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TBO Fusion bring hip Japanese cuisine to Houston

(01/28/15 4:11am)

Since its opening in November, Tea Bar and Organic Fusion, also styled “TBO Fusion,” has made it clear that the operative word in their name is “Fusion.” The hip Westheimer location has a tea bar, and it does serve an extensive list of tasty milk teas and smoothies, but the real reason to visit is TBO’s affordable and creative takes on sushi, ramen and other Japanese specialties. The menu is dotted with unconventional and trendy additions like Taiwanese popcorn chicken, sous-vide short rib and sashimi with honey wasabi aioli and truffled ponzu sauce. Many of the experimental dishes are imperfect, and unfortunately, some of the menu’s most interesting inclusions are best left unordered. Nonetheless, the food at TBO Fusion makes for an exciting and eclectic meal.The best of TBO’s fusion cooking manifests in the inventive and addictive appetizers. The lemon garlic popcorn chicken is flash-fried in a surprisingly light batter made from Japanese potato starch that compliments the sour and zesty seasoning. The tako yaki, or battered octopus, is perhaps the best plate on the menu. The octopus fritters have a warm, eggy filling, and are topped with sweet barbecue sauce, tangy Japanese mayo and shredded smoked tuna, which give the dish a flavor reminiscent of both a Texan barbecue pit and a Japanese seaside. Moving even further from traditional Japanese, the 72-hour sous-vide short rib uses the French sous-vide technique to achieve a much more tender product than the tradition grilling method. Perhaps the most eclectic of the appetizers, the Taiwanese sausage dish can be ordered with salsa and queso fresco in a nod to Houston’s Hispanic influence that balances the sausage’s saltiness with the creamy cheese and fresh tomato salsa. Despite the success of the appetizers, the sushi bar seems frustratingly inferior. The problem is not that TBO’s chefs aren’t well-trained or that the fish is not fresh. On the contrary, the fish in the unseasoned sashimi plates is lush with delicate and fresh saline flavor. The problem with the sushi lies in the chefs’ tendencies to over-sauce. In the black-and-white roll, the dominant taste is not the snow crab, avocado, peppered tuna, green onion or honeyed wasabi the menu advertises, but mayo, a shame considering how many great ingredients went into the roll. The worst instance of over-saucing is in the truffle hamachi. The truffle and hamachi, known for being among the most decadent ingredients in European and Japanese cooking respectively, simply mask each other. The truffle’s earthiness obscures the hamachi’s buttery fat, and the sour yuzu and sea salt used to round out the dish clash with the smoother flavors of the truffle and the fish.Some of the sushi chefs’ overbearing tendencies also carry over to the entrees. The ramen and the rice bowls are generally very good but tend to have too much onion, which again clashes with the natural flavor of the dish’s protein, be it short ribs, chicken or the wonderfully fatty pork belly. The seasonings on the meats themselves are far improved. The pork belly has interesting flavors of raw ginger and soy, the short ribs are marinated in sake and grilled with woody Korean spices, and the chicken’s teriyaki sauce is accented with nori and a yuzu sesame dressing. One common problem with nearly all the main dishes, however, is the addition of a cold soft-boiled egg, which can be quite off-putting and which many may prefer to have left off their dish.In spite of its numerous problems, TBO Fusion is still a standout in a city of far too many bland Asian fusion restaurants. It is a very young restaurant, a fact that is hard to ignore as the menus are still printed on stapled printer paper. Although TBO needs some fine-tuning, problems like over-seasoning and cold eggs can be easily remedied. Combined with the friendly staff and deliberately hip vibe, the exciting food at TBO Fusion makes it a restaurant not to be passed over. 

Houston chefs battle it out for prestigious Eater blog awards

(12/03/14 3:49am)

The national blog Eater announced the winners of its annual Houston restaurant awards this past Monday. The awards honored restaurants and chefs in six categories: Restaurant of the Year, Chef of the Year, “So Hot Right Now” (recognizing restaurants with a high level of trendiness), Bartender of the Year, Saddest Closing and “Stone Cold Stunner,” recognizing restaurants with especially impressive decor. Nominees were selected by local food critics and the final winners determined by votes from the blog’s readers.This year’s biggest winner was chef Ryan Pera. Pera won both Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year for his newly opened Italian/American restaurant, Coltivare. Though new this year on the Houston restaurant scene, Coltivare has already topped more than one “Best of Houston” list, named Houston’s top new restaurant by the blog Thrillist earlier this month. Pera, who opened Coltivare after serving as a partner at Revelry Market, specializes in pizza and locally-grown ingredients. The menu at Coltivare changes often but is known for its inventive use of fresh local ingredients, many of which are grown in Coltivare’s house garden.Tout Suite won the “So Hot Right Now” award over Pax Americana, which failed to win any awards despite being nominated for three. Tout Suite, opened earlier this year, took advantage of the make-your-own-dish model popularized by chains like Chipotle to become one of downtown’s most popular spots. Especially popular among the health and price conscious, Tout Suite is known for its fresh custom salads, killer sandwiches priced as low as $6 and its outstandingly creative brunch menu.Bartenders of the Year Leslie Ross and Sheddan Harvey seemed sure to win as soon as their plans for expanding Triniti’s bar into its own entity came to light. Their new bar, Sanctuari, which has been open separately from its parent restaurant, Triniti, for less than a month, has emerged far ahead of its time in its approach to cocktails. Ross and Harvey’s menu incorporates Campari ice filters, lemon pollen, Thai chilies, rose petals, fish sauce, real smoke and more into its drinks, which have been received as the most beautiful, inventive and delicious cocktails in Houston. This year’s Saddest Closing was awarded to Van Loc. The owners of the beloved Vietnamese and vegetarian restaurant decided to retire and close Van Loc’s doors in mid-October. As news of the closing spread, patrons flocked to the Fourth Ward location in such large numbers that Van Loc was closed three days early afterrunning out of food.The final award, “Stone Cold Stunner,” went to KUU restaurant. Helmed by chef Addison Lee, the elegant Japanese restaurant in Memorial City has had a remarkable year, winning accolades for its fresh sushi, notable wine list and delicate presentations, as well as its decor.

Oishii serves sushi staples fit for any budget

(11/19/14 3:41am)

Inexpensive sushi is too good to be true. Sushi isn’t a food that you can cut corners with. As a result, some bargain sushi spots can be nightmares, leaving customers hungry, unsatisfied and, in particularly unfortunate cases, ill. With this in mind, Oishii’s $1 per piece sashimi and $4 rolls seem suspicious. However, in reality, Oishii proves to be neither a hidden gem for cheap eats nor a place to completely overlook, especially by students on a budget.Located on Richmond, about seven minutes off campus, Oishii’s biggest asset is its happy hour. From 3 -7 p.m. (or 6 p.m. on Saturdays), noisy patrons fill the dining room for $1.50 and $2 beer, $3 sake, $4 wine and two-for-one appetizers. Even after happy hour, standbys, like the light miso soup and satisfyingly crisp gyoza, are better than most sushi bars. The rolls are more of a mixed bag. More common items, like the Philadelphia and spider rolls, are fine but not exceptional. The spicy tuna is seasoned with “Japanese mayo” (which appears on many of the rolls), and while the sauce is good, it isn’t actually spicy.The sashimi menu is also a mixed bag, featuring some disappointments but also a few dishes that are quite good. The unagi, or teriyaki river eel, is especially well cooked and doesn’t need rice to offset the wonderful fattiness of the eel’s broiled meat. However, the simpler preparations that don’t involve cooking suffer from staleness. The yellowtail, the star of many high-end sashimi menus, is passable at best. The salmon and peppered tuna are better, but still have odd textures that suggest there’s less attention paid to quality than there is to cutting production costs at Oishii. The “special” and “customer” makis on the menu tend to be more expensive and far more consistent. The Lunden and Damian rolls, which feature tender-cooked scallop, crunchy shrimp tempura and creamy avocado wrapped in a chewy soy paper wrapper, boast a delicious blend of textures. The Cajun maki includes fried oyster, avocado and chili in an interesting and purely Houstonian combination. It’s a questionable pairing, but just as the Philadelphia roll broke barriers by introducing cream cheese to sushi, the Cajun roll proves fried oyster and chili make excellent replacements for the tired duo of tempura and spicy mayo.Beyond sushi, Oishii serves the traditional dishes of any Japanese restaurant with a few successful additions. The teriyaki beef, chicken and seafood are all well-cooked but under-seasoned, while the tasty but cheap Menuri udon bowls and Donburi rice bowls will especially please fans of pho and students looking for a bargain. Depending on the order, the bowls are generously filled with a sweet, oniony broth and a mixture of rice, udon noodles, mushrooms, cabbage, egg, carrots, bean sprouts, scallions and meat. For only $7.50, the large serving makes for a filling and economical meal.The desserts don’t extend beyond the usual options: mochi, fried ice cream and fried banana with ice cream. While all the options are cheap, the fried ice cream is the only dish worth noting. The hot, salty shell and scoop of creamy green tea ice cream make a pleasant end to the meal.Oishii’s price makes it a decent choice for students looking for sushi on a Saturday night, but its noise and cheesy decor should preclude it from being anyone’s choice for date night. Those looking for higher quality are advised to stick to more consistent spots like the nearby Kubo’s or Azuma. Oishii may be a good value, but its dishes are a prime example of getting what you paid for.

Dining authentically in a strip mall

(11/12/14 3:19am)

Standing in a Third Ward strip mall, everything about Reggae Hut screams authentic. Whether it’s the dance hall music, the dreadlocked woman at the counter or the dingy but charming plaster walls, patrons here never seem to question that they’re getting the “real” thing. Since being revitalized by Breakfast Klub owner Marcus Davis in 2006, Reggae Hut has occupied an uncontended spot as Houston’s top Caribbean restaurant. The food is simple but unrivaled. No-frills favorites like the beef patties are well seasoned with cumin, cloves and nutmeg, and at only $3.15 make an excellent lunch or snack. The Hut’s house-made ginger beer, punch and sweet tea add to the menu’s charm. While some may find the punch too sweet, the strong cherry and pineapple flavors separate it from the usual Hi-C duplicates and make it at least worth a try. The ginger beer, on the other hand, is wholly outstanding. Sweet and spicy, the brew is exceptionally smooth while maintaining the fiery finish that ginger beer isfamous for. Classic entrees like oxtail stew, jerk chicken and curry goat are offered year round, while pan-fried creole snapper and shrimp are available seasonally. The jerk chicken steals the show on the year-round menu. A generous piece of chicken is rubbed with a thick layer of smoky jerk spices that lock in the chicken’s moisture, giving the dish a bold flavor and tenderness otherwise unheard of. The steamed vegetables and rice served with the chicken are simple yet satisfying, turning the already filling dish into a bargain of a meal for only $11.The creole seafood options can be a bit more expensive; all are listed as “Market Price,” but tend to run between $12 and $17 dollars. At its best, the seasonal seafood is the crown jewel of Reggae Hut’s menu. The pan-fried snapper for two has a wonderfully crisp layer of fried skin and the perfect amount of heat. The shrimp, however, tend to lose their delicate flavor under a heaping serving of the house creole sauce, a tomato-based blend of stock and peppers not recommended for thoseaverse to heat. As many traditional Jamaican preparations include heavy use of hot peppers, those who prefer milder fare should be especially discerning when ordering. The curried dishes do carry some heat, but they are much milder than their jerk seasoned or creole counterparts. The jerk chicken sandwich allows diners to sample the jerk chicken between slices of doughy cocoa bread that negate some of its heat and comes with a side of top-notch plantain chips. The chicken and oxtail stews are perhaps the mildest of the entrees. Both preparations are pleasantly tender and served in a hearty broth of carrots, bell peppers andbrown stock. Reggae Hut may not be what some envision as “fine dining,” but it certainly satisfies. As an inexpensive stop with friendly service and the most authentic Caribbean food in town, it is wellworth a visit.

Willy's Pub debuts varied beer menu

(10/28/14 4:04pm)

Oktoberfest may be winding down at bars across Houston, but Willy’s Pub is just getting started. Unveiling a new menu, Operations Manager Gavin Cross described Pub’s goal of offering beers suited to the student body’s diverse taste.“We try to have a range of different beers in different styles to satisfy all the types of Pub customers,” Cross said. “There’s a set of ales, some of them are unfiltered, some of them are lighter. We have IPAs, fruit beers, dark beers like stouts, lagers, which are easier to drink, wheat beers and malt beverages likeMickey’s.” The new menu design places all of Pub’s bottled selections on a spectrum, from light and accessible to heavy, hoppy and high-alcohol beers. The light end of the spectrum offers many recognizable lagers like Heineken, Corona, Shiner, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Dos Equis. The heavy end, labeled “tastes like twigs” on the menu, offers heavily-hopped IPAs like Dogfish Head’s infamous 60-minute IPA and smooth, dark beers like the Left Hand Milk Stout. Pub’s General Manager Chynna Foucek spoke of Pub’s commitment to offering beers diverse in both taste and price.“We try to hit all the demographics,” Foucek said. “We have undergraduates, but we also have MBAs that come. MBAs have more of a refined taste, whereas undergraduates have a budget.”With Bud Light and Shiner Bock as cheap as $1.50 on draft, it’s easy to see Pub’s appeal to the student on a budget. At $4 a bottle, Mickey’s malt liquor is another popular choice among undergraduates and, in terms of relative price, it’s the best deal at Pub. For the more discerning drinker, Pub still offers great value on its higher quality beer. Golden Monkey, a spicy tripel style ale with a hefty 9.5 percent abv., is another student favorite that sells for only $3.50, a great deal compared to off-campus bars that price it at $7 and up. The newest brew on tap, Leprechaun, is a locally-brewed cider with a light, semi-sweet taste. Cross discussed the range of local brews available at Pub, which are often from companies with special ties to Rice.“We have a lot of local offerings,” Cross said. “We coordinate frequently with Buffalo Bayou, which is founded and run by a Rice and Willy’s Pub graduate. A beer that Pub had custom made for Willy Week last year is now a big part of the Buffalo Bayou lineup, so that will be on draft in our wheat-beer line.” The new menu also features two beers from Saint Arnold’s, another local brewery founded by Rice graduates. The Lawnmower, Saint Arnold’s flagship brew, is a crisp Kolsch-style beer with citrus notes. The Saint Arnold’s Santo is also brewed in the Kolsch style, but the addition of Munich black malt gives it a darker and maltier flavor than its cousin.Beyond releasing the new menu, Foucek plans to host a series of events for students looking to expand their knowledge of beer this fall. “We really want the undergraduates to be able to try different types of beer, so something we’ve been pushing is Keep the Glass events,” Foucek said. “Distributors will have glasses for us with their breweries or logos on the glass. So you come in, you pay $5, and you get to keep the glass. We did that with the Leprechaun cider, we’re doing that with the Bridgeport, we’re going to be doing one with Saint Arnold’s and Karbach will be doing one as well.”Pub’s new menu is in effect now and will add an additional Buffalo Bayou brew homecoming weekend.

Etoile: classics with a certain je ne sais quoi

(10/22/14 7:53am)

When our waiter described the night’s special as salmon in beurre blanc, a typical and often unexceptional mainstay of French cuisine, I had my misgivings. It seemed like a waste of a special to add such a common dish to a menu that already contained escargots, foie gras, coq au vin and beef au poivre, to name only a few of Etoile Cuisine’s most traditional plates. But while Etoile specializes in the most common of French dishes, chef Philippe Verpiand’s meticulous preparations make the food uncommonly good. The coq au vin, often boiled into oblivion by less savvy chefs, is simmered to a succulent tenderness and served with enoki mushrooms, which lend the dish a lighter feel than the usual cast of cremini and portobellos. Even the profiteroles are freshly baked and delicate, a testament to Verpiand’s attention to detail.A look at Etoile’s past shows its success is no accident. Though it may be Verpiand’s first venture in Houston, his history includes graduating top of his class at the Avignon Culinary Institute, multiple stints at Michelin-starred restaurants around France and running the acclaimed Cavaillon Restaurant in San Diego, California until a year before its close. Verpiand’s wife, Monica Bui, handles front-of-the-house operations, maintaining a charming atmosphere in the rustic Uptown Park location and a wait staff that is astute and attentive without being overbearing.The entrees range from solid and ordinary to superb displays of French cuisine, with the occasional misfire. The Saint-Jacques scallops are paired awkwardly with beef ravioli and brussel sprouts. The flavors definitely clash, but the handmade beef raviolis, tossed with truffle oil and cabernet syrup, are so good that it’s hard to consider the dish a complete failure. Other classics of French cuisine like the lemon sole and duck magret are executed with clinical excellence. The sole is well cooked and served with a medley of peas, potatoes, roast cauliflower and slivered almonds that almost outshine the fish. The duck holds a perfect balance of warm, well-cooked meat to crispy fried skin. The meat’s savory flavors are matched with an incredible mousseline of butternut squash, enoki mushrooms and pomegranate seeds. The additional option to order any entree with pan-fried foie gras for only $12 contributes to the richness of an experience that suggests that even though the food isn’t cheap, Etoile doesn’t overcharge by a dime.The hors d’oeuvres match the entrees in tradition and quality. Among the more familiar dishes, the lobster bisque is a standout, boasting a thick creamy broth that doesn’t skimp on the lobster and nuanced flavors of tomato and tarragon. The Serrano ham tart is also highly recommended. The ham is served draped over arugula, warm figs and caramelized onions, held in a flaky crust and tossed with an impressively subtle mixture of garlic, red wine and truffle honey vinaigrette. The wine list is well balanced, with a good selection of new- and old-world-style bottles and exceptional Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Burgundy and Bordeaux available by the glass. Even the desserts impress. The praline crepe souffle lives up to its name, managing to be three desserts at once: a warm, eggy souffle, folded in the shape of a crepe and crusted with a thin layer of praline smothered in hazelnut anglaise. The oft-overlooked cheese plate is a must try for any cheese connoisseur. The plate complements a creamy brie, pleasantly nutty petite basque, pungent blue, and tart goat cheese with dates, walnuts and wonderful black cherry jam. It’s clear Verpiand has a good thing going with Etoile, and with his remarkable consistency, the quality won’t be going anywhere. Anyone looking to celebrate a special occasion or simply craving spectacular French cooking in the Galleria or Uptown area should consider Etoile a must-visit.

Going meatless at Houston's top meat shop

(10/08/14 3:54am)

Since opening in 2012, Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly has arguably been the quintessential Houstonian restaurant. The menu, which boldly proclaims, “Houston is the new American Creole city of the South,” even won Shepherd a 2014 James Beard Foundation Award for its seamless integration of Houston’s many ethnic influences with traditional southern techniques. Shepherd is perhaps best known for his butchering and charcuterie which, at Underbelly, are embodied by an entire aging room and back-of-house butcher’s shop devoted to butchering, curing and aging the house meats. Shepherd’s expertise is nearly unquestioned in the realm of pork, beef and all things red meat. But in light of the growing number of gourmet diners and chefs moving away from the heavy use of red meat, I wanted to sample the menu without any la viande meats to see if Underbelly’s appeal could be as broad as its influences.Underbelly does have a significant amount of fish and poultry on the menu. There are even a few vegetarian dishes as well, but the restaurant is by no means vegetarian friendly. While some of the veggie plates — like the crispy market vegetables and spiced okra — are surprisingly good, other dishes — like the crusty slow dough bread with fig butter (which at most restaurants would have been complimentary) — are fairly unremarkable. Even the popular market vegetables, which tend to linger on the menu as other dishes are rotated out, are prepared with caramelized fish sauce, meaning they have to be specially prepared for vegetarians with a key ingredient omitted.For those simply looking to avoid red meat, however, there are a few more options. Though the menu frequently changes, there’s always at least one family-sized fish plate, usually a large portion of crispy-fried bycatch, and four or five smaller dishes centered on poultry and fish. The bycatch platter, a generous helping of three whole-fried snapper with eggplant and corn on the night I visited, was undeniably delicious but lacked anything to distinguish it from the other great fish platters that can be found around Houston for $30 instead of $60. Over-seasoned and salty, the triggerfish was even more disappointing. The seared snapper, on the other hand, surpassed even the pork dishes my party ordered, spiced with an excellent blend of southern seasonings and served with okra that was far better than the okra I’ve come to expect from creole establishments. The duck was also a surprisingly good example of Shepherd’s genre-bending abilities: the meat was cooked in the classic French confit style and served with not just candied pecans, but southern-braised collards that paired exceptionally well with the duck fat.Not surprisingly, Underbelly’s extensive wine list has many options, both red and white, that pair well with their lighter dishes. Although the sign at the door declares it “Riesling season” at Underbelly, the hard ciders and light red wines are far more complex and pleasant than the off-dry Rieslings, which pair poorly with even the lightest dishes. The French ciders’ crisp acidity is a perfect match for the greasier plates, like the bycatch and duck, and the light, fragrant Grenaches and Dolcettos, both available by the glass, are especially well suited to the other fish and vegetable plates.  All in all, the meal was quite good even without Underbelly’s star ingredient. Shepherd may be a world-class butcher, but his menu proves that he’s a cook first and capable of serving some remarkable, if inconsistent, seafood and poultry. While Underbelly may still be a pork lover’s haunt, it can certainly deliver a satisfying dinner to those looking for something else.

Menil Collection to launch Bistro Menil with cask wine

(10/01/14 4:27am)

The Menil Collection will open its namesake restaurant, Bistro Menil, just north of Richmond Avenue by the end of this month. The bistro aims to be Houston’s first large-scale cask wine bar and will also serve craft beer, along with a range of familiar European and American dishes. Greg Martin, former chef of Café Annie and Taco Milagro, will lead the kitchen, while Sean Essex, who previously worked with Jackson and Company Catering and City Kitchen Catering, will head the craft beer and cask wine programs. The beer program will focus on local Texan microbrews, while the wine list will center on classic European and Western American regions, which will showcase the strengths of the cask storage method.“We had to pick something at some point,” Martin said. “Sean’s developed a really elegant wine list, focusing on Italy, France, Spain, a little Germany, California, Washington and Oregon.” Cask wine, also referred to as “wine on tap,” is simply wine stored in metal kegs. Although, in the past, cask wine has been likened to keg beer and box wine as a low quality and unfashionable beverage, interest has surged recently due to its low environmental impact. “The movement in Western Europe and the United States for the last 20 years has been to make all wineries biodynamically sustainable, and in California, Washington and Oregon there’s been a real boom focusing on how we can make the greenest product possible, and the greenest way to get the product to the guest is in casks,” Martin said. The casks are made of steel similar to the tanks that many wines are conditioned in and hold 26 bottles worth of wine for up to 60 days, inserting nitrogen into the cask as wine is removed to preserve the remaining wine’s freshness. Because the steel casks maximize crisp characteristics in wine, the wines will be mineral, fruit-driven and receive no oak aging.The bistro will feature a daily happy hour named “This is not a happy hour,” a nod to the famous René Magritte painting, The Treachery of Images, formerly housed in the gallery. Martin explained that, since high-profile museums like the Prado, Centre Pompidou and Museum of Modern Art began adding restaurants to their campuses, museum bistros have become a worldwide trend benefiting both restaurateurs and museum directors.“We have a unique location in a park-like setting, and there’s not a whole lot being offered [in that area] right now,” Martin said. To fill that void, Bistro Menil plans to offer entrees ranging in price to accommodate multiple types of dining experiences.“We want something that’s really approachable for the casual diner, so on our lunch menu we wanted to have sandwiches, flatbreads and salads — very approachable, more economic fare,” Martin said. “At dinner, we expect people will have more of an entree driven experience, you can come in with that someone special and split a half bottle of the house rose with a Caesar salad and a pizza and be out for under $40, or you can come in for a special occasion and have a much bigger experience.”As opening day approaches, Martin said he remains confident that the restaurant and its cask wine system will become important fixtures in the Houston restaurant scene. “I think Houstonians are suffering from something I call $12-a-glass Chardonnay fatigue, and I think they want a break from it,” Martin said. “They want to be able to go some place and get a good six, seven or eight dollar glass of wine, and this is the way to do it.”

Pax Americana Proves Inventive, yet Inconsistent

(09/24/14 4:47am)

When I asked our waiter whether he preferred the lamb or swordfish, he told me, “That’s like asking me to pick a favorite kid.” Then, as only a father could, he described every last detail of the two dishes to help me make my choice. At Pax Americana, the new modern-American restaurant on Montrose, the passion and talent is evident. The entire wait staff has an exhaustive knowledge of the quickly-changing menu and Chef Adam Dorris (formerly of Revival Market) brings an adventurous approach uncommon for a restaurant touting itself as “American.” However, that’s not to say the food isn’t full of typical American flavors: Corn, pickles and “root vegetable mash” steal the spotlight from the menu’s more glamorous ingredients like wagyu beef and blue crab. Dorris displays a singular talent for pairing his most American ingredients like barbeque sauce and house-made pickles with elements like unfiltered olive oil, which lends the pickles an Italian flair, and charred garlic, which minimizes the sweetness of the barbeque sauce to a mole-like taste.The beverage program, lead by pastry chef Plinio Sandalio, offers a comprehensive selection of cocktails, beer and New World wines. Most of the beer is sourced from Texas, and the wine list is exclusively domestic, focusing on Washington Pinot Noirs and classic California Cabernets. Sandalio’s desserts match Dorris’s penchant for unique pairings: The hazelnut financier is paired with a scoop of remarkably good foie-gras ice cream, and the flourless cake is infused with negroni and topped with gin fizz foam and Campari gelée, making a wonderfully boozyparfait. The food’s most significant problem is that, while it’s never boring, some of the flavors can clash and detract from otherwise superb dishes. The same hazelnut financier that paired so well with the ice cream was also served with a duo of roasted figs that could have added to the dish’s flavor, but because of an odd choice of seasoning (salt, pepper, and cilantro) were better left off the plate.The edgy pairings that tainted some of the otherwise incredible dishes seemed indicative of Pax’s other problems. The food itself is truly innovative, but showcasing it on the menu, which at times sacrifices substance for trendiness, seems to be a bigger challenge for the restaurant. The strong focus on fresh and local ingredients undoubtedly improves the quality of the dishes, but also necessitates the menu be frequently changed, which can be a disappointment to those looking to have the same great dish they had on their last visit. Our waiter also informed us that the menu was centered on small plates that were meant to be shared. The “land” and “sea” portions of the menu, though, can be quite hard to share and are certainly not priced at levels that suggest small plates. Pax also offers a secret menu, which customers are told of after their first dinner. It’s another interesting addition, but given that the menu only offers 15 choices between dinner, dessert and appetizers, it’s a wonder they don’t make the additional options better known. The food at Pax Americana is good enough that most will find it worth a visit despite the frustrating trendiness and high prices. If the menu’s kinks are worked out, Pax could even rise to the level of big names like Underbelly and the other elite of the Montrose food scene. Dorris and Sandalio clearly have the talent: They just need to concentrate less on what’s fashionable and more on what’s flavorful.

Savory Spice Adds Nuanced Flavor to Rice Village

(09/17/14 5:04am)

The average customer could feel a bit overwhelmed entering the new Savory Spice shop on Times Blvd. in Rice Village. Looking for sea salt? Will that be regular or smoked? If you’re looking for smoked, would you like it smoked with hickory, alder wood or chardonnay oak barrels? Questions like these could plague the casual shopper, but for discerning gourmets looking for unique spices to enliven their dishes, the Savory Spice shop will seem a remarkable addition to the shops at Rice Village. 

Pasha adds Turkish spin to Middle Eastern favorites

(09/03/14 6:23am)

Pasha stands in a converted house along University Boulevard on the outskirts of Rice Village. Though the quaint Turkish eatery may look uninteresting from the outside, inside, red walls decorated with paintings and china set the backdrop for a much more charming meal than the restaurant’s dirty awning and neon signs would have you think.