A chef with a flair for the avant-garde serves up three hours of sorcery

KEMAH, Texas - Have you heard about the Texas chef who can pack all the flavor of French onion soup into a bonbon and make a strawberry taste like bacon?

Until Houstonia magazine trumpeted the story of David Skinner and Eculent restaurant earlier this year, neither had I. The headline was pure catnip for anyone who lives to eat: "One of the best restaurants in the world is in Kemah," 45 minutes from downtown Houston. "And nobody has heard of it."

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Clearly, this skeptic needed to taste to verify. First, it took me time to get in. Eculent never seats more than a dozen people, and when two months' worth of reservations for the three-hour, $225 dinner theater are made available, they go in a flash, like at the world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen. Skinner, who doesn't have a publicist and has never advertised, says he fills seats mostly through word of mouth and social media. A thousand people are on the wait list.

A companion and I arrive at Eculent on a Friday in May and are shown to a six-stool bar by Skinner himself, who is head chef, sole investor and owner of the adjoining winery and nearby bed-and-breakfast, too.

Skinner goes behind the counter to combine liquid nitrogen and mango espuma, sending out waves of fog. "Any 'Game of Thrones' fans?" he asks the assembly, which includes three couples celebrating anniversaries. This first taste is called Dragon's Breath, which incites laughter as diners bite into the frigid, fruit-flavored canapes and exhale "smoke" in the process. It's a trick and a title I've seen before - at the avant-garde Minibar by José Andrés in Washington - and frankly, the little moon rock at Eculent leaves an unfortunate impression, burning the tip of my tongue.

But there's no grousing when you're seated next to a woman who admits to being a Skinner stalker online and has nothing but adoration for him. Besides, before he feeds us another crumb, he wants to show off his little garden out front ("We grow 70 percent of what diners eat," the chef says) and the food lab that serves as a combination prop department and pantry.

A 3D printer seizes everyone's attention as it transforms a spool of plastic into facsimiles of coral, which Skinner plans to use in a future seafood dish. "If they're broken or taken, I can make more," he says, then casually drops that he's got a chocolate printer coming. Shelves are meticulously arranged with cookbooks and things in packets and plastic containers that look ordinary until you're told what they are. (One fine black powder combines carbonized beets and turnips: pigment for the potato "stones" for an edible Zen garden.) Turns out Skinner can dispense 11 different scents electronically into the air, too. He invites us to pluck a dehydrated lettuce leaf off a little tree sculpture. Soon, everyone is marveling at the full flavor of a Caesar salad.

Even more intriguing are the bonbons under the tree. We're told to eat them in one bite: French onion soup! "But it doesn't burn your tongue," says Skinner, whose sorcery relies heavily on "viscosity and time," says the science geek. When he later tells me he opened a magic shop as a teen - and that astronauts are among his best customers now - I'm not surprised.

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Skinner, 54, is a son of Oklahoma, where he says half his family was involved in oil and gas, the rest in entrepreneurship. His grandmother, a pastry chef who started teaching him to cook around 4 or 5, ran a kitchen shop. At 9, he was selling geodes he found on the grounds of his family's estate, along with items from an abandoned carriage house, from a wagon he pulled door to door. By 13, the devotee of Julia Child took over Sunday dinner duty at home; three years later, he opened a restaurant at his grandmother's store, serving bistro fare on white linens.

While he studied economics and finance at Oklahoma State University, he also opened a restaurant staffed with the help of fraternity brothers. Jobs at Conoco and his own oil-field service company followed and allowed him to eat in restaurants around the world.

"I love to educate people," says Skinner, who is also a business lecturer at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University in Houston and has three books to his credit, including the respected "Introduction to Decision Analysis."

The idea for Eculent, its name derived from the Latin word esculentus (something fit to be eaten), came to Skinner when he was suffering from food poisoning on a trip home from China. "What restaurant has never been done before?" he asked himself.

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We're back at the counter, where Skinner hands out a cloud of cotton candy in a glass jar with a couple white pellets under the puff ("Don't eat them," says Skinner, whose sole cooking accomplice is chef de cuisine Stacey Mullen.) The cotton candy is hot with cayenne and smells like a campfire. Skinner goes down the line of diners, pouring warm water into the now-empty jars; a coil of cloth swells into a moist towelette. Next comes a slender barge ferrying nibbles, the first of which captures the essence of cantaloupe and melon. Duck liver pâté shimmering with smoked trout roe is something you might see in a Michelin-starred restaurant. What appears to be a cherry tomato eats like a bloody mary - celery and booze included.

Skinner delights in these edible mind games, the most nostalgic of which springs from something his grandmother made for him all her life. "Close your eyes," he tells us as we pop a little orb into our mouths.

"Oh, for the love of Christmas!" my neighbor cries as she experiences the sensation of a big bite of a BLT. "A sammy!"

Thanks to his business-world success, Skinner is the rare chef who doesn't have to make money from his restaurant, a showcase for one of the most labor-intensive meals you're likely to find anywhere. Three weeks went into nailing the mouthfeel of the five-ingredient BLT, he says.

Skinner is also interested in how details including light and sound can transform a meal. Enter the Tree of Life, whose limbs hold crostini presented with several spreads. The lights turn green for this and the next dish, Out of the Forest, a cloche of seven different mushrooms, freeze-dried greens, tender snails and black truffles into which smoke has been pumped. Yes, that is the sound of crickets serenading us.

"Bill Nye the Science Guy does dinner!" the chef's No. 1 fan says. I share her enthusiasm for the woodsy heap and marvel at the scent - "forest floor" - embedded in our forks, so that every time we take a bite of smoky salad, we imagine ourselves somewhere cool and mossy.

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Skinner has a soft spot for vegetables. I want the recipe for his summer-sweet, shrimp-garnished corn soup - staged in the bowl of a spoon attached to a shiny box with hidden magnets, fixing the long-handled utensil in place. Ditto his mimolette cheese-topped soup that layers fried, roasted and freeze-dried cauliflower in a demitasse.

We look up to see the chef pumping an atomizer toward some air ducts. "Flower shop!" someone guesses of the fragrance. (Actually, "distilled grass.") Skinner is priming us for a rosewater-scented, Munchkin-worthy bouquet that gets dressed when we press up from the bottom, nudging unseen ground pistachios, olive oil and sea salt through the three-bite garden.

The lights go blue, and I glance at my host. "Is seafood next?" I wonder aloud. Skinner smiles as he passes out shells containing citrusy scallop and prickly-pear granita, a brilliant combination. The dish is followed by a plate of black olives, er, pickled grapes made to look just like them.

As emcee, Skinner is part easygoing entertainer, part Cheshire cat - and all ears, eager to know "What's your favorite dish?" early on and throughout the evening.

One of the biggest surprises is an entree of steak and potatoes, inserted to give diners' senses a break. The dish is beautifully plated, and it's pleasing, but it's basically beef and spuds (albeit bathed in red light) and not a compelling reason to journey to Kemah.

Dessert is. The finale is an igloo-shaped, cocoa-covered "Texas truffle," which collapses dramatically when cream is poured over it. (The dome is made from spun sugar.) We stir the delicious debris, including caramel spheres, to create a dreamy, creamy hot chocolate.

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Is this one of the world's best restaurants? The truth is, not every course feels fully developed. The bland crostini on the Tree of Life taste like they were procured from a gas station. The only wines available are the ones Skinner produces, and they're not up to the quality of the food. At one point, we apply "tongue tattoos": rice paper stamps depicting onion, broccoli and other vegetables. Spritzed with an extract from an Amazonian plant that briefly electrifies the palate, the decals are supposed to be palate cleansers. I find them silly.

Tonight passes like a dinner party in the home of an accomplished chef: It's tastier overall than the experimental Alinea in Chicago, but less polished than Minibar - and certainly no Noma. Only Eculent has a Chinese puzzle box hiding utensils, though, and a faux bookcase from which dessert and coffee are hydraulically delivered.

When I call Skinner later, he sounds disappointed when I reveal the date of my visit. "Not our best night," he says. He had overbooked the restaurant, a slip he says prevented him from being a better host.

Still, I'm happy to have met a real-life Willy Wonka, whose next gig is cooking a 101-course charity meal, featuring the flavors of 10 countries, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Aug. 17.

I'm considering booking Eculent again, maybe this fall. Skinner says he has developed a clear drink that captures the bounty of a Thanksgiving spread, course by course, sip by sip. I imagine it comes with a garnish of gobble.


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Video: Eculent, near Houston, Texas, serves 6 diners 40 courses 3 nights per week for a culinary exploration "like nowhere else on earth"(The Washington Post)

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