With a royal moniker like Monarch Restaurant and a chef named Bradley Manchester, you might expect this place to be serving steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash and some nice trifle for afters. 'Ow's that sound, ducky?
Well, sorry, Anglophiles. You'll have to keep getting your spotted dick at the Red Lion.
Despite that apparent British pedigree, Monarch would probably curl up and die rather than serve anything so...so...pedestrian. This is the in-house restaurant at the stylish new Hotel ZaZa, which took over the grande dame Warwick Hotel, and now it would seem everything must be done with...flair!
Unless you've been submerged in a diving bell the past year, you know the back story. There's a Hotel ZaZa in Dallas noted for its offbeat blend of luxury and eccentric décor, and the owners decided Houston needed more of the same. After a series of false starts and delays, they finally transformed the Houston landmark into a hip, happening venue, as press releases and society columnists like to say.
For the past few weeks, Monarch and the seafood sensation REEF have been arm-wrestling each other for Most Popular Place in Town honors. Reservations on weekends have been harder to get than sympathy for Paris Hilton.
Despite the considerable hype and hullabaloo surrounding the Hotel ZaZa, once you actually dine at Monarch, you discover the dirty little secret: It's really a fairly conventional restaurant with a menu that, save for some saffron nage here and some wasabi cream there, could have been served at the Warwick Hotel's restaurant two decades ago. And I offer that more or less as a compliment (even though the owners will probably put out a mob hit on me for saying so).
Chef Bradley Manchester may not be offering roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, but there is a relatively straightforward approach here that — given the hotel's penchant for the novel and avant-garde — seems almost quaint. What else can you say about a fairly brief menu that offers not one but two surf-and-turf entrées? One actually carries that title (a Kobe short rib paired with a lobster for $42) while the other has tenderloin medallions sharing the plate with scallops (at $36).
Add to that a roasted chicken, grilled salmon, glazed pork chop and Black Angus, filet plus side orders like mac and cheese, creamed spinach and garlic mashed potatoes, and it's hard to avoid words like, um, "customary" and "conservative." Not that anything's wrong with that — it's just not what's generally expected from your hip and happening places. Or maybe there's some sort of intentionally wry twist intended, and I'm too irony-deficient to get it.
In any event, I must point out that these dishes are done very, very well, and the last thing Monarch needs to do is apologize for preparing good food. Something as simple as a summer salad of pears, greens and gorgonzola cheese was a standout, with a walnut vinaigrette providing a nutty, astringent background. A halibut crusted in mushrooms (however did they remain intact?) was delightful, letting the flavor of the fish shine through. A couple of lamb chops were surprisingly succulent, their faint mutton-y taste balanced nicely against an almost-sweet Shiraz reduction.
The kitchen displays a little more creativity with the appetizers, most notably with an order of glorified foie gras canapés topped with red onion marmalade ($19) or a small plate of crab cakes agreeably goosed up with mango-chipotle sauce and avocado relish ($15). Diners in the main dining room, which provides a striking view of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Mecom Fountain, can also order a couple of tuna delicacies or Oysters Tabasco Mignonette from the "raw bar" in the Monarch Lounge just across the hall.
Actually, it's the lounge that has probably been attracting most of the see-and-be-seen types to Monarch. At the common entrance to the restaurant and lounge, a sign informs patrons that "Monarch is Stylish, Sensual and Dignified...So Are You. Appropriate Dress Required." As far as I could tell, the stylish and the sensual headed for the lounge and those of us with only our dignity left turned into the dining room.
That dining room is decked out rather austerely in grays and blacks, with just enough flashes of bright red and faux-leopard to stop it from being somber. Outfitted in ninja black, the waitstaff proved to be uniformly young and probably too affable to create the kind of smooth, almost mystical ambience that management may have envisioned. But I ask you, just how chic can you be when one of the desserts is a "make your topping cupcake"?
If you want to see the core aesthetic for Hotel ZaZa, take a stroll through the lobby. There you will find a large — what shall we call it, display? — wherein two stuffed peacocks and a bridal-gowned mannequin in a Lucite cage are suspended above a bed of Zen garden-ish gray stones. Elsewhere in the dimly lit lobby are moody black-and-white photographs, surrealistic paintings, Donald Fagen tunes and, yep, another mannequin lurking behind a column. Think HSPVA's senior prom with the theme "Fellini Groovy."
Part of Monarch's obstacle to being as provocative as the hotel itself comes from its need to meet the quotidian demands of being a hotel restaurant. At a full-service hostelry like this, guests expect to have the option for on-site breakfast and lunch (and room service). Some hotels handle that with a secondary coffee shop or café operation. But Hotel ZaZa doesn't. Instead, the lounge is pressed into service and does double duty during the day. A respectable lunch is served — I enjoyed a freshly made turkey club sandwich and a companion was impressed with a hearty black bean soup larded with chunks of beef tenderloin — but service was spotty, to say the least. Inexplicably, our order for iced tea couldn't be filled. They were out. Who runs out of iced tea in Houston in the middle of summer?
One answer might be a kitchen and staff that are trying to do too much. Running a restaurant is a strenuous and demanding enterprise. Running a hotel restaurant can be even more so.
Last year, USA Today ran an article about the 100 best hotel restaurants in America, and Houston got dissed pretty good, scoring only one — the Remington at the St. Regis — in that august group. (For the record, Dallas had four, Austin two and San Antonio one.) I'm not sure I agree with those rankings. Bistro Moderne at the Hotel Derek, Bank at the Icon and 17 at the Alden certainly warrant consideration. But I do agree that hotel restaurants, the really good ones, are often facing a higher degree of difficulty. Since Monarch isn't as fussy and flamboyant as some patrons will be expecting — and paying top dollar for — they could wind up royally disappointed. The rest of us will settle for the great location and a meal that's almost fit for a king.
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