It’s official: Chef Jesse Houston and his wife, Rachel Horn Houston, will open a restaurant in Fondren in the spring of 2014 (read the update on their August opening here).
The Houstons’ announcement came at a recent meeting of supporters and potential investors where the couple revealed their plans for Saltine Oysters and Brew. The name is a nod to the love of the plain cracker paired with seafood and comeback sauce.
Focused on oysters from the Gulf along with varieties from the east and west coast, Saltine will locate in the west end of Duling School.
Jesse said Saltine will take a simple approach, offering options Jackson is already in love with and will play off of the rising popularity of oyster bars around the country. “Look at Bon AppÃ©tit’s (Magazine) top 50 list this year, and four or five of their picks are oyster bars,” he said. “You can’t open Food and Wine Magazine without hearing about them. Oyster bars are not a new thing, but chefs are embracing and celebrating them once again.”
The Houstons presented a sample menu (see it here), which includes “from the oyster bed” – traditional favorites like oysters on the half shell, fried oysters and oysters broiled in a wood fire oven. Dishes from the sea include broiled tuna collar, fried calamari and mussels. Fried catfish and trout come “from the pond,” while burgers, wings and hangar steak will satisfy the non-seafood lover.
Vegetables will take a center place at the table, too. Shiitake mushrooms; poached cauliflower and “uni-corn,” a maque choux and sea urchin mix, are in the works.
Partnering with soon-to-be Jackson-based Lucky Town Brewing Company, Saltine will feature cutting-edge, proprietary craft beers. Houston said an oyster stout will be brewed with oyster shells and barrel-aged to enhance the flavor profile. An “old-timey” beer engine will be used to hand pump oxygen as beer dispenses and a Randall system, hooked to existing beer lines, will give Saltine the ability to create custom flavor profiles on a daily basis. Wine and rum will be paired with food orders to round out selections from the bar.
Jesse said he had heard stories of Jackson’s past oyster bars and wondered, “With the city’s love of seafood, where they all had gone?” His relationship with his late mentor, Craig Noone, also factored into Saltine’s origins.
“I met Craig working at Stephan Pyles in Dallas, shucking oysters,” he recalls. “When he opened Parlor Market in Jackson, he lured me here to work with him and the restaurant’s oyster bar became my personal project.” (Houston said he hand-picked the oysters at Parlor Market, sending back more than he kept.)
The 3,000 square foot restaurant and bar space will have a crisp and lively feel chosen by Rachel (also an interior designer) and her mother, interior designer Dottie Gozan along with designer Jonathan Shull. The dÃ©cor will feature old school chairs and 1930’s era naval serving plates. Plans (done by Fondren based Seabold Architectural Studio) also include an outdoor patio.
The Houstons have had their sights set on opening a restaurant for some time, but said they had been looking for the perfect location. “Fondren is amazing,” Jesse said. “There’s so much to do with incredible activities, a great scene and the central meeting place for creative people and people looking for a good time.”
In Love With Food, In Love With the Sea
Jesse first became enamored with food watching television cooking shows as a teen. A chef talking about uni, or sea urchin, sparked his curiosity. “As an adult, I went to a sushi restaurant and my experience (with uni) was terrible,” he recalled, telling the story to the crowd gathered to hear about his current pursuits. Years later, in Austin, interning at a sushi bar, Uchi, he tried sea urchin again. “I put this little sushi roll in my mouth and it wasn’t a taste; it was an experience… a memory for me.”
The young chef explained that, as a child, visiting family in California, he would climb in and out of tidal pools and all over rocks, smelling the salty sea air. In the deepest pools, he would collect sea creatures for his own personal aquarium back home. He said, “That bite of sea urchin took me back to that place.”
In Dallas, out of culinary school and working with Noone, Jesse ate kumamoto oysters as part of a special chef’s dinner. “I popped one in my mouth and it was that same experience,” he said. “It took me back to my childhood and I fell in love with oysters.”
Fond memories are important to Jesse: his childhood, his friends – present and past – and Saltine will honor that. On the menu will be Craig’s oyster stew. Jesse recalls his late mentor’s Monday habit: “Craig would get the urge to cook something and he would just take over the kitchen and let his creative juices flow. He made his stew, something he had learned from Chef John Besh, and Craig prided himself on this recipe. Every bowl was piping hot and seasoned to perfection. And he would always taste it and say it needed three things: salt, lemon and Tabasco. In honor of Craig, we’ll serve his stew with those three ingredients on the side. Season it to your liking.”
Saltine is in the process of raising capital. Build out is scheduled to begin in January and the Houstons hope to open in May.