Restaurant Review

Ain’t That Americana?

Journey to the postwar era at Montrose’s Pax Americana

By Robb Walsh November 3, 2014 Published in the November 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Gulf fish, always on the menu at Pax Americana

Image: Kate LeSueur

The Beet-Nik cocktail at Pax Americana on Montrose begins with gin, lemon juice, and caraway syrup in a tall rocks glass, and then a borscht-like splash of blood-red beet juice is poured on top, swirling down through the ice cubes in a scarlet cloud. It tastes like a tall, Eastern European martini. The restaurant’s classic Bourbon Manhattan is called the Manhattan Project.

It wasn’t until manager Chris Fleischman explained—Pax Americana is named for the post-WWII period when an “American Peace” spread across the Western world—that I began to connect the dots. The retro Mad Men–era interior with its antique bar, French doors, ceiling fans, and dark wood chairs, the artwork by American masters like Andy Warhol, and the all-American beverage list. It’s a mid-century crazy quilt. 

Owner Shepard Ross describes the fare as locally-sourced and globally-inspired, which he says fits right into the Pax Americana theme because servicemen returning from Europe and the Pacific brought new tastes home after the war. “Right after World War II, the rest of the world crept into American culture,” Ross notes. 

There are only 16 items on the dinner menu each night, four of them desserts. The whole thing changes daily depending on what farmers, ranchers, and fishermen can provide, but there are some constants. “There will always be Gulf fish on the menu, and the braised chicken and brisket are becoming signature items,” says Ross.

 “Every morning around 8 a.m., [suppliers] start calling me and telling me what they have,” executive chef Adam Dorris explains. “And I come up with something to do with it.” 

On a recent visit, the Sea section of the menu was populated with Gulf swordfish in smoked corn sauce, Gulf almaco jack—an excellent tuna-like fish that used to be discarded as trash fish—and Gulf grouper.

I tried the grouper, which was draped over a bed of blue crab and white anchovies in butter sauce, and served a little on the rare side, which gave the fish a dense, resilient texture that reminded me of lobster. I smeared a forkful of the thick, white fish steak with a buttery dab of anchovies and crabmeat, which gave the old favorite an entirely new dimension. 

The bar in a rare quiet moment

In his previous gigs at Stella Sola and Revival Market, Dorris was best known for his charcuterie, and he promised me that when things calm down at wildly popular Pax, he will find the space to cure some sausages, hams, and bacons. But there are plenty of innovative meat dishes to enjoy in the meantime, such as his steak tartare, a culinary classic that Dorris has reinvented. Instead of the minced steak, raw egg, chopped onion, parsley, capers, and mustard of the original, Dorris has created a wild mélange of raw beef chunks, pickles, horseradish, chervil, and canned tuna sauce of the sort you find on Italian veal tonnato. This twisted tartare is then dotted with dollops of cultured cream that look disturbingly like miniature marshmallows, but give the beef a wonderfully creamy mouthfeel. Spread it on the accompanying slices of grilled Common Bond sourdough and you’ve got the best creamed beef on toast you’ve ever tasted.

The other beefy star on the menu is the brisket with nine-spice and potatoes. The day I ordered it, the thick slices of brisket were served in a bowl over sour cream–covered smoked potatoes and black garlic, all topped with a salad-like pile of baby mustard, mizuna, and other greens. On other occasions it might come with cilantro or other fresh-plucked greens. 

The nine-spice–rubbed brisket is slow-cooked in a Southern Pride smoker—a stainless steel smoker oven—which gives the meat an intriguing flavor that’s a cross between Texas brisket and Chinese ribs. The blend here includes pink peppercorns, fennel seed, fennel pollen, coriander, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, star anise, and cloves.

Braised chicken is another regular menu item—and as with the brisket, its accompaniments change with the season. On my first visit, it came with grilled peaches, jalapeños, and okra. Some of the okra had been braised in the sauce and tasted wonderful, while others were grilled and used as garnish. I made the mistake of trying to eat one of the large grilled okra and was rewarded with what tasted like a mouthful of wood pulp, though the chicken itself was tender and well-cooked. On my next visit, black plums had replaced the peaches.

There is a brownie à la mode on the dessert menu, and then there’s a roasted figs/hazelnut financier/foie gras ice cream assemblage that may be the most unusual item on the menu. No, the foie gras ice cream didn’t taste like liver, but it was so rich it coated my tongue in frozen duck fat. 

The most amazing dessert on the menu is the sanguinaccio, an Italian chocolate pudding thickened with pig’s blood, which Dorris used to make at Revival. Here, small spheres of the pudding are fried in donut batter and served with horchata ice cream, lemon curd, and candied pecans. I know it sounds weird, but if you like chocolate, you have to try it—you’ll never notice the pig’s blood. 

I’m not sure that the labels being used to describe Pax—New American, Modern American, etc.—really do justice to the highly inventive, locally-sourced cooking that its young chefs are putting on the table. The Cold War years of the Pax Americana was also the era that invented American exceptionalism. Maybe we should call the food at this stunning new restaurant “exceptional American” and leave it at that. 

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