With the whirlwind departure of Chef John Tesar from his self-named restaurant in the Woodlands, we were concerned that the kitchen might be losing its mojo. After all, John Tesar, the bad boy chef depicted in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, had to be the heart and soul of the place. His sudden departure left us wondering what would become of Tesar's, and of a spectacular hamburger, the Magic.
We decided to find out. We visited for lunch with a foodie friend, and looked for changes.
And we found them.
The first thing we noticed were subtle changes in the bar / informal dining room. New linens provided a crisp yet relaxed feel. Gone were the signs with John Tesar's cartoon likeness, something we always thought was slightly cheesy.
The service was as prompt and professional as always. We've dined here a half-dozen times, and our server remembered us and our preferences. The entire vibe of the restaurant was significantly more relaxed and upbeat than before.
Our server suggested that we try a new appetizer, and we took her advice. What appeared was a lovely tuna tartare, expertly presented over a bed of crushed ice.
The dish combined coarsely chopped tuna, a bit of wasabi-tapiko roe and roasted cashews. It was served over a mango puree dusted with sesame seeds. The result was outstanding; the tropical sweetness of the mango balanced the Asian tang of the wasabi, and the cashews provided a crunchy, smoky counterpoint to the aquatic flavor of the tender, fresh tuna. The roe snapped delightfully on the tongue, adding a small surprise that made us smile.
Next was the main course - the Magic burger, a cheeseburger we consider to be among Houston's very best. Would the departure of John Tesar ruin this work of beefy art?
We were greeted by this beautifully arranged creation, flanked by the assortment of pickles and the addictive cherry tomatoes marinated with aged balsamic vinegar. These accouterments had lost none of their zing. But it was time to sample the burger.
We've tried the Magic on several occasion, but it appears that the new talent in the kitchen has taken this already superlative burger to new heights. There's something slightly different about the beef; the flavor was even more sublime, and the ooze factor was slighly higher, and perfectly balanced with the melty cheese.
Our curiosity was now piqued; who is the talent behind this even-better burger and the wonderful new appetizer?
The answer comes in two parts. With the departure of Chef Tesar, two of his sous chefs have been promoted to Co-Executive Chefs. "Co-Executive Chefs"? At first this seemed odd to us, but after talking with the chefs, it makes perfect sense.
Helming the kitchen are the new Dynamic Duo - Chef Austin Simmons (left) and Chef Jeramie Robison
Jeremy Robinson. They've been working at Tesar's since it opened. Both have a strong background working with some of the best in the business, having spent time in the kitchens of John Tesar and Wolfgang Puck. Each has a slightly different specialty; Chef Simmons focuses on the meat dishes, and Chef Robison's passion is with the fish.
This arrangement is eminently suited to Tesar's. On one hand, it's a modern steak house, with a wonderful selection of steaks and superlative hamburgers. On the other, it's a contemporary seafood restaurant, featuring fish from the Gulf Coast and those flown in from around the world. While it is certainly possible to be a creative genius who can execute both meat and fish dishes, the Simmons/Robison approach has great merit. These two talented chefs can bounce ideas off of each other, and while each can focus on his particular area of focus, both can contribute ideas to the other side of the menu.
Talking with these two chefs was a delight. Unlike some executive chefs who believe that they're God's gift to cooking (we won't mention any names) these young men are focused on delighting their patrons, and enjoy the fact that they can practice an art that "they are pretty good at".
If our meal was any indication, "pretty good" doesn't come close to describing their talent.
We walked in concerned that Tesar's would go down hill with the departure of John Tesar. Now we're confident that Austin Simmons and Jeromy Robison will take this restaurant to even greater heights. There are now two more young chefs to watch in the Houston area.
Keep an eye on these two.