What should you expect when you eat at the Pass? To have your mind messed with, in the best possible way. That is the conclusion a friend and I reached when, in a happy daze, we polished off the last bite of an eight-course tasting menu at Houston’s hot new dining spot. In three heady hours, we had consumed vegetables in the guise of ice cream, nibbled a brioche bun that resembled a mushroom, marveled over a mound of shaved truffles that was a dead ringer for packing material, and gazed in awe at a cheese course perfectly disguised as French macarons. When, at some hazy point during the festivities, smoke from a burning spruce twig wafted our way, we laughed. The last time either of us could remember being so amused by food, smoke from a different plant had been an integral part of the experience. I’ve seen many dazzling presentations, but I am hard-pressed to think of a Texas restaurant that enjoys kidding around more than the Pass.
Open since the end of November, the Pass is the upscale half of a dual-concept restaurant named the Pass and Provisions, owned by chef-partners Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan. Occupying the left side of the two adjacent dining rooms and open since September, easy, casual Provisions features pasta, wood-oven pizzas, and novel bread and cheese pairings. More formal, the Pass offers two prix-fixe menus in a white room outfitted with gray velvet chairs and linen-covered tables. As you pause beside the massive black metal door at the front of the restaurant, the dining area looks minimalist, even stark, and you quickly see that the entire back wall is open to the restaurant’s pristine kitchen. In between is a large butcher-block table where the food is plated, in a space known in restaurant lingo as the pass. As each dish is finished, a server or a cook or even one of the two chefs picks it up and delivers it to its destination.
The Pass may be the first restaurant that the two thirtysomething chefs have owned, but it’s not their first rodeo. Siegel-Gardner, a native Houstonian, cooked at New York’s Aquavit and Alto, among others. Gallivan, from Virginia, did stints at Aureole and the Modern. They met in Manhattan at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze. About two years ago they hatched a plan to do something really big, something that Houston had not seen before. And they have succeeded. In spades.
To begin with, the boys love to deconstruct things. Take the beef tartare (or, as the maddeningly cryptic menu has it, “BEEF: Tar Tar / Yolk / Marrow Brioche”) that was part of our multicourse extravaganza. On one side of a large cutting board was a tidy mound of raw ribeye, beautifully chopped. So far, so conventional. But wait. It had a salad of baby mustard greens, celery leaves, and spinach on top—that was different. The usual capers and onions were nowhere to be found, but we did see two clean, dry marrowbones standing upright, plugged with little mushroom “stoppers.” Ah—those were actually brioche buns. Further inspection, and a hint from Gallivan, revealed that the hollow bones held finely ground seasonings and dehydrated capers and marrow. Sticking a fork into the beef revealed a golden slow-cooked egg yolk tucked inside. I grant you that I’m easily entertained, but the game of hide-and-seek, along with the excellent ingredients and subtle variations, made boring old beef tartare seem exciting again.
Another thing that Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner get a kick out of is playing fast and loose with cultural norms. If you grew up in America, you know that garlic goes with savory things. And you expect French toast, drenched in syrup and powdered sugar, to be so sweet it makes your teeth ache. So what was up with “BREAD: French (onion soup) Toast / Onion Variations”? I popped a bite of the small battered toast slice into my mouth. Hold on, it tasted like—yes—French onion soup. The flavor fireworks continued with garnish-size dabs of onion jam, pink pickled pearl onions, roasted onions, and tiny fried onions, finally culminating in a rakish garnish of lacy dehydrated onion slices. Halfway through, we attacked a dainty quenelle of house-made ice cream beside the toast. It was fantastic, but the flavor was elusive. “What’s in it?” I asked Siegel-Gardner as he walked by. “Caramelized onion and black garlic,” he said, cracking a tiny “gotcha” smile.
By this time, we were thoroughly down the rabbit hole. So when “VEGETABLES: Squash Cake / White Chocolate / Dippin’ Dots” arrived, we would have believed them if they had told us it was made from bubblegum and butterfly wings. It turned out to be dessert—but the riotously colorful English pea–size ice cream balls were fashioned from vegetable purées (parsley, celery root, beet, rutabaga, carrot) frozen in liquid nitrogen. The round squash cake was also sweet (think zucchini bread). What was the point? “We wanted to be sure you ate your vegetables,” Gallivan said.
I know that some will undoubtedly dismiss all this as silly and irrelevant. And I can understand. I wouldn’t want most of my meals to be so mannered. It would be exhausting once the novelty wore off. But this is a masterful kitchen, one where the food is going to be excellent most of the time, so how do you go beyond that? You up the entertainment value, or, to put it another way, you play with the food. “The fun part of the dining experience is important to us,” Gallivan said. “We try to be clever with things. We want you to have those aha moments, those laughing moments.” And you do. Food in disguise may not be new, but it makes the old seem new again. It makes you exclaim in delight and, at the same time, ponder the powerful rituals of the table and how culture shapes our reactions before we even know what’s happened. Mindful eating—that works for me.