The first thing I noticed about Monarch's new menu is the note in bold type across the bottom with the names of executive chef Jonathan Jones and sous chef Ross Coleman. Like a movie poster that splashes Tom Cruise's name before the title, it was a bold statement that Monarch is aiming to be a true chef-driven concept and not just another hotel restaurant.
Jones is the first local Houston chef to take the helm at Monarch. With his outsize reputation and solid skills, he represents a real chance for Monarch to remake itself into a foodie destination. For the first time, Monarch's menu does seem to have a solid direction and a point of view.
A dessert of a deconstructed apple tart — cheesecake, bread crumbles and a brush of caramel on the plate — was stunning.
Of course, you have to ignore a few things to see it. This is, after all, still a hotel restaurant, and there are a few non-negotiables.
"We're always going to have a beef filet on the menu, because there's always someone staying here that wants it," Jones says. Same goes for the beet salad, margherita pizza and grilled chicken, which take up room on the menu as agreeable if unexciting outliers.
But compare them to say, Jones' arugula salad, and it's obvious which dishes show the chef at his best. A mix of thin-sliced roasted pear, a beautifully smoky bleu cheese from Oregon and hazelnuts over a dense bed of arugula with a mild vanilla lime vinaigrette, what the salad lacks in pretty colors it makes up for with a complex blend of textures and flavors, with the cheese and the hazelnuts each vying for supremacy.
A Gulf coast ceviche and a tiradito reprise the work that Jones did at Concepción, although my scallop tiradito tasted overly sweet and off-balance, with the fleshy scallop and bacon powder overpowering any latent chile heat or citrusy acid from the orange slices.
The sticky ribs with a sweet Thai chile glaze and a sprinkling of sesame seeds were a much more satisfying appetizer. The pork ribs didn't have much heat, but the salty-sweet flavor of the sauce and the tender meat made them an easy favorite.
Elsewhere on the menu, Jones has brought in the deliciously thick, homemade pasta from Paulie's and tossed grilled shrimp, mussels, uni and bottarga together in a light olive oil, a dish that epitomized the successful combining of Jones' signature maximalist flavor palette with Monarch's need to be a crowdpleaser.
A dessert of a deconstructed apple tart — cheesecake, bread crumbles and a brush of caramel on the plate under poached apple squares — was stunning, with familiar flavors presented thoughtfully and executed perfectly.
If Jones had settled in a rehabbed strip center space or a hole-in-the-wall outside the Loop, I have no doubt that the foodies would follow him just to see what he does next. It seems odd and slightly reverse-pretentious that a hotel restaurant might be a tougher sell.
Dear Houston: It's worth it.