Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Don't You Dare Pass It Up!

For the starving artist, memorable eight-course meals are one in a million. Particularly when a couple of classic desserts are transformed into a dramatically-presented, decadent entree that walks the line between sweet and savoury like a crazed yet deft funambulist. Need photographic proof?

Foie Gras: Red Velvet/Duck Prosciutto/Nori/Chicken Skin

This was course #5 at The Pass, Houston's second-best restaurant and one of America's best new restaurants in 2013 according to Bon Appétit magazine. Imagine a fennel-packed, spicy red velvet cake filled with creamy foie gras and a mille-feuille of crunchy nori layered with crispy chicken skin, duck prosciutto and more foie gras matched with the 2010 Peregrine Central Otago (NZ) Pinot Noir. Boom goes the liver.

The (actual) Pass
Named after the section in a restaurant's kitchen where dishes are given their final touches and sent off to the revellers, The Pass, according to my brother Octavio (formerly known as Shawarma Leg Lover), is the closest the city has to a Michelin-starred eatery. Chefs Terrence Galivan and Seth Siegel Gardner, the latter "a hunk" according to The Wife, Ph.D., and Octavieta, Octavio's longtime girlfriend, have created a mecca for Texan gourmands with inventive, impeccably-presented food, an impressive wine and cocktail menu to match each dish, and a refined yet easygoing ambiance. And the bathroom, which is shared with its more casual sister restaurant Provisions, plays Julia Child reading out her recipes in that arresting nasal voice instead of the usual tunes. 

On our night there, The Pass stumbled out of the gate. The sommelier spilled Octavieta's Malbec and failed to change the dirtied glass and white tablecloth. Ten minutes passed before we flagged down a waiter to make things right. To open the meal, their take on Oysters Rockefeller in the trio of Oysters: Po Boy/Raw/Rockefeller was too doughy and drowned out most of its freshness and brininess. The former two, while good, did not foretell the inspired levels of creativity, beauty and lusciousness that would follow.

Hamachi: Bone Marrow Agadashi/Cucumber
Then, things picked up. Despite its phallic disturbing shape, the Mushroom Bread, complemented with whipped ricotta, wild mushrooms and a healthy serving of shaved black truffles, was soft and earthy and matched perfectly what was undoubtedly the best wine of the night, the 1998 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blanco Reserva, a Viura and Malvasia blend from Rioja that enticed you with its aromas of roasted nuts, wild mushrooms, wood and slight oxidation. The Hamachi cebiche was highlighted by a silky, savoury and umami-packed bone marrow agadashi that gave life to the fish's nuanced flavour and delicateness, and the Potato: Raclette/Morcia/Apple, a cheese-filled fritter, was a playful and tasty snack that segued into the evening's heavy hitters.

The Foie Gras I paid tribute to above was followed by Lamb: Citrus/Swiss Chard/Coffee Yoghurt paired with (surprise, surprise) the 2010 Domaine Karydas Xinomavro Naoussa. This was the second best dish of the night; a lamb tenderloin wrapped in lamb neck confit, swiss chard and flaky pastry sitting atop a subtle coffee yoghurt decorated with pickled citrus fruits, sorghum and edible flowers. Fact is, whenever the word "confit" is involved you know you've got a winner.

Lamb: Citrus/Swiss Chard/Coffee Yoghurt
If there's one area where things can be bettered it's dessert. In our opinion, the two dishes (plus the petits fours) fell short when compared to the first six courses. Not that they were bad. But the innovation, combination of flavours and striking presentation of the savoury dishes did not entirely come through. While satisfying, vanilla cake with ice cream and a wine-soaked Asian pear stuffed with Stilton on a graham cracker crumble did not quite stand up to the duck livers, bone marrow broth or The Pass' spin on Beef Wellington.

What else can I say? Don't pass it up. Eat, drink, be merry. Ask for an extra helping of foie gras and close your eyes before you sign the check.

Whine On The Rocks' Rating: 5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas

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