Each Meal Is a Production at The Pass
Never had Julia Child so invaded my psyche as she did at this dinner. She was there from the first course, a trio of oysters whose finesse "The French Chef" would have been proud of, each with a different flavor profile — Champagne, salad, cream puff. She was there in the middle of the meal, her influence apparent in a roll of chilled foie gras surrounded by red velvet cake and a few bites of lamb wrapped in puff pastry on a smear of coffee yogurt. She was there in the bathroom, her distinctive voice bouncing off the tile walls. And she was there on the wall, her now-immortal words written in chalk on a large blackboard:
"Drama is very important in life. You have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper. Everything can have drama if it's done right. Even a pancake."
There aren't any pancakes here (yet), but there is a near-overabundance of drama. Each meal is a production, with a rising action that begins as you cross into a hidden room behind a black wall that falls back to become a doorway into the quiet dining area. The action continues into the first few courses, during which servers come by to perform a show of sorts by gracefully pouring broth into a bowl while reciting the complicated ingredients from memory. Toward the end of the eight-course tasting menu comes the climax, a few brilliant proteins completely reimagined, followed by the slow, gentle, sweet denouement that ends with a cart of petits fours.
This is the nightly performance at The Pass, the ultra-modern restaurant that's been garnering praise from media outlets across the country since it opened in late November 2012, nearly a month and a half after its sister restaurant, Provisions, made her debut. It's the creation of chefs Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner, who first wowed Houston with their Just August pop-up restaurant, followed by the Pilot Light series of dinners, which sold out within half an hour and cemented the duo's place as stars in the Houston culinary scene.
Now, a little more than a year after it opened, The Pass isn't drawing quite the same crowds it did during its first few months of life, but the food is better than ever. The restaurant recently debuted its newest tasting menu, which features some of the most creative and gustatorially tantalizing dishes the Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner team have served. There's also a new vegetarian/gluten-free/almost-vegan menu that mirrors some of the ingredients and flavors of the regular menu, only without gluten and, for the most part, any animal products.
Where the regular menu offers oysters three ways, the vegetarian menu serves oyster mushroom chowder. Instead of chocolate or vanilla cakes, there's strawberry peppercorn sorbet, and mushroom bread with ricotta is replaced by the most flavorful bowl of enoki mushrooms and truffle purée ever to grace a table.
After all the writing that's been done about The Pass — from Bon Appétit, where it was named the sixth-best new restaurant of 2013, to a rave review in Texas Monthly — what's left to say about the restaurant that, along with other heavy hitters including Oxheart and Underbelly, has put Houston on the culinary map?
What's left is this new vegetarian menu, and the way in which a restaurant that could easily rest on its laurels is continuing to step up to the plate, and then reinvent the plate entirely.
Go behind the scenes at The Pass with our slideshow, "A Closer Look at The Pass."
"It's so beautifully arranged," Julia Child once said. "You know someone's fingers have been all over it."
And here at The Pass, they have. As have tweezers and liquid nitrogen and maltodextrin and anything else that ups the whimsy factor. From the first course through the eighth, each meal is meticulously planned, from fingertips to tongue, to achieve the maximum amount of surprise and thrill from diners who have, by now, come to expect the unexpected from the two quiet chefs determinedly plating masterpieces in the open kitchen.
From one of the 40 or so seats in the stark yet inviting black-and-white dining room, audience members (because that's really a more apt term than "diners") can see most of the long kitchen in which dinner for The Pass is prepared. It's not quite separated from the Provisions area of the kitchen, but there's a definite divide. On the Provisions side, there's a glowing wood-burning oven and the frenetic activity of rotating pizzas, slicing meat, and firing orders from behind a black countertop that looks out on a warm, wood-paneled dining room. On the other side of the imaginary divide, a few chefs stand at the serving station up front, delicately but swiftly arranging each of the many ingredients that compose a single dish before sending it off with a server or sometimes walking it to a table themselves to explain what exactly you'll be eating.
For a recent tasting menu — one that was retired in mid-January — Gallivan seemed to take the lead, standing at the front of the kitchen and expediting. Now it's Siegel-Gardner's turn to take the position of the captain helming the masterful ship. When I first went to The Pass, back in October, I left amused but unimpressed. The eight-course tasting menu is $95 per person. If you choose to tack on the optional wine or cocktail pairings, you'll be at $160 per person. Even by Houston fine-dining standards, dinner at The Pass is not an inexpensive meal.
In October, the dinner opened with a duck egg chawanmushi served inside the egg shell with a foie gras mousse and granola, which added an odd texture to an otherwise smooth, creamy bite. I had also hoped the "nest" on which it was served would be edible, but upon inspection I discovered it was wood shavings. The Pass is tricky like that.
The worst dish of that evening was coffee-rubbed venison served with a whole rutabaga that had been baked in a salt pack. The venison was tough and too bitter thanks to the coffee, and the salt had so inundated the rutabaga that it was odious to the palate. The two dessert courses at the end of the meal (not to be confused with the final petits fours course) were also disappointing. Truffle risotto had an odd sweet flavor, while the cheese plate with a Camembert-esque wedge from a dairy farm in Georgia came with bread so crusty it was difficult to chew, let alone taste the cheese I'd spread on top.
Still, I counted the meal a success, thanks largely to the pumpkin course (which was sweet enough that it really should have followed the risotto course). I was given a plate with an apple cake, apple butter and toasted pumpkin seeds, and while I was admiring the shiny glaze on the cake, a server appeared with a jack-o-lantern that was emitting steam. From the large pumpkin, he scooped out freshly frozen pumpkin ice cream that had been solidified with the help of liquid nitrogen. It was more than a course in a tasting menu. It was a show, and the food served as part of it was the best of the meal.
I'm harder-pressed to choose a favorite dish from the current menu at The Pass, since I was both intrigued and enormously satisfied in each of the categories I use to judge a place like The Pass: whimsy, presentation and, of course, taste. I genuinely loved every course on the vegetarian menu, which I ordered not because I wanted it, but so my companion could get the meatier menu. As it turned out, I think I had the better meal.
Where he had lamb, solid but not overly exciting, I had squash, several different kinds prepared in at least half a dozen ways. There was a ring of butternut squash lightly caramelized and topped with slices of dried zucchini and surrounded by bits of spaghetti squash, squash mousse and some sort of squash cream. Never before had I been so enamored of a gourd.
The vegetarian mushroom course was revelatory, featuring delicate enoki mushrooms bunched together and wrapped in a thin layer of potato, then flash-fried and served over some grayish smears of truffle sauce, powdered basil and tiny pickled mushroom caps. Like the squash, the mushroom dish is a sort of variation on a theme (this theme being fungi), and the different flavors the chefs are able to extract from similar vegetables are almost mind-blowing.
The best dish on the regular menu is the foie gras wrapped in red velvet cake — a combination of flavors that shouldn't work but really, really does, thanks to the faintly sweet foie and the not-so-sweet cake. Of course, while my dining companion oohed and ahhed over the foie gras course, I was doing the same with my squash, and then again with crisp layers of smoked potato and apples, and once more with that spectacularly spicy strawberry sorbet that I expected to find interesting but not as incredible as it turned out to be.
So, too, did I find myself falling unexpectedly in love with a sliced fennel bulb, something I had previously thought I didn't really like. It's cut into a sort of figure 8, with overlapping lines that create spaces into which various sauces are poured. Think you don't like olives? Try the little pocket of Kalamata olive sauce with a bite of roasted fennel and get back to me. And then, if you're still not sold on odd flavor combinations, revel in the palate cleanser that is the strawberry sorbet dotted with Thai peppercorns and served on a smear of fuchsia hibiscus syrup and a bit of popped buckwheat for a little crunch. I ended up wiping my fingertips across the plate to get every last bit of pink syrup and melted sorbet, then licking them clean, manners be damned.
But really, I don't think anyone — especially not the chefs — would mind such a breach in decorum. In spite of the upscale atmosphere and lofty prices, The Pass is fun. It's really fun. When dishes arrive at tables, diners' faces light up with joy, and they're amazed by the form that a simple bread course has taken. Guests delight upon discovering unexpected textures on plates almost too pretty to eat, and they laugh heartily as the vapor from liquid nitrogen momentarily obscures their vision. If you want a classy meal, go to Brennan's or Tony's or Da Marco. If you want food with a wink and a nod served by two tattooed guys who may or may not be punking us all, go to The Pass.
Back in the bathroom, the words of Julia Child emanate from a speaker, at first surprising visitors, then, when you listen more closely, providing context for the evening's meal.
"This is my invariable advice to people," Child warbles over the whoosh of flushing toilets and running water and the faint hum of conversation from the dining room outside. "Learn how to cook. Try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless and above all have fun!"
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