rainbow lodge

Houston: Rainbow Lodge

What happens when an avant-garde chef throws in with an old-guard restaurant? Love, May–December style. The junior partner is chef Randy Rucker, 29, once a dabbler in molecular gastronomy at his now-defunct Laidback Manor. The senior partner is the Rainbow Lodge, a 32-year-old dining establishment that seems all but reborn. If the Texas heat allows, sit on the deck under towering trees. Or stay cool inside the sprawling historic log cabin. You might start with Rucker’s refreshing carpaccio of local spring lamb rolled around watercress beside a puddle of crème fraîche. For an entrée, consider the bay leaf–tinged venison loin crusted with resinous ground cubeb peppercorns and accessorized by a bracing “marmalade” of yellow and brown mustard seeds zapped with honey. Sensible folks finish with the Texas cheese plate (including gems like Veldhuizen’s Bosque Blue), while thrill-seekers bliss out on the croissant bread pudding, slapped silly with bourbon caramel.

Rainbow Lodge 2011 Ella Blvd., Houston (713-861-8666; rainbow-lodge.com)

New York City: Aldea

We were sitting at the counter that looks directly into the open kitchen, so when chef George Mendes began assembling the sardine appetizer I had a clear view of it. “Oh, no,” I thought. “Fussy food.” But when I took my first bite, I instantly changed my opinion: Plump, meaty sardines sandwiched between super-crisp crackers of toasted brioche were perfect for dredging through a coarse paste of bitter almond milk laid out in squiggles on the plate. A dash of lemon kept the richness in check, and a couple of soft, subtle green almonds—as sure a sign of spring in the Mediterranean as ramps are in the U.S.—delivered on the restaurant’s promise of “Iberian influences.” It was a great plate of food. And that was just the beginning. A generous slab of sea urchin roe (the must-have ingredient in new restaurants, it seems) was perched on toast spread with a scrim of lush cauliflower cream, with mustard greens and seaweed for a bit of backbone. Spring vegetable consommé was a true celebration of the season, adding the earthiness of mushroom “ravioli” to the lightness of the perfectly cooked vegetables. Arroz de pato (“rice with duck”), a takeoff on a popular Peruvian Creole dish, was the fried rice of my dreams, rich with duck confit, chorizo, salty olives, and crunchy duck cracklings. It’s true, as reported, that Mendes—who was chef de cuisine at Wallsé and Tocqueville, as well as working with Bouley, Passard, and Ducasse—is very handsome. And it’s also true that the 400 acrylic tubes hanging in the narrow two-story space are cool. But it’s the food you should go for.

Aldea 31 W. 17th St., New York City (212-675-7223)

San Francisco: RN74

With a name like RN74 (the highway through the Burgundy region in France), you’d expect to find French fare. But at this latest outpost from the Michael Mina restaurant group, helmed by chef Jason Berthold, who came on board from the French Laundry, there’s nothing particularly French-focused about the cuisine. A fussy preparation of foie gras topped with a layer of strawberry gelée might be taken directly from the French nouvelle playbook, but whole grilled fava bean pods evoke Italy, as do spring garlic agnolotti. Dishes like hamachi sashimi, confoundingly served with hearts of palm (why?) and itty-bitty cubes of green apple, as well as a delicious Maitake mushroom tempura plated on a square of Japanese-language newspaper, further the menu’s eclectic feel. The interior, though, is fixed on its theme: vintage French rail station-cum-chic SOMA bar and lounge, complete with a destination-board “ticker” (no train times here, just a periodic cascade of clicks as certain bottles of wine rotate off the list). In the restrooms, the whispered sounds of French films emanate from strategically placed speakers. The wine list is superlative, and while many bottles exceed ponderable prices, there are a number of deals to be had. Sit at the bar, drink liberally, and eat any of the very tasty, more casual items; a glass of Domaine Matrot Meursault and the perfect, herby green salad served with a thick slice of grilled Della Fattoria bread are enough to keep me coming back.

RN74 Millennium Tower, 301 Mission St., San Francisco (415-543-7474; michaelmina.net/rn74)

Barcelona: Fishhh!

Always have a bite of buttered bread before you eat a raw oyster, says Luís De Buen; that way you’ll never get an upset stomach. And in place of sauce mignonette or lemon, try dusting your oysters with finely ground black pepper. De Buen knows oysters: He’s the scion of the family that owns one of Barcelona’s most respected fish and shellfish wholesalers, and is himself the proprietor of a casual, lively little oyster bar and seafood restaurant. Straddling a broad aisle in the city’s massive L’Illa Diagonal shopping complex, Fishhh! (the spelling is meant to suggest speed) sells some of the finest oysters in Barcelona—about a dozen kinds, from Spain, France, and even Ireland—and offers a great afternoon snack: two perfect ones with a glass of Cava for about $8.50. But the menu goes far beyond that, with such treats as mussels and fries with mayonnaise foam; tiny cubes of raw tuna “Sicilian-style” with lemon, olive oil, and herbs; simply grilled fish (sole, sea bream, or whatever else is freshest); grilled butterflied sardines with thyme, garlic, and tomato; and a house invention called carbonara del mar: oversized penne-like pasta tossed with bits of seared tuna and lots of cheese and pepper.

Fishhh! Lower level, L’Illa Diagonal, Avinguda Diagonal 557, Barcelona (93-444-1139)
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