You know there really is some new Gulf Coast cuisine taking shape when you see chefs-about-town coddling sacs of Gulf fish roe as if they were precious infants.
Which they are, sort of: in the past year, I've witnessed Justin Yu of Oxheart and Bryan Caswell of Reef cradling smooth oblongs nested in vats of salt, where they would dry and harden and intensify until they reached grating consistency. At that point, voila: Gulf Coast bottarga.
Around the Mediterranean, bottarga, salt-cured and pressed from local mullet or tuna egg sacs, has functioned as a sort of poor man's caviar for thousands of years. It's still a big delicacy in Italy, for one, where it's grated on pastas or slivered wispy-thin to serve as part of an antipasti course.
Loosely packed caviar-style fish eggs, which are only lightly salt-cured, have a certain delicacy of flavor, but bottarga has a gutsy oceanic appeal that is all its own. I was reminded of that when I got a sample of what's curing at Reef lately, in the form of bottarga made from Gulf mahi eggs, grated onto toast and topped with citrus and fennel.
I loved its deep twang of marine funk enough that by my second slab of toast, I was scraping off the perfectly nice citrus and fennel, the better to appreciate the bottarga itself. Bottarga isn't for everyone — if you prefer your fish mild, best stay away — but the tart-sweet citrus segments and crisp, herbal fennel cushion the shock of the new, making Reef's off-the-menu presentation a good entry-level bottarga treatment.
Caswell's eyes light up as he shows off the eggs sacs of various Gulf species that he and sous chef Felipe Riccio are curing in their own designated box. (It's labeled "Bottarga Don't Touch" on a strip of masking tape.) There's the sprawling mahi sac (Caswell whips out a "before" photo of the sac on his smart phone), a smaller red snapper sac and, smallest of all — no bigger than a couple of medium-size fingers — the egg sacs of flounder.
The project is still in the experimental stage, and the supply is limited, so you'll have to ask your waiter if you can get a sample. But the debut of Gulf Coast bottarga is yet another exciting development in a year when Houston's food scene seems to be exploding with regionally-focused creativity.
(Reef, 2600 Travis @ McGowen, 713-526-8282. Monday — Thursday, 11 a.m. — 10 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m. — 11 p.m.; Saturday 5 p.m. —11 p.m.)