It's a nearly religious experience when Pax Americana's chef, Adam Dorris, takes one simple ingredient and builds a dish around it that highlights its inherent goodness. Take, for example, the beautiful deep red confit carrots, lightly sweetened with sorghum, that recline in the most lovely way atop a carrot purée enhanced by lemon, lime and orange zest and their respective juices. The whole is elevated and brightened further with a dose of Banyuls vinegar. The finishing touch? A smattering of delightfully crunchy granola of caraway and almond.
"Pax Americana" means "American peace," but the phrase is much more historically significant than that. The term entered the world's dialogue just after World War II, when the United States spent $13 billion to rebuild devastated regions of Western Europe. It was a benevolent act, but more important, it was a stroke of savvy diplomacy achieved by virtue of the country's strong economic position.
The restaurant of the same name highlights the strength of American wines and ingredients. Domestic meats and local produce are used in the most savvy of ways. Expensive European wines are eschewed in favor of stellar Rieslings from New York's Finger Lakes to California's Central Coast and respectable Sauvignons Blancs from Santa Barbara.
On the wall, there's a backlit metal sculpture of the United States, but this is not a house of nostalgic stars and stripes. Pax Americana is about our current culinary landscape, where the produce is local and domestic wines are the rediscovered darlings of sommeliers everywhere.
It's not just about the wine, though: The cocktails are excellent and reasonable as well. Most are $10 or less. A paloma, made in the traditional way with Fresca soda, was juicy, effervescent, salty and absolutely irresistible. Those looking for a twist on something more grounded and strong will find the smoked old fashioned a study in beautiful simplicity, with only rye, smoked sorghum and both orange and Angostura bitters.
The menu is cleverly divided into five categories: Bread, Vegetable, Sea, Land and Sugar. Choosing a dish from each category makes for a memorable meal for two with few if any leftovers. The bread courses are not what you might think. These are complex, composed dishes accompanied by tender, hearty slices of bread sourced from Common Bond, the bakery that has made a name for itself in Houston in less than a year.
Of the dishes in that category, the farm fresh eggs is the one that will stay on diners' minds for days and will bring them back through the doors in a week or two. When it shows up at the table, there's no sign of the eggs at first. They're completely covered by a salad composed of three types each of mint and basil, sorrel and other seasonal greens sourced from Fresh Herbs of Houston. Dig in, though, and you'll find the round of eggs with their soft yolks nestled in the bottom of a little cast-iron pan. The whites become lightly brown around the edges in the prettiest way, and the herb salad benefits from their warmth.
As with most dishes at Pax Americana, there is even more depth. This is not simply eggs, salad and bread. There's a scallion kimchi aioli, thin (but not overused) slices of Thai pepper and purple barley to keep you going down the rabbit hole of tastes and textures. Another display of the exquisite harmony that can be found at Pax is the long tendrils of Portuguese octopus with grilled rapini, Meyer lemons and cipollini onions. A forkful of a bit of everything, swiped through the seductive garlic and almond skordalia (which is much like hummus), is a little piece of gastronomic heaven. The skordalia elevates the rapini. The onions benefit from the lemon slices. It's a game of one-upmanship that's terrifically fun to play.
On rare occasions, there's a bad note in this symphony. Bone marrow was so overwhelmed by a surfeit of pink peppercorns and thick stems of strong-tasting arugula that it was relegated to the role of a mere extra on the sidelines. It was just too much, although the exuberance is -admirable.
Leaving an assortment of heirloom green beans nearly raw didn't do them any favors, resulting in a distracting, bitter taste that would have been tempered with a bit more cooking. Even tossing them in lemongrass vinaigrette and the clever companions of summer squash, fennel and beet purées couldn't overcome the unpleasant sharpness.
One might not expect a mind-blowing steak at a restaurant such as this one, but there it was: grilled gooseneck round, accompanied by a few halved Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, farro, dabs of creamy tonnato, and a golden swath of sweet potato and bone marrow purée that anchored it all.
If you think round steak has to be tough, this will change your mind forever. Pax Americana's is extra-beefy, and they leave it pink so it remains tender. At a mere $19, it's a must-have for meat lovers that blows away some of the more pedantic and expensive steakhouse offerings.
For dessert, there's nothing better to follow up with than the sanguinaccio fritters. They're round, sugar-coated doughnuts filled with a glossy chocolate ganache that's enhanced with a bit of pork blood. Yes, you read that correctly -- and while these fritters may not be for the squeamish, they are indeed warm, intense, deep, sexy and decadent. Just try them once and you'll become a believer. A quenelle of horchata ice cream lends creamy calmness, while a few toasted pecan halves make for some crunchy playfulness.
Happily working one's way through the menu with a reasonably priced bottle of one of the many American wines standing attendant is a good way to spend an evening. Pax probably doesn't turn tables frequently throughout the evening. No one's in a hurry to leave. Why would they be? It's the type of place that makes you want to blow off the after-dinner movie and just keep dining and imbibing until they tell you to go home.
Pax is fun. Inside it's not romantic or quiet. The raucous noise level measured at 95 decibels on a Saturday night visit. That's the same level a person experiences standing on the sidewalk when a car zips by, except at Pax, it's a constant dull roar until business slows down late in the evening. There's an easy way to avoid it, though, at least as long as the nice weather holds: Sit on the patio. A second visit there was quiet, and it was incredibly easy to have a good conversation.
It's absolutely necessary to make reservations. Pax is not a particularly large place -- about 150 seats including the bar and patio. When the weather becomes cold for the short winter months, the patio seating in front of the restaurant may not be viable, either. Also, it's open only for dinner. No lunch means more competition for seats at dinner, although seating at the old-fashioned marble-topped bar counter is often available, and enjoyable. While it's too bad Pax is not open for lunch, Houston time and again proves fickle when it comes to going out for the midday meal.
If you're going to course your way through dinner, there are two choices when selecting a wine to pair with the wide range of flavors. Go by the glass and swap it up as you go, or settle on a bottle with sufficient acidity and flexibility that it won't overwhelm delicate flavors but can stand up to the headier ones. Riesling, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Petit Sirah all fit the criteria. MadCat Cellars X-1 Petit Sirah blend (from Pax Americana's own Shepard Ross) went well with the steak but was not so overpowering as to destroy the firm, white and subtle Gulf Barrel Grouper that we'd also ordered.
Pax Americana is one of the most innovative, memorable restaurants to have opened in Houston this past year. Even at its young age, it is well on its way to earning the accolades that are sure to come.
Farm fresh eggs with herb salad $12 Roasted bone marrow $14 Carrots confit in sorghum $12 Heirloom green beans $12 Gulf barrel grouper $19 Grilled gooseneck round $19 Braised Berkshire pork collar $19 Chocolate custard with lemon mint sherbet $9 Texas wildflower honey panna cotta with hazelnut sandies $9 Sanguinaccio fritters $9
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