Pax Americana

Foodie buzz preceded this opening on Montrose in a former Thai restaurant which also housed an early Monica Pope place.  A number of well known folks in the Houston restaurant scene are behind this restaurant — the Zimmermans (La Colombe d’Or), Shepherd Ross (Glass Wall, BAC), and Ryan Pera (Revival Market).

An inviting bar, outdoor patio seating and glassed in kitchen in the dining area make for a welcome addition to the trend in creative contemporary cooking.  The serving sizes are small and designed for sharing.  The limited menu changes regularly.   Creative cocktails and an interesting beer and wine list.

On a recent visit, we enjoyed the goat cheese ricotta, mild and creamy, served with toasted Common Bond bread.  On our next visit, the ricotta had disappeared, but the roasted bone marrow remained (also served with Common Bond bread), and it was excellent on both occasions.   Gone from the menu, but not forgotten, was an intensely flavored mushroom risotto, which, given the intensity of the flavors, was probably the best dish we’ve tried.   We also enjoyed the sliced sirloin which, although, appropriately cooked, perhaps needed some additional seasoning or a more interesting sauce to support that lean but not super flavorful cut of meat.  Faring better was the octopus that appeared on our second visit. Cooked sous vide and then wood grilled, it was quite tasty (although not as good as the gold standard at Caracol).  Friends enjoyed the grouper and brisket.  And we tried the dark chocolate filled donut holes,  with an interesting addition of pigs blood in the chocolate, adding a noticeably tang that seemed more of a novelty than a beneficial addition.  Credit to the server for pointing out this ingredient as a heads up to any vegetarians who don’t speak Italian (and, thus, weren’t clued in by the description “sanguinaccio fritters”). 

Reservations are recommended; parking is a little tricky in the area, but there’s a complimentary valet behind the restaurant off the side street to the immediate south.

4319 Montrose Blvd
(713) 239-0228

www.paxamericanahtx.com

London/Dublin

London Update (2014) — 

Harwood Arms — probably our favorite restaurant of the trip; owned by the same folks as The Ledbury; upscale gastropub in comfortable, casual setting; amazing beef and fish, scotch egg; reservations are a must, well in advance.

Berners Tavern — trendy upscale steakhouse vibe to this very popular, close to the theater district area restaurant; velvet rope entrance with doorman; delicious beef tenderloin for two, sided by short rib mac ‘n cheese

Green Man & French Horn — another favorite that we had read about in the NYT before our trip; located in the theater district, we dined after a performance; contemporary take on traditional French dishes; think rillettes, veal tongue, rabbit terrine, duck egg & anchovy on toast; small plates, great for sharing.

Gordon Ramsey — our splurge dinner was worth the money; great, unpretentious service; multi-course prix fix menu; nothing disappointed; pleased to see a female head chef; a little hard to access from public transportation but the walk was a welcome addition.

Roux at Parliament Square —  Michel Roux’s second location; lovely, formal setting; we enjoyed the multi-course, prix fix lunch

Rules — theater area restaurant, claims to be the oldest restaurant in London; somewhat dated around the edges; traditional British fare; lovely setting, average food

Here are some of the highlights from our 2012 trip to London

Kitchen W8 — this small, unpretentious one Michelin-starred restaurant in the High Street Kensington area turned out to be one of our favorites; the chef is a master with fish and the understanding of combination of ingredients–smoked anchovy starter followed by pan seared sea trout and roasted cod, beautifully cooked, sauced and presented;  not as pricey as the other high-end restaurants where we dined

Claridge’s — a lovely old-line hotel (restaurant run by Gordon Ramsey) where we enjoyed Sunday lunch; immaculate but friendly service; couldn’t resist the traditional Sunday Roast entree; experience only marred by $24 charge for a gin & tonic (half the cost of the multi-course fixed price lunch); jeans are allowed but seemed out of place  [2014 Update:  new chef, getting great reviews, we haven’t tried it]

The Ledbury — one of the most highly rated restaurants in London (two Michelin stars); high-end French, 3-course tasting menu; polished but not pretentious service; unfortunately, we just weren’t wowed by the food we tried one evening; nothing disappointed (although dover sole entree was slightly overcooked), but we didn’t leave raving about the experience

Petrus — another very popular French restaurant (also run by Gordon Ramsey) where we participated in a lunchtime master chef cooking class and dined at the chef’s table in the kitchen; food was delicious (although limited by the basic items (seared scallops, roast chicken) that we actually cooked ourselves, with the chefs’ guidance, in the kitchen)

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal — also very highly rated celebrity chef’s new eponymous restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (one Michelin star, compared to three at Blumenthal’s Fat Duck); dishes are based on traditional British recipes dating back to the 16th century, making the menu a fun read; food was delicious and unique (chicken liver pate shaped like a mandarin orange (one of the signature dishes), chicken oyster “salamagundy”, pork chop and roast turbot); only real miss was the “quaking pudding” dessert that was graciously deleted from the bill; also enjoyed unique cocktails in the adjoining hotel bar which is quite the social and business scene

The Goring — located right next to Buckingham Palace, we had a lovely champagne High Tea in the lobby bar at this traditional hotel where the service was immaculate and the food delicious and abundant (a savory amuse bouche (crab and crawfish gelee said to be the Queen Mother’s favorite), together with all you can eat finger sandwiches, scones and clotted cream, and pastries, finishing with a mini trifle)

The Delaunay — very popular new theater area restaurant owned by the same folks who have the long-time Ivy; dined after seeing War Horse (highly recommended); menu has an emphasis on British and German standards, so we enjoyed smoked sausage soup, liverwurst, grilled sausages with sauerkraut and potato salad, and Buck Rarebit (welsh rarebit topped with a fried egg)

Tate Modern Restaurant — nice view of London from the 7th floor of the museum; food was well below average and overpriced; just get a sandwich at the cafe next door and don’t bother with the sit-down service

Borough Market  — touted as London’s lunchtime foodie market, located near the Tate Modern and London Bridge; good choices for take-home, but we weren’t particularly impressed with the options for on-site food, and there’s little seating

Ping Pong —  looking for a quick bite one rainy evening before the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London (highly recommended), we wandered into this casual, local chain dim sum restaurant; service was prompt and the dim sum was freshly prepared and quite good

And from our 2012 stop in Dublin –

Bang —  popular restaurant serving modern Irish cuisine in a casual, contemporary setting; a great choice, particularly in light of the high-end dining we’d just experienced in London; started with a generous crock of rabbit and ham hock rillettes and the deep fried hen’s egg with blood sausage, followed by entrees of Irish beef ribeye and pan-fried local cod

Eden —  also emphasizing modern Irish cuisine in a casual, contemporary setting; another great choice, we enjoyed Eden Smokies (smoked haddock topped decadently with melted cheese), confit duck breast salad, pork shoulder cassoulet (otherwise great but marred by undercooked beans), and very nicely prepared rack of lamb

Bull & Castle  – somewhat a tourist pub directly across from Christ Church Cathedral, but the food was very good; great fish ‘n chips and steamed mussels.

 

Coltivare

 This restaurant hit the Houston foodie scene with quite a lot of buzz,  with its ownership the same as the folks that own Revival market just down White Oak in the Heights.  Quite casual, no reservations, the focus is on the food.  Both Saturday evenings when we’ve eaten at Coltivare, we’ve arrived a few minutes before the 5:00 opening time as the restaurant was full within less than an hour.  There’s both indoors and outdoors dining.  The bar area is small and fills up quickly.  (We had friends who noted that, while they had to stand outside on the sidewalk waiting for their dinner, the local mosquitos were feasting quite well.)  At first, there was no valet parking, but apparently even the most laid back restaurants in Houston require valet parking as it’s now available here, which is likely welcome, particularly later in the evening, when the local street parking fills up.

Coltivare is no exception from many restaurants nowadays with its interesting cocktail menu.  We tried the bourbon-based Ava Crowder (a slightly citrus twist on a manhattan) on our first visit, and now we’re devotees.   Such fans that we haven’t sampled the wine list which we understand is quite interesting and reasonably priced.   We’ve had no issues with the service on either occasion.

The food has been outstanding.  The menu changes over time.  Feeling contrarian, we didn’t try the roasted cauliflower on our first visit even though pretty much every table around us ordered it.   We succumbed on our second visit and, yes, it’s very good, with pine nuts and golden raisins, but it didn’t strike us as overly creative.  On our first visit, we tried the bycatch baccala; as its name implies, who knows what type of fish it was but it was quite tasty  spread on grilled bread (although not on the menu for our second visit).  We also really enjoyed both the chicken liver mousse and grilled leek salad (with pancetta and a poached duck egg) on our first visit.  But one of the real standouts has been the calamari salad on our more recent visit, marinated and grilled, with olives and various greens, it was really good.   If sweetbreads are on the menu, we usually try them, and Coltivare’s crispy sweetbreads pair well with the salty anchovy and horseradish tapenade-style accompaniment.  We also enjoyed the pepperoni pizza.  (We know, kind of boring but, when pepperoni is homemade from Revival market, it’s really good.)  We could not, however, figure out why they threw a salad (greens and shaved parmesan) on top of the pizza.   When you’re going pizza old school, better to stick with the tried and true.

Like Provisions, Coltivare is serving some of the most creative, flavorful food in town in a comfortable, casual setting.   We like to see a kitchen take risks, even if we don’t love every dish, and we like that the menu keeps changing.  Now, if only they took reservations and had a larger bar area …   

 3320 White Oak Drive
713/637-4095
http://coltivarehouston.com

 

Bradley’s Fine Diner

Bradley Ogden has been around the Bay Area dining community for many years and his son has  joined the family business, opening his first restaurant as executive chef in Houston.  BFD (initials used on the restaurant’s logo, not an editorial comment by us) anchors one end of a new strip shopping center, which is very close to I-10 , with Bradley’s Funky Chicken, a fast food fried chicken place (more about that later), at the other end.  Thankfully, there’s ample parking in the lot, so no need for a valet service.  Reservations are taken.

The restaurant is quite lovely, in a somewhat ubiquitous casual contemporary mode.  Lots of wood and brick, high ceilings, big windows.  Service was prompt and very friendly.  Cocktails were interesting and tasty.

We didn’t have an appetizer, going right for ample portions of fish and chips and a cheeseburger.  The former was well prepared, probably as good as anything we’d had recently in London.  The homemade tartar sauce was a nice addition and the french fries were piping hot.  The cheeseburger was also quite good, and we opted for the macaroni and cheese instead of more fries.

In the end, we really enjoyed our meal and, if we lived in the neighborhood, we’d probably go back more often.  BFD has a lot of competition in Houston, with similar establishments, so we wish it well.

P.S.   Having eaten a little more lightly than usual, we left room for a piece of fried chicken for dessert at Funky Chicken.  With a crisp, light coating, it was very good.  (Not as good as Barbecue Inn but better than our other more recent fried chicken experience at Punk’s Southern Kitchen.)   Although we didn’t try any of the sides, we’ve heard positive reports.

191 Heights Boulevard
832.831.5939
http://bradleysfinediner.com/

 

Barbecue Inn

Notwithstanding the name, we have limited experience with the barbecue at this long-time north Houston restaurant.   This is a family run place that we doubt has changed much over its 60+ years of existence.    The brightly lit booths are vinyl and the waitresses call you honey.  The bread service is crackers and white sandwich bread.  But, once this place started receiving national attention for its fried chicken, we had to try it.  And it’s really good.   Probably the best we’ve had in Houston, although we concede some could question our Houston foodie cred for not having made it to Frenchy’s.  Don’t go to Barbecue Inn for the sides (with the possible  exception of the homemade thousand island dressing that you might want to just eat with a spoon rather than on top of the iceburg lettuce chunks).  Even though folks talk highly about the fried shrimp (yes, we tried it and it was very good), we’ve gone back just for the fried chicken.   They also do a very credible version of barbecue ribs, although we’d skip the insipid sauce.  And likely the chicken fried steak is pretty good.  A friend suggested that you can do BYOB, which we can’t really picture (we take that back, we did see a guy arriving with a wine carrier, best to bring your own corkscrew).  Perhaps better to stick with beer or iced tea.  And, depending on the time of day, you may encounter a wait.  At 5:30 on a recent Saturday evening, we waited 30 minutes standing up in a rather crowded, warm area.  There’s counter space used by diners, so no bar area.  This restaurant isn’t in the best part of town, but there are large parking lots immediately adjacent, and a security guard has been in attendance both times we’ve been. 

116 West Crosstimbers Road
713/695-8112
http://www.thebarbecueinn.com/index.html

The Pass

Updated — August 2014

We dined at The Pass twice this past Spring, and we’ve been remiss in reporting.  Likely the menu has changed significantly since our visits.   But that’s a good thing since the chefs continue to turn out some of the most innovative and flavor challenging food in Houston.  Every dish doesn’t make us swoon, but there’s nothing we’ve tried that we haven’t really liked (and  more often than not dubbed drool-worthy) and admired for its creativity.   We found the Spring menu as good or better than our first dining experience (notwithstanding that the to-die-for caviar dish wasn’t there).  And the lovely setting and warm, friendly service hasn’t changed.  Who doesn’t love being welcomed at your table by a champagne cart (with a few long necks thrown in).   And the customized menu (“Happy Anniversary”) if you’re celebrating a special occasion.

There continue to be two multi-course tasting options (5 or 8 courses), including a 5 or 8 course tasting menu of vegetarian (not vegan) options.  We dined one evening with a friend who chose mainly from the vegetarian menu, with a pescatarian item here or there, and she loved her dishes.  Wine or beer/cocktail pairings are available, with every wine on the pairing list also offered in half or full pours.

Standouts from the 8-course Spring menu included Asparagus (a velvety, intensely flavored soup); Langoustine (steamed with hearts of palm and avocado); Yakitori (described as chicken mortadella); and Foie Gras (a decadent terrine served with steamed Asian-style buns).  There was an intermezzo style granita and a white chocolate carrot-cake inspired dessert course.  If one of us had any criticism it’s that the cheese course (ricotta and candy cap mushrooms) was too sweet, particularly when followed up by a beautiful tray of Petit Fours (various pastry and candy bites) from which you could select some or all, as much as you wanted (assuming you had any room left).

First Reported — January 2013
The holidays got in the way of our reporting on The Pass, the upscale, tasting menu half of the hot, new restaurant — The Pass & Provisions.  Opened around Thanksgiving, we dined at The Pass in early December.   While Provisions has a contemporary casual vibe, The Pass is urban chic, with lovely table linens, banquettes, and a champagne cart.  Open to the kitchen, with the “pass” (that part of the kitchen where the plates are finished before transferring from the kitchen to the dining room) on display, the chefs conjure their magic, presenting dishes very different from anything we’ve experienced in Houston.  Our closest comparison is Scott Tycer’s short-lived Textile or perhaps a more upscale version of the ahead-of-his-time Randy Rucker’s laidback manor.  Maybe a more sophisticated, carnivore-oriented Oxheart.  (Actually, we don’t think there’s much similarity between The Pass and Oxheart, but they are mentioned by some in the same breath, given that both restaurants opened this year, with a tasting menu concept and chefs with excellent out of town pedigrees.)

Enough with the comparisons.  The Pass stands on its own as the most innovative dining experience currently available in Houston.  Diners can choose from either a five ($75) or eight ($95) course tasting menu ($120 and $160, respectively, with wine pairings).  While you’re asked when you make the reservation whether you have any food allergies, this isn’t the place to take a fussy eater prone to requesting substitutions or changes.   And, unlike some tasting menus, there aren’t choices within each course.  We mention this only for the sake of our readers because we have no interest in interfering with Chefs Siegel-Gardner’s and Gallivan’s creativity.  We’re happy to let them do their thing and sit back and enjoy.

Of course, we went for the eight course tasting menu and one of us did the wine pairings.  We’ve been very impressed with the wine program at Provisions, having been introduced to some new and interesting wines on our visits there.  The wine pairings at The Pass also impressed, working very well with each of the dishes.   And the service was impeccable.

The Chefs intend to re-work the menu periodically, but we’d guess the themes of each course may remain somewhat consistent — Snacks, Truffles, Raw, Beef, Bread, Pig, Vegetables, Cheese, and Petite Fours.  Every course was a visual and culinary delight, with multiple components, creating a lovely and delicious palette on the plate.  Either the chefs or one of the sous chefs served each course, accompanied by a verbal description of the dish.  Yes, there were truffles, caviar, and foie gras. but the chefs clearly have fun with these classic high end ingredients.  For example, one of the Snacks was a tiny gelatinous cube flavored with foie gras and bourbon (appropriately  named a “foie gras ‘ol Fashioned”).  The truffles were grated tableside on top of a soft cooked egg.  The Raw course featured nori bucatini, uni and clams.  The Beef course was “tar tar with marrow brioche.”  The Pig course featured headcheese and blood pudding.  The Vegetable course was the most dramatic — a burning rosemary branch was presented with a squash cake and, with a visible nod to molecular cuisine, tableside created (in a huge tureen) dippin dots that (thankfully) taste nothing like those available at Space Center Houston.  And the Cheese course featured beautifully executed savory macaroons with three different cheese fillings.

Open only for dinner, a weekend reservation at The Pass continues to be  hard to come by without about a months’ wait.  Get in line.  It’s worth it.   And, taking nothing away from the Mandola and Pappas families, we need to cherish and nurture chefs and restauranteurs who are willing to bring this type of dining experience to Houston.

807 Taft
713/628-9020
http://passandprovisions.com/

Crisp


Two sets of friends had recommended Crisp, a place we’d kind of heard about but not yet tried.  Seems like it’s particularly popular for those who live in Shady Acres (just north of the Heights), kind of a neighborhood joint that tries, but somewhat misses, to turn out more than bar food.  Definitely a dining establishment, reservations are required.  And, of course, there’s valet parking if you can’t find something on the street.

We aren’t typically too critical of limited wines by the glass but, for a place that touts its wine selection, the offerings are unimpressive.  We wished we’d understood the enomatic, vending machine style, higher quality wine offerings (1 oz, 3 oz, and 5 oz pours) when we’d started our meal as we weren’t inclined to purchase the required “tasting card” (available in varying monetary denominations; we’re told most people start with $20) when one of us just wanted one more glass of wine.  There’s a large beer menu.  No hard alcohol.

We started with the mussels, generously served in a wine-based broth (no cream) that needed some additional flavor, perhaps more of the billed parsley pesto or anchovy butter.  The cheeseburger was the best thing we tried, although the requested medium rare came out as close to medium well.  (After mentioning this to our waitress — we didn’t send it back — the manager came over and apologized, taking 1/2 off the price.)  The side of truffle fries, touted by the waitress, were neither hot or crispy.  The seared scallops were generously served and perfectly cooked (slightly underseasoned), but sat on a bed of short rib risotto that, like the mussels, needed an additional spark of flavor.  Maybe some salt, some herb.

If we lived in the neighborhood, we’d definitely be back as perhaps we didn’t order the right things.  We’d try the enomatic wine service, the pizza, and the huge meatballs and spaghetti ordered by everyone at the table sitting next to us.  Not living nearby, however, means it may be a while before we get back.


2220 Bevis
713/360-0222
http://www.crisphouston.com/

Punk’s Simple Southern Food


Pretty much everything the Clark Cooper restaurant group does turns to gold, and it appears Punk’s is no exception.  Located right next to the group’s Coppa Osteria on Morningside in the new Rice Village mixed use complex, Punk’s is a casual, family friendly spot with the usual suspects of comfort food offerings.

We had a reservation for 7:00 on a recent Saturday evening.  We arrived about a half hour early and were asked to wait at the bar, where we ended up dining since the hostess never came back for us.  (And we didn’t appreciate being reported to Open Table as a “no show.”)  No real harm, as the bar was a fun place to dine.  Good selection of bourbon and well made classic cocktails.  Slightly harried servers (as reflected in a mistaken order).

We started with the deep fried black eyed peas, a tasty riff on Coppa’s fried chickpeas.  We polished those little gems off right quick.  The pimento cheese (with Ritz crackers) was also really good.  While we ordered the shrimp and oyster po’boy, we got just fried shrimp (no oysters), although copiously served and sided with a bag of potato chips.  It was the better of our two main dishes as we regret to inform that we weren’t as impressed with the touted fried chicken.  Certainly, it tasted very good, but it didn’t knock our socks off.  (Anyone for a trip to Barbecue Inn?)  On the other hand, the red eye gravy served on the mashed potatoes was unique and very well done, and we couldn’t criticize the sides of a biscuit and a deviled egg.  We also tried the mac ‘n cheese, a traditional version that reminded us a lot of Kraft’s boxed offering (the kind with the foil packet of cheese sauce, not the powder variety).  That’s not really a criticism since who doesn’t like Kraft’s.

Punk’s is close to where we live, and we’ll certainly be back to try more.  Let’s see how the open air environment works as the days get hotter. 

5212 Morningside
713/524-7865
http://punkssimplesouthernfood.com/

Cajun Kitchen


We’re back in crawfish season here on the Gulf Coast and, despite the delay in this posting, we want to go on record that we discovered this restaurant (courtesy of an Asian friend) during last year’s crawfish season.  Well before Allison Cook named it her favorite place for crawfish or Chris Shepherd called out the whole blue crab in Texas Monthly.  There’s nothing fancy about the place but, when you’re the only non-Asians in the restaurant, you know it’s good.  Well, that was last year, and now the place has been discovered, and there may be new management.  But the crawfish were almost as good as last year.  We have had both the garlic butter and kitchen special style and recommend both, although the kitchen special has sauteed onions, oranges, and lemons which add a great taste addition to the basic garlic butter.  We also tried Thai basil which we liked but not as much as the kitchen special.  Medium spicey worked well for us.  Unfortunately, the fried rice had lost something from a year ago.  On the other hand, the grilled oysters (Vietnam style) were better, although perhaps a dollar or so pricier.  The service was very good whereas we’d had a couple nonchalant attitude experiences last year (thankfully, not reflected in the food).

Next up on our agenda is Crawfish House (recommended by the same Asian friend who says it’s better than Cajun Kitchen).  We’ll let you know if we agree.

Cajun Kitchen
6938 Wilcrest
(no website)

Nara


Not that we were big fans of Katsuya, but we’re hoping this restaurant has longer legs than its predecessor in West Ave.  Fortunately, Nara benefitted from the the Asian influence of Katsuya as the decor doesn’t appear markedly different.  The sushi bar remains in the middle.  The rest of the menu is decidedly different, reflecting a mix of Asian influenced dishes with an emphasis on the owner’s Korean heritage.

Don’t expect the same dynamic as Houston’s long-standing Korean restaurants.  There are no grills in the middle of the tables (replaced by trendy hot rocks brought from the kitchen) or multiple (banchan) side dishes.  Nor are the prices nearly as spender friendly as the long-standing Long Point locations.   (My Korean friend was shocked with the price we paid for a couple standard dishes.)  But this is in an upscale retail complex, and the restaurant describes itself as “Modern Korean.”  (We understand there is a private dining area that includes the table grill.)

We didn’t really come for the sushi.  We were going for the Korean offerings.  We tried an appetizer that we understand is inspired by a dish at Momofuku in NYC — flat buns (bao), like little tacos, available with various fillings.  We tried the Spicy Pork Bulgogi (shredded pork collar, with cilantro and cucumber), which we enjoyed although it didn’t knock our socks off.  We asked the waiter to bring us some sauces for the dish and, while we can’t recall what they were, they added some needed zing.  More impressive was the pork belly bipimbap, a traditional Korean rice dish, served in a very hot stone bowl that cooks the raw egg that you stir into the dish, as well as the rice (creating a crispy lining).  The dish was quite tasty, although it was also enhanced by the sauces we’d received.  Probably our favorite dish was the Korean-style Shin Ramen, with squid and claims (could have been more seafood) in a lush red chili based broth.  (Our waiter described the dish as bold and didn’t seem too excited about it, but we thought it was great.)  We finished nicely with the Crunchy Yellow Tail Roll.

We haven’t had a chance to make it back, but we’ll return for the Shin Ramen as well as to try some of the other dishes.  (Anyone for Bulgogi Pot Pie or whole Spicy Squid Quinoa?)

2800 Kirby Drive (in West Ave)
281/249-5944
http://www.narahouston.com/