Stalking in Houston
He looked around, bewildered. The artful place settings, the intimate adjoining tables, and the clever use of scientific beakers for water jugs looked both HGTV perfect and composed with ease. He picked at a bit of deer Bolognese, a textured nibble floating the gloriously hued heirloom gazpacho; it reflected the color of my summer rose. He chewed. He sipped appreciatively. Dazzled, he queried, "How did you get here?" "Here" meaning Sparrow Bar + Cookshop in Houston. "Here" meaning Bruliam Wines paired alongside a James Beard nominated Chef, a Top Chef Masters Chef, and a pro at the top of her game. "Here" meaning the utter impossibility of my presence, an honor more befitting a 100-point Wine Spectator darling. I was a flea freeloading on a Kennel Club champion. "Oh, I stalked Chef," I tossed out nonchalantly.
"Really, she did." I hadn’t seen Chef come up behind me. She tossed an arm over my shoulder and smiled. At least she wasn't mad anymore. Or freaked out.
Like a recovering alcoholic, I'd cycled through waves of emotion - naive exuberance, hopeful daydreaming, angst, shame, and finally grateful acceptance. The road from New York Times centerfold to summer in Houston had been unexpected and ultimately delightful.
Chef Monica Pope is a sprite, a small-framed woman with a hip, pixie haircut and soft, Southern drawl. Imagine Gordon Ramsey screaming "You stupid donkey!" in Hell's Kitchen. Chef Monica is not that kind of celebrity chef. And I'm lucky for it, or I'd never have pulled off this coup of a wine dinner. But you all want to hear the about the centerfold bit, don't you? It's not as sexy as you think. It’s the New York Times.
Many, many months ago, Brian shared with me a NYT photo-op titled "Houston is Tasty." It featured all kinds of Houston chefs, from Tex-Mex to barbeque to pastry. But Chef Monica caught my eye, and I started Googling. I checked out her menu (inventive and delicious) and her bio (amazing). Her food ethos exactly reflected the sort of joint where I’d envisioned my wines. Well, at least in my unbiased opinion. Next step: make contact. The contact us button on her public website links to "firstname.lastname@example.org." By default, I guessed her personal e-mail must be "Chef@sparrowhouston.com" or "Chefmonica@sparrowhouston.com" or "Chefpope@sparrowhouston.com." So I e-mailed every possible permutation. Sometimes being borderline OCD is an asset. When she responded, out of pity, or kindness, or both, I pleaded my case. I begged her to meet me at my distributor’s portfolio tasting. And when she agreed, I baked her cookies to bribe and woo her affections. In between, I'd sent 100's of e-mails and personal notes. After swearing not to contact her family or come within 100 feet her of her personal residence, we were square. Now that we're BFF's, she can look back and feel flattered, not frightened.
I will spare you the bulk of the food porn. But truly, the menu was wild, unexpected, and absolutely scrumptious. She paired the Sangiacomo vineyard pinot with the most beautiful composed salad of avocado and sweet, yellow watermelon to lift the wine's red fruit character and acidity. Wow! Surprise!
Next came the Torrey Hill alongside lamb lollipops with a berry reduction and a surreptitious hit of heat. Wow!
She completed the meal by pairing the Gaps Crown with gulf shrimp floating in coconut, Asian 5 spice curry. To my palate, the 2012 Gaps has more grip than the 2011, and her creamy broth rounded out any edges. Wow! Every pairing showcased unexpected nuances and flavors, making my wines sing. My heart was swelling, and I beamed with pride. Even better, we raised money to support Recipe 4 Success Foundation, a local, Houston charity.
If you are having food envy, don’t despair just yet. I am honored to host another wine dinner in Houston this fall. Please consider joining me at Brennan’s in November. It will be a joyful and delicious way to celebrate the end of another successful harvest.