Chef Chat, Part 3: Johan Schuster of Charivari, A Mix of Classic, Nouvelle French, and European Cuisine

Categories: Chef Chat

schusterhalibut.jpg
Photos by Mai Pham
Fresh Alaskan Halibut with grilled chanterelles, black rice, edible flowers, beurre blanc foam.

Johan Schuster
Charivari Restaurant
2521 Bagby
713-521-7231
www.charivarirest.com

This is Part 3 in a three part Chef Chat series. You can read Parts 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, Chef Johan Schuster sat down with us for a long chat. We learned a bit about his homeland of Transylvania, how its woodsy, fertile soil served as a playground for mushroom foraging trips with this grandfather. He talked about Count Dracula, aka Count Vlad Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler, the Count who would impale his prisoners on a stake, drawing blood. We found out about Schuster's mentor, a chef of the old school, who also served as the chef for the last Romanian King. And then he told us what his food is all about at Charivari: seasonal cooking, classic techniques, and fresh ingredients.

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House made pork rillette on baguette with balsamic-fig reduction
In Transylvania, nose-to-tail cooking is the norm, so we started with a couple of things that exemplify that style. A house-made pork rillette, smeared generously over a just-crisped slice of thinly cut baguette and accented with droplets of a balsalmic-fig reduction, epitomized classic French cooking. The rillette was mild in flavor, but excellent, letting the balsamic-fig sauce, which was sweet and fragrant, do the heavy lifting in terms of flavoring the dish. Give me a small plateful of that rillette with a bottle of red wine, and I could gladly sit for hours.

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Head cheese is cut from a large slab, prepared like a terrine
Next, we had something you don't often see in Houston, a classic head cheese, cut thick like a terrine. Again, the aspect of the "classic" really hit home with this dish, which seemed so simple it belied the technique required to make it. The clear brown aspic was firm and jello-like, skillfully flavored and perfectly seasoned. It was like something you'd find in some faraway mom and pop restaurant in the French countryside and very delicious.

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Simple and beautiful, the head cheese is classic, old school French.
The rest of the tasting focused less on classics and more on seasonality. A mushroom soup cappuccino, whipped to an airy consistency so that the creamy soup was more foamy than creamy, was notable for its presentation as well as the deep flavors of mushrooms with a hint of marsala. He used fresh chanterelles and dry porcini in this soup, and though it was a little heavy on the salt for me, I enjoyed the strong wild mushroom flavor and light-as-air textures.

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It hurt me to see him chop up the beautiful slab of fresh tuna, but it was quite a show.
For his tuna tartare, he took a huge slab of beautiful, deep red, sashimi-grade, Bigeye tuna, and then whipped out his Shun knives to give me a quick knife-skills show as he chopped up up the tuna into tiny bits and pieces before setting it into a round mold. Served with sesame oil, sauteed sea-asparagus, and salmon roe, and finished off with chili-infused olive oil, the final product was reminiscent of a spicy tuna roll in terms of flavor, very fresh, and delicious.

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Tuna tartare so deep red in color it could have been mistaken for beef.
For our final dish, Schuster wrapped a filet of just-flown-in Alaskan Halibut with cedar sheets from Oregon, then threw it on the grill. Served with grilled fresh chanterelles, venere black rice, a beautifully light whipped beurre blanc foam, and adorned with edible flowers, the plump white fish took center spotlight, and oh did it shine. The cedar sheet had infused the fish with this mildly woody aroma, and the beurre blanc foam was rich yet exceedingly light at the same time.

"European Continental and New Contemporary Cuisine" is how Schuster described his food. I didn't quite get it when he described it, but after the tasting it all became clear. It's a mixture of old an new, of classic French with Nouvelle French, of his Transylvanian roots and love of fresh, seasonal products mixed with this tradition of using an animal from head to tail. And in looking at it that way, Charivari, the French word, the name, the concept, makes a whole lot of sense. It's just Schuster's mix of everything he's accumulated in his 34 years as a chef and cook, and it's pretty darn good, indeed.


Location Info

Charivari Restaurant

2521 Bagby St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


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5 comments
MedinaShore
MedinaShore

Johann is a masterful and funny chef and his wife Maria knows how to put people at ease, despite her German accent. As you can tell, I'm a big fan and wish them continued success. It's an oasis of civilsed tranquility in an area where fraternities seem to have extended into adulthood.

quina05
quina05

We eat out often and enjoy trying new and popular restaurants in Houston and ChariVari is still the best restaurant here and one of the best we've ever experienced in our travels.  Chef Johan always impresses with his creative dishes, fresh ingredients, and amazing flavors.  One of my favorite dishes is his beef carpaccio.  My other half finds his dry-aged beef to be the best he's ever had.  His staff is excellent and knowledgeable and the wine list is friendly to boot!  It is always a treat to visit Chari Vari!     

rwellis24
rwellis24

If you haven't eaten at this fine establishment, you have missed one of the best dining experiences in Houston.  Whether it is a lunch special, the regular or seasonal menu, or a wine dinner, it is always a treat to dine with Chef Johan, the ever gracious Maria, and their staff.

Ifonseca
Ifonseca

Thanks for bringing this guy and his restaurant to my attention. I already like him: he walks softly and carries a big knife.

paval
paval topcommenter

From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of CONTINENTAL1 a : of, relating to, or characteristic of a continent <continental waters>; specifically often capitalized : of or relating to the continent of Europe excluding the British Isles b often capitalized : of, relating to, or being a cuisine derived from the classic dishes of Europe and especially France

When looking at it in a euro-centric way, as most of the cuisine has been till now, European Continental is actually a tautology. However in a city like Houston, that draws cuisines from all over the world, it is not more than specifying which cuisine is meant. There could be American Continental, African continental and Asian Continental cuisine. I am certain that there are at least a few restaurants in this city that would qualify for categories one and three of previous sentence.

 

A niece piece overall of chef Schuster with a lot of information about him, I did not know and of course nice explanations of what he and his cooking is all about. I guess it will help some people understand what an excellent chef we have here in Houston right among us.

 

I discovered that he has quite a bargain of a lunch in the week, with a 10 USD or 15 USD lunch special, maybe a good price to test it more often.

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