Restaurant Reviews

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.

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Kaitlin Steinberg