Chef Chat, Part 3: Jonathan Jones of Monarch at the Hotel Zaza and His Beautiful Spring Menu

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This is Part 3 of a three part Chef Chat series. If you missed our previous posts, click here to read Part 1 and Part 2.

Oftentimes, hotel restaurant menus are boring, safe, predictable. Where independent restaurants can take liberties with their menus and be as cutting edge or as esoteric as they want to be, hotel restaurants tend to be more conservative, offering "safe" menu options that are designed to be all things to all people. You get your choice of chicken, beef, fish, salad. How do you do turn safe and staid into something buzz-worthy? How you do you create a menu that is exciting, and yet, fulfills the demands of the hotel restaurant?

This week, we caught up with Monarch at the Hotel Zaza's new executive chef, Jonathan Jones, who is doing exactly that. With his newly launched spring menu, he takes risks and expresses his personality, while staying true to his clientele's wants and needs, creating a menu full of items that you could enjoy if you were a traveler in need of comfort, or a local looking for some great food. Let's taste what his creative juices have come up with.

First up, the deconstructed campechana. Traditionally, the seafood would be swimming in a rich red cocktail soup, but in Jones' version, he chose to highlight the seafood, placing the gulf blue crab and gulf wild cut shrimp on top, with the chunky cucumber and jicama campechana sauce on the bottom. The effect was more like a shrimp cocktail than a campechana, but I enjoyed the refreshingly crisp, tangy vegetable bites against the softer textures of the seafood. The chile-lime-avocado puree also finished off the dish nicely as well. It was served on its own, but I wouldn't have minded some crispy chips to go with this.

Next up was the octopus dish, which he'd described in detail in part 2 of this chef chat. I already knew without tasting this that it was a dish I would enjoy, I just didn't know how much. The whole thing was simply perfection: The plating was elegant, the textures so perfect I could have wept for joy, the flavors, layered and nuanced, restrained and yet powerful. Tender chunks of octopus with just enough char, little rounds of roasted potato fried in octopus-infused olive oil, and a sauce made from the juices the octopus had been stewed in, was absolutely stunning. A Spanish person would be proud to eat this dish.

We continued with an Asian inspired dish, a Thai-style beef salad. Inspired by the Thai larb, which is usually a ground meat salad, Jones' version had rice vermicelli noodles, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, Thai basil, pea shoots, mint and ground cashews in a dressing of mixed Red Boat fish sauce and lime. The kitchen butchers its own meat, so the salad was topped with a beautiful seared tenderloin. This dish would make anyone a wonderful meal in itself. I enjoyed it, though I would have preferred a sweeter dressing.

The following dish had me so excited I couldn't sit still: A tete de cochon (Black Hill Ranch fried pig's pork cheek and tongue) croquette with champagne gelat and berry yogurt transported me to Spain as I bit into the crispy, rich, croquette. The slight bitterness from the champagne gelat broke up the richness a bit, as did the acidity from the sweeter berry yogurt and just a hint of charred lemon vinaigrette. Jones didn't take credit for this dish, saying that it was wholly conceived by his sous chef, Jonathan Wicks, and to that I say kudos to both chef and sous. I loved that they took a chance by putting this very unusual dish on the menu, that Jones allowed his sous this freedom of creativity.

This was followed by a slew of mains: A wonderfully creamy shrimp and grits with a creole tomato sauce made with a Cajun mirepoix, with Homestead grist mill grits folded with some roasted poblano chiles and gouda oude borenkaas (old farmer's cheese); a fresh cresta de gallo pasta in marsala roasted chicken mushroom and kale marsala and bordelaise; and the showstopper of the afternoon, the scallops, peas and carrots.

Scallops, peas and carrots was one of those dishes that set bar, something I won't forget. A beautiful study of creams, greens, and oranges, the dish was so artistically so beautiful, I didn't want to ruin it by eating it. The golden seared, humongous scallops were set on top of a creamy green sweet pea and mint puree. In the middle of the dish, a mound of potato risotto with boursin cheese was punctuated with tiny butter poached baby carrots and pea shoots. The puree was like the smoothest pea soup, the textures velvety and soft, the flavor pure and sweet. I loved the chunky softness of the potato risotto, which still managed to taste light and delicate, yet creamy and cheesy at the same time. Add to that the silky firmness of a perfectly cooked scallop, and I couldn't help but gush enthusiastically. "This is amazing! Such a beautiful dish!"

I left the tasting impressed by Jones' verve, his flair, his restraint, and the spirit of Monarch's new Spring menu, which to me reads like an ode to Jone's diverse background as a chef, as well as to Houston's diverse ethnic landscape. At Monarch, Jones is not just making hotel restaurant food. He's making food that is distinctly Houstonian.

Monarch at the Hotel Zaza 5701 Main Houston Tel: 713-526-1991 www.hotelzazahouston.com

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