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


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

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

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)


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)


Much anticipated, Caracol is the new restaurant from Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega (Backstreet, Hugo’s, Prego).  Located in the new BBVA Compass building on Post Oak, the cuisine is Mexican-focused seafood.  (Aptly named, Caracol is Spanish for snail, although we didn’t see any snails on the menu.)  This place has been jumping from the start, reservations are a must at least on weekends.  We’ve dined there twice, both on Saturday evenings, and the surprisingly large space (particularly compared to its neighbor, Osteria Mazzantini) has been packed both times.  There’s an ample bar area, with an outside patio that will be lovely when the weather warms up.  We dined the second time at the bar (no reservations required), and it appeared all the seats were taken by diners.

It’s clear everything has been extremely well thought out, from the creative cocktail menu to the food offerrings.    While there are plenty of wine choices (well-known sommelier Sean Beck guides this restaurant as he does the other Vaught/Ortega venues), we’ve thought the food worked well with the many tequila and agave cocktail offerrings; we’ve enjoyed the Gran Especial (classic margarita),Mountains to the Sea (a smoky, citrus mezcal and gin based cooler), and Past the Heather (a manhattan-style drink made with anejo tequila).

On both occasions, we sampled a number of small plates which seemed to be the approach taken by many of the diners around us.  Dreams are made of the wood fired, cooked in the shell, parmesan crusted oysters; having had half a dozen on our first visit, we ordered a dozen the second time.  The wood-roasted pork ribs were also two-timers for us as was the coal roasted eggplant puree.  And on our next visit, we’ll go again for the crusty charred boneless pork foot with pickled vegetables.  The conch ceviche was beautifully presented but we wanted a little more citrus and chile.  The crispy tuna tacos were lovely bites of tuna, with guacamole and refried beans, in a soft flour tortilla.  The chicharron crusted calamari was a creative twist on that ubiquitous dish that we feel obliged to try at pretty much every restaurant that offers it.

Service was excellent.  It’s clear the waitstaff has been well trained.  And management was walking the floor, keeping a careful eye on everyone.  Feel free to valet park, but there’s validated parking in the very accessible covered garage attached to the building, with an elevator right near the restaurants.

2200 Post Oak Boulevard

Cove Cold Bar (Closed August 2014)

It took us too long to make it to this restaurant within a restaurant at Haven.  Cove Cold Bar is the baby of its chef, Jean Phillipe Gaston, who artfully presents his virtually all raw dishes in a glassed in area near the front of Haven.  We called to make a reservation and the hostess graciously pointed us to a website where, at that time, for $95, we got a coupon for two six-course meals.  We were told that reservations were only available when having a multi-course meal and that seating was at the raw bar.  All that sounded good to us.

The menu is divided into a a number of cleverly titled categories — Smalls, Bowls, Pacific, Americas, Europe/Med/Africa, Four Legs, Dairy and Stickies — and the menu offerrings are well described within each category.  Our coupon let us order from all of the categories except Bowls and Dairy.  With three to four items in each category, we were able to try much of the menu which made for a great experience.  Sitting at the raw bar, we saw the chefs at work, armed with sushi knifes and tweezers, fronted by a huge palette of a multitude of tiny items to grace the various plates.
Understandably, the focus is on seafood.  There wasn’t a miss among all the plates we tried.  Each dish was beautifully presented, with dabs of sauce and, depending on the dish, tiny pieces of chile, fruit, herbs, and veggies. There’s clearly been alot of research and thought put into each plate.  Our favorites — sashimi (Pacific), citrus marinated lionfish (Pacific), quick cured salmon (Americas), and the marinated and grilled octopus with a wonderful arugula aioli (Europe).  We enjoyed but weren’t as impressed by the two Four Legs items we tried — lamb heart carpaccio (kudos for the ambition and the effort to prepare the dish, starting with a frozen piece of heart, carefully sliced to order) and the classic steak tartare (overly seasoned).  The chocolate mousse was a lush ending to the meal.

Service was great.  They didn’t try to rush us.  We ordered course by course.  And sipped on some tasty cocktails and beer, all of which paired well with the raw items.

2502 Algerian Way

Pizzeria Solario

On Wesleyan, right next to Costco, adjacent to a large apartment complex, sits Pizzeria Solario, formerly a coffee shop, now turned casual artisanal wood oven pizza spot.  There’s limited indoor and outdoor seating, with the outside patio quite pleasant when the weather cooperates.  The wine selection, both by the glass and bottle, although limited, is reasonably priced.  Beer is also served.  When busy, parking can be limited, unless you walk from Costco.

Of the various appetizer and salad offerrings, our favorites are the olives al forno (marinated and baked in the oven) and the polpette (meatballs).  We weren’t as impressed with the roasted peppers.  We also enjoyed the tricolore and anchovy salad.

We’ve tried a number of the pizzas, with our favorites being the Carne (you got it, lots of meat) and the Fennel Sausage.  The one of us who likes spinach is fond of the Spinaci (goat cheese, spinach, pine nuts).  We weren’t as excited by the Tartufo (fontina, white truffle oil, truffle puree).  New to the menu are some pasta offerrings that we haven’t tried yet.

Give this place a shot.  We think the pizzas are right up there with Dolce Vita and the like.

3333 Wesleyan

Osteria Mazzantini

Updated Posting:  December 2013

Seriously.  $65 for an off-the-menu osso bucco special when it was on the menu for our first visit at $39 and better executed as well.  And the rest of our dishes weren’t as impressive as our first visit.  We haven’t been back.

Original Posting:  October 2013

Resident in the new BBVA Compass building on Post Oak, Osteria Mazzantini is the latest offering from John Sheely, the chef-owner of Mockingbird Cafe.  Located immediately adjacent to and north of the Old Navy shopping center, we had some trouble finding the place as there’s no sign yet on Post Oak.  But, once we did, we were quite happy.

The inside of the restaurant is on the smaller side.  There’s a nice sized bar area and an expansive outdoor patio that will likely be buzzing once we see cooler weather.   Tables inside the restaurant are spaced close together, which might bother some diners.  The noise level was very manageable (including hearing your neighbor’s discussions).  There’s a bar menu and the now ubiquitous artisanal cocktails.  (The manhattan style one was quite tasty.)  Prices are comparable to other mid to high end Houston restaurants.

Upon being seated and ordering drinks, the complimentary bread service was delivered, complete with a yummy lardo butter and a high quality olive oil.   There were many menu offerrings that we wanted to try, but, when we see bone marrow, we can’t resist, so our appetizer choice was made.  Served piping hot, with grilled toast (order extra) and sided with a vibrant salsa verde sauce, the bone marrow was a great start.  We then tried the kale and sweetbread ravioli, with brown butter, parmesan and pine nuts.  While we couldn’t discern the sweetbreads, the ravioli were quite delicious.  For our entree, we shared the osso buco.  Richly sauced, served with the traditional gremolata and complete with a tiny spoon for the marrow, this was as good a version of this classic that we’ve had in a long time.  But the dish was made particularly special by the parmesan risotto.  Most restaurants can make risotto taste quite good by using copious amounts of butter and cheese, but the tricky part is in getting the right consistency.  Osteria Mazzantini has that down better than most places.

Our reservations were honored on time, and the service was very good.  The only glitch was that we apparently got out the door without receiving the complimentary mini-box of cookies.  We used the free valet parking, but we understand they validate parking in the garage.  This is a hot place right now, reservations are a must.  Given the location, they’ll be busy at lunch, and we’ve heard they’ll also be doing a weekend brunch.  Let’s hope they can keep up the great execution.

2200 Post Oak Boulevard, # 140

MF Sushi (Closed)

Update:  September 2013

This restaurant had a fire and is not currently open.

First Reviewed:  June 2013

                                   Fish So Very Fresh
                                An Oasis In This Heat
                                     This is MF Good

This sushi newcomer has made quite a splash as its chef/owner, Chris Kinjo, ports his magic from Atlanta to an unassuming strip center at the corner of Westheimer and Fountainview.  Perhaps we were behind the foodie curve, but we first heard about this curiously named place when we read that a number of local chefs were touting the freshness of the fish and the chef’s deft knife skills.  That was quickly followed by Alison Cook’s four star rating.  Out we went one recent Saturday evening to sit at the sushi bar and try the Omakase (chef’s pleasure) dinner.

Unlike Uchi or Kata Robata, this Omakase dinner was all about raw fish — either sashimi or nigiri, no rolls.  There are a few hot dishes on the menu, but this is a traditional sushi restaurant, not Asian fusion.  And we had an amazing experience.  From start to finish, the fish was fabulously fresh.  While our helpful and efficient waitress gave us a dish of freshly grated wasabi, which was quite a treat, we only used soy sauce and wasabi on one of the many courses.  Not sure how many dishes we had, we weren’t counting, just eating.   The initial dish was a delicious warm seaweed soup into which we stirred a raw quail egg yolk.  The chef then started us off with a variety of sashimi dishes, simply presented, with little adornment.  The salmon belly was a particular highlight.  We’d read that the chef really shines with nigiri.  The dewy fish lay on lightly formed grains of rice with a hint of wasabi and soy sauce, arriving with instructions from the chef to eat in one bite.  Multiple bites came our way and we followed instructions well, enjoying everything we tried.

In the interest of journalism, we separately ordered the fried calamari for dessert.  It was nicely done and, if variety is our goal on our next visit to MF Sushi, we’ll consider ordering one or more hot dishes and perhaps one of the beautifully presented rolls we saw the kitchen turn out.  But the real reason to come to MF Sushi is for the raw fish, served in all its pristine wonder.

5887 Westheimer