When I ordered campechana on my first visit to the Hotel ZaZa’s Monarch Bistro, the waiter delivered a big white ball of shrimp and lump crabmeat on a rectangular plate, not the seafood cocktail in a parfait glass I was expecting. It looked like it had been dropped from an ice cream scoop. On one side was a painterly smear of bright green puréed avocado, on the other a puddle of dark red Mexican cocktail sauce. I almost told him to take it back.
5701 Main St
But then I took another look at the menu and had a good laugh. Under the word “campechana,” the ingredients were dutifully listed in small print—Gulf shrimp, blue crab, spicy Mexican cocktail sauce, avocado, and cilantro—but there was no hint that the Mexican seafood cocktail was deconstructed. That was the first time I ever thought to accuse Monarch chef Jonathan Jones of understatement. And not only was it delicious, I liked that I could get a big forkful of seafood and add as much or as little sauce as I wanted.
Jones has a cult following in Houston. He first made a name for himself at Max’s Wine Dive with items like a grass-fed beef frankfurter topped with both jalapeños and venison chili. At Beaver’s Ice House, he served carnitas on Texas toast with heritage pork and beans. In those early days, he told me his cooking was “salt-of-the-earth Texas food.”
After marrying a fellow chef whose family comes from Mexico, La Porte native Jones plunged into Latino cooking, learning about ceviche, Peruvian tiradito, and other fish preparations while working with the Cordúa group. Later, at modern Latin restaurant Concepción, he made ceviche with seldom-seen Gulf bycatch such as scarlet grouper in exotic Peruvian marinades like hibiscus leche de tigre. Each step of the way, Jones’s foodie fans followed him.
So how did this cutting-edge chef end up with a menu that features two steaks, a kale salad, and items with names like “Simply Salmon” and “Simply Chicken”? I suppose a hotel, even one with a reputation for eccentricity, still has to offer the salads and unadorned grilled and broiled proteins that travelers demand.
After my clever campechana appetizer, I could only hope that some of the other understated-sounding items on the menu offered the same pleasant surprise.
Thursday evening is a convenient time to visit the restaurant for dinner, since admission to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is free that day and Hotel ZaZa is right around the corner. We sat on the covered patio for dinner, where there was a great view of Mecom Fountain and the lower noise level allowed for easier conversation. The indoor dining area sits adjacent to a lively bar. If I were a lonely traveler, I would have made a beeline for that side.
You expect a Jonathan Jones restaurant to have some kind of ceviche on the starter list, and sure enough, there’s an innovative Japanese-Latino raw fish creation called “spiced ahi tuna tacos.” Three crispy “taco shells” of fried Japanese gyoza dumpling wrappers arrived on a rectangular plate, leaned up against each other. The filling featured chunks of buttery, sushi-grade ahi tuna and avocado tossed together in a spicy pico de gallo. It was a lovely little appetizer, but the subtle flavors were a faint echo of the tart and spicy Peruvian tiraditos Jones was once known for.
My dining companion ordered the market fish. One thing that has remained constant about Jones is his dedication to sustainable Gulf seafood. That night, he served redfish cut into thin fillet slices, floured and flash-cooked until they were slightly crispy, and served over a luscious Middle Eastern-style mélange of black lentil hummus and big chunks of artichoke hearts. It was a brilliant, multicultural presentation that took the humble fish to another level.
I got the shrimp and grits, which did indeed remind me of the “salt-of-the-earth Texas food” that Jones used to serve at Beaver’s. Ham hocks added a big, smoky flavor to the stone-ground heritage grits with poblano peppers. Jumbo, wild-caught Texas shrimp were simmered in a spicy tomato-and-pepper Creole sauce and poured over the grits. It’s one of the most full-flavored versions of shrimp and grits I have tasted.
You could argue that the necessity of winning approval from hotel management for each dish before it’s served at Monarch has helped polish some of the chef’s rough edges; the food he serves now is far more restrained and sophisticated than what he has served in the past. But the flamboyant flourishes that won Jones so many fans in the local food scene will surely be missed.
With so many restaurants to choose from, I’m not sure how many Houstonians will visit Monarch Bistro for dinner, but it’s a practical place for lunch. You can drive up to the lobby entrance, have the valet park your car, and get your ticket validated in the restaurant. The lunch menu prices are reasonable, and the foliage and flowers surrounding the covered patio are gorgeous in the sunlight.
One of the best things I sampled on the lunch menu was the “One Hot Chick” sandwich, the only taste we get of his former passion for Mexican food. The sandwich features the extremely satisfying combination of juicy blackened chicken breast, avocado, bacon, pepper jack, and spicy chipotle mayo on a crusty roll with French fries and bread-and-butter jalapeños on the side. And at ten bucks, it’s a great deal.
I split my chicken sandwich with my dining companion, who ordered the least successful dish I sampled in three lunches and one dinner at Monarch. “Creste de Gallo” was a bowl of beautiful cockscomb pasta with roasted chicken, mushrooms, greens, Marsala, and parmesan. The dish sounded and looked delicious, but none of the ingredients managed to shine through. It was just a boring bowl of pasta.
The market fish proved to be a good bet at both lunch and dinner. On one lunchtime visit, the fish of the day was a crispy-topped square of beautifully cooked swordfish perched in a pool of creamy, green herb risotto. The aroma of mint made this one of the most intriguing risottos I have tasted and a great foil for the meaty fish.
Under the catch-all heading “Daily Soup,” I got a spicy stone-crab rich seafood-and-tomato broth with a solid chile-pepper punch and a generous portion of crabmeat. Floating on top was a meaty, whole, cracked stone-crab claw on a crouton.
Lunch is also a great time to order some of the starters and salads. The fried cauliflower was a stunning appetizer that came with zesty red Thai curry dressing and a topping of dried bonito fish flakes. Shepherd’s salad was a bowl of tasty heirloom tomatoes cut into chunks and tossed with Texas feta, fresh mint, red onion, and cucumbers in the style of a Mediterranean salad. “Tequila mussels” turned out to be a Thai-Mexican mash-up with big, creamy-colored mussels served in coconut-milk broth with serrano chiles, garlic, and chopped cilantro.
All of these dishes are well worth ordering, but it seems like the food isn’t really targeted at Houstonians, who love their bold flavors. Perhaps it’s intended to give a national and international audience a taste of the Houston food scene (albeit slightly toned down and less spicy). In that mission, Monarch Bistro succeeds admirably. But in the end, the restaurant left me hungry for more of the distinctive style of cooking we have come to expect from chef Jones.