Food & Drink

How a Food Friendship Makes One Restaurant the Place You Want to Be in Houston

Plus Bludorn’s spicy, decadent take on crab rice

Photo: Courtesy of Michael Anthony

Bludorn partners Cherif Mbodji and Aaron Bludorn.

Aaron Bludorn likens dinner service to a performance. The chef-owner of the Houston hotspot Bludorn says there are similarities: “You’re building something, creating something, and then all of sudden, boom, it’s there. And you’ve created something that someone else is going to enjoy. Your whole day leads up to it.”

The Pacific Northwest native (he grew up on Bainbridge Island off the coast of Seattle) admits Anthony Bourdain’s breakthrough bestseller Kitchen Confidential, published in 2000, was an early influence. “I took the bait and went to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America],” he says.

After paying his dues as a dishwasher, much as Bourdain did, at a small restaurant on Bainbridge Island, Bludorn soon assumed the cook’s position and a few years later found himself with the heady responsibility of running a restaurant in Northern California when he was just nineteen.

Bludorn continued living and thriving in the fast-paced restaurant life in Seattle and Sonoma before heeding the advice of Douglas Keene, under whom he worked at Cyrus Restaurant, and took his talent to New York City. It was at Café Boulud where Bludorn, as executive chef, connected with Cherif Mbodji, who is originally from Senegal and who’d just been named Café Boulud’s general manager. It was the beginning of a fruitful relationship that eventually led to Mbodji’s relocating to Houston to partner with Bludorn. The restaurant Bludorn opened in 2020.

photo: Julie Soefer
Bludorn’s dining room.
photo: Julie Soefer
The bar at Bludorn.

Working with Mbodji in this capacity was a no-brainer as far as Bludorn was concerned, but he maintains, “It was the most terrifying thing to ask him to move his family down here and open a restaurant.”

Anyone who’s ever dined at Bludorn, quite possibly the buzziest spot in Houston’s Fourth Ward, is no doubt glad he did. The French-influenced, largely seasonal dishes coming out of the open kitchen—an heirloom tomato salad with pimenton aioli and sunflower seed pesto; duck with apricot, saffron, and Carolina gold rice—are, of course, the main draw, but it is the friendly efficiency of the knowledgeable staff led by Mbodji, whose capacity to make everyone he meets feel immediately at ease, and the harmonious performance of the two business partners that make a meal at Bludorn indelible.

Although Bludorn is the man behind the menu, he’s quick to give credit where it’s due and—in the case of the crab rice, which will soon enjoy a standing role on the regular dinner menu—notes Mbodji’s contribution. The dish is special, Bludorn explains, because of the way it incorporates the cuisines of Vietnam, the Gulf Coast, France, and Senegal.  “The rice is cooked using lobster stock as well as seasonings found in the tomato Jollof rice, which I learned from Cherif and his family,” Bludorn says. “We have this strong bond.” He pauses, “I guess a lot of it started around food, and that’s how we understand each other and how we work together today.” He shares the recipe, a true collaboration between friends, below.

photo: Michael Anthony
Bludorn’s crab rice.


  • Crab Rice


    • 4 onions, diced large

    • 2 red bell peppers, diced large

    • 12 cloves garlic, chopped

    • 4 plum tomatoes, diced large

    • 1 pint tomato paste

    • 3 quarts chicken stock

    • 2 habanero peppers

    • 2 tbsp. Maggi seasoning

    • 2 tbsp. fish sauce


    • 1 ½ cups broken rice (such as this one) weighed then washed

    • 3 cups jollof stock base, blended

    • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter

    • 1 cup onion, diced small

    • 1 sprig thyme

    • 1 bay leaf

    • 2 ¼ tsp. kosher salt

    • Cayenne pepper, heavy pinch


    • 2 shallots

    • 1 clove garlic

    • 2 ribs celery

    • 1 red bell pepper

    • 2 tbsp. Korean chili flakes

    • 2 tbsp. melted butter (unsalted)

    • 1 lemon peel

    • 2 lime leaves

    • 5 scallion bottoms

    • 3 tbsp. white granulated sugar

    • 1 tsp. kosher salt


    • 1x recipe trinity puree

    • ¼ lb. cold (unsalted) butter, diced

    • ½ lb. crab, cleaned


  1. Make the stock: Sweat onions, bell peppers, garlic, and habanero until tender. Add chopped tomatoes and cook until dry. Add tomato paste and cook until paste forms. Deglaze with lobster stock, add fish sauce, and simmer for 45 minutes. Blend all together and reserve to make Jollof Rice.

  2. Make the rice: Wash rice, making sure the water goes from cloudy to clear-ish (wash 3-4 times, gently moving the rice through the water). Drain the rice and reserve.

  3. In a rondeau, melt butter and sweat onions gently, making sure not to develop color. Meanwhile, bring stock to a boil with aromatics and salt. Add rice to toast. Add jollof base and stir until all rice is coated. Allow the rice to heat, making sure not to scorch the bottom. Add hot stock to rondeau, bring to a boil, and mix everything until combined. Cover with foil tightly and place in a convection oven, high fan, for 15-17 minutes. Check rice for tenderness and remove any excess liquid that may have floated to the top. A little is OK. Fluff rice and place onto parchment lined trays to ensure quick cooling. Rice should rest evenly to avoid clumping. Cool and store.

  4. Make the trinity puree: Roughly chop vegetables. Combine everything in a large bowl and mix well. Blend in a Vitamix till smooth. Reserve to make crab etouffee.

  5. Make crab etouffee: Add Trinity puree into rondeau and bring to a simmer. Mound in 6 pounds of cold butter. Mix in clean crab, fold gently to avoid breaking up the crab, and serve over rice.