heads-on shrimp to the lush brown-butter-and-rosemary sauce to the Texas heirloom grits that he toasts before cooking to give them a nutty flavor. (Stopping by our table, he leaned in and said, “I learned that toasting technique when I cooked Indian food at Kiran’s.”)
If you’re dead set on dessert at brunch, so be it, but in my opinion, the menu’s best finale is not on the dessert menu. Instead, it’s the exercise in dietary depravity labeled French toast. It starts with a custard that is, basically, melted vanilla ice cream infused with aromatic Chinese five-spice powder and shavings of sweet, fragrant tonka beans. Slices of thick brioche are dipped in this divine slush and deep-fried until they glisten. I was so mesmerized that I forgot to drizzle on the accompanying maple syrup mixed with orange-blossom honey until the last few bites. Even unadorned, the dish was fantastic.
Whenever I become slightly obsessed with a new restaurant, everybody immediately asks, “What kind of food do they serve?” Years ago I could give a simple answer: Mexican, American, Greek. Today, more often than not, I throw up my hands and say, “Totally eclectic.” In Texas’s big cities, the restaurant population is shape-shifting before our eyes. An older generation of chefs followed the rules; the newer generation rewrites them. Kitchens are not unchanging monoliths but crossroads of immigrant culture. Restaurants also tend to be opened by the young, who love to shake things up. A few decades ago, there were lofty attempts at “fusion cuisine,” and they were often bizarre (sushi with kalamata olives, anyone?). Today fusion is no joke.
As Lee, who is 29, says, “I love taking a technique from one culture and applying it to another—it makes cooking so much more interesting.” This polyglot movement is the most exciting thing that has happened to cuisine in the past generation, and it should come as no surprise that one of its epicenters is Houston, a city long famous for stirring the pot.