At the table next to us, three business-suit clad men let out exclamations of excitement when their first round of plates arrived. Many of the plates were topped with tufts of mixed green herbs, already something of a signature at the two-week-old Pax Americana.
"We have a farmer who's planting these herbs for us," says Pax's chef Adam Dorris when asked. "It's changing constantly. It's changed since we did our friends and family meals a week ago," he says, adding that the vegetables are all organic.
Dorris, who spent time as chef de cuisine at Revival Market before spending a few months traveling, is comfortable with the greens, adding them to dishes with almost gleeful zeal.
They topped his farm fresh skillet eggs, which came buried beneath the loosely arranged blob of fragrant greens. You had to lift the mixture of scallion, mint, shiso,Thai Basil, basil and Vietnamese rau ram with a fork to see what was underneath -- eggs cooked to just the right doneness, their yolks a creamy golden yellow that soaked up beautifully when dipped with the crisp artisanal bread that accompanied it (made by Common Bond -- the only restaurant serving their bread at the moment).
An order of the super large shrimp, dressed in lime juice and sesame oil, got the same treatment, but with a smattering of peanuts on top. Grilled to a slight char, their flesh sweet yet briny, the shrimp displayed a good dose of umami thanks to a deftly applied fish sauce seasoning. In this case, the herbs combined with the fish sauce brine to give the dish a decidedly Southeast Asian sensibility. It was something you could have encountered on a coastal town in Vietnam.
Then there was the meltingly tender smoked beef brisket,
the meat sous vide each slice coated with a glossy barbecue-esque black garlic vinaigrette so that the striations were barely noticeable in the meat-- also topped with the signature tuft of herbs (though a slightly different mix). It was classic Southern with a twist. It was familiar, yet new, delightfully fresh, and just so, so delicious. That's the moment when you "get" Pax Americana, the moment you realize that even in its fledgling stages as a restaurant -- Pax is the very definition of new Houston cuisine.
In the Pax kitchen, sriracha and fish sauce are used just like barbecue sauce and foie gras. It's Vietnamese and American, French and Southern, and more -- everything equal. It doesn't matter that rau ram is an herb that doesn't even have an English translation. In the same way that Houston has become the most diverse city in the country, the mix of flavors and ingredients --normally used to distinguish specific types of ethnic food -- comes together effortlessly in this new kitchen. Dorris attributes no specific ethnic influence to the menu, saying that the dishes, created in collaboration with co-chef Plinio Sandalio, are evolving daily .
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Grilled honeydew salad topped with hazelnut dressing and small blocks of feta cheese (when have you ever seen this combination) is at once ingenious as it is amazing --like a farmer's market take on Greek salad -- sweet and slightly smoky, firm yet smooth, the feta adding this salty pastiness to each wonderful bite. A savory tart is just a pleasure, the crust delicate and crisp and light against a caramelized onion and butternut squash center topped with roasted pear and tallegio.
A plain-looking white plate of goat ricotta is clearly the underdog -- until you scoop up the bits of preserved peach and sunflower rye and realize that it's like burrata or bufala mozzarella, only lighter, fresher, strikingly so. Simple and unadulterated, the quality of the ingredients take center stage in this wonderful peaches and cream-type dish.
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The menu is short and well-edited, a front-side-only one pager that comes clipped to a plain recycled clipboard, divided into sections that are self-explanatory: shareables, vegetable, sea, land, sugar. It reads well, the descriptions good enough to make you want to order everything, or at the very least, spend some time trying to decide what not to order. Portions are smaller than conventional entree sizes, so that you can easily do two to three starters and mains per person (dishes range from $9 for dessert to $19 for sea and land dishes).
The space has a cozy bistro feel, with an attractive old-school style bar at the entrance and an excellent cocktail menu, containing fresh twists on classics. Our gin cocktail with fresh beet juice was excellent; a peach-colored mezcal-based cocktail with a white foam top was also very good.
The restaurant artwork -- borrowed from the private collection of one of the owners (there are three, including Shepard Ross of Glass Wall/Brooklyn Athletic Club and Dan Zimmerman La Colombe d'Or ), includes a genuine Andy Warhol of China's Mao Tse Tung. It's fancy, but in a way, symbolic. Across from Chairman Mao, on the opposite wall, is a back-lit metal sculpture in the shape of the United States. Pax, they seem to say to each other, as, all around, couples and small groups share creative plates, drink and conversation.
And just like that, Pax Americana soars to the front of the list of best new Houston restaurants of 2014.