Ken Hoffman recounts his most awkward meal at Houston's best restaurant
On May 25, a pair of Montrose restaurants, but really the same place next door to each other, The Pass and Provisions, closed its doors, as CultureMap reported. Many Houstonians, including hordes of CultureMap readers and even our food editor, Eric Sandler, were sad to see it go.
The news of the unfortunate shutter brought back memories — or night chills — of my most bizarre dinner, ever.
Each year, Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook comes up with her Top 100 Restaurants in Houston, with the top 25 ranked in order. In 2015, her No. 1 pick was The Pass side of The Pass and Provisions on Taft street.
The Pass was a sophisticated restaurant that featured an eight-course tasting menu. Cook’s ranking, especially which restaurant captures the cherished No. 1 spot, is a closely guarded secret until the night of the big reveal — a ritzy affair catered by some of Houston’s most famous chefs.
Here we go. The week before the blowout, a Chronicle editor approached me: Wouldn’t it be fun for the readers if you and Alison ate dinner together at The Pass? Then the two of you could write about the experience, and we’ll run them side-by-side.
In 2013, an over-the-top expensive restaurant opened on Westheimer that featured a $200 burger covered with a gold leaf. Alison and I did the “he said, she said” thing. I don’t remember reading Alison’s review, but I thought this silly burger was a gimmick of a desperate restaurant. I swear, Fuddrucker’s burger was 10 times tastier, and you didn’t have to worry about the gold leaf touching a filling. The restaurant closed two years later.
Please don’t make me do this again.
An awkward meal
Important, remember this as we move forward with this scary story: I don’t know Alison Cook except for these two meals. I do know that she is popular with Chronicle readers and is totally dedicated to her craft. I couldn’t do what she does. She’s certainly higher up the corporate ladder at the Chronicle than I ever was.
I’m pretty certain that she dreaded our “dinner date,” as she put it, at The Pass, too. I read Alison’s report on our dinner. She had her own disclaimer:
“Ken is a lively conversationalist, skittering from topic to joke to pop culture reference with the abrupt energy of a water spider. I figured if he couldn’t enjoy the meal we were sharing as an experiment, we could at least enjoy the social experience.”
Champagne and...Diet Coke?
When I arrived at The Pass, Alison was sipping an “indulgent half glass of Delamotte, picked from the iced-down champagne cart that had been wheeled to our white-clad table to start our evening’s festivities. It’s a ritual I love.” There would be eight courses this night, each with a wine pairing.
The festivities went downhill the moment I ordered a Diet Coke.
I’m not a drinker. I’ll have a glass of wine with close friends. Not this night. I passed each thimble-sized glass of wine across the table to Alison, same as I did with each plate of small food.
First course, and I have to take Alison’s word for it: “a lush red tomato, cloaked in dark green chervil powder and quinoa. It came with its own ‘vinaigrette’ of coconut oil and tomato water, sealed inside a white sphere of milk solids that looked like a white chocolate truffle.”
All yours, Alison. Seven more plates, seven more wine pairings found their way to Alison’s side of the table. Each course was about a tablespoon of frilly food. Woody Allen: “the food in this place is terrible … and the portions are too small.” I’m not saying the food at The Pass was terrible. I have no idea, it may have been terrific. But I noticed that the restaurant was practically empty the night Alison and I visited, only one other table occupied.
Alison told the waiter that dining with me was “like eating with a 5-year-old.” Hey! I’m right here. I can hear you. She was kidding...I think, not really.
Next course: “a pearly hunk of Gulf tilefish coated in brown-butter solids and lemon zest, with a gentle curl of buttery leek and herb tendrils alongside, so that it reads like some exalted version of meuniere-style fish.”
I'll take your word for it, Alison. Does McDonald's have a meuniere-style filet-o-fish?
Next: Dried sausage with green peanut, curry and cucumber pannacotta. Squash blossom stuffed with ricotta with laminated squash bread. Garganelli pasta tossed in a voluptuous cling of huitlacoche and fois gras.
She wrote, “I exclaimed over the delicate shards of rhubarb that came with two chaste white cylinders of octopus tentacle, marveled over the comblike scrape of artichoke puree that streaked across the plate, rejoiced in the bounce and hue of the bright green celery leaves and deeply roasted hazelnut that capped one end of the dish.”
I joked to Alison that I was “allergic” to octopus. She asked if I was allergic to fois gras, too. I said yes, dead serious this time, and she knew not to “go down that dark path.”
During one course, Alison sent back her glass of wine. It was “flabby,” she said. I was impressed. I’ve never sent anything back, and I’ve had a few “impudent” bottles of Diet Coke.
I asked Alison, fretting the answer, how long is this dinner going to take? She said about three-and-a-half hours. I’ll never make it. She added that she often spends four hours at dinner. But you’ll miss the Astros game that way, I thought.
Dining with Jethro
I understood the idea behind this arranged dinner with Alison. I had a role to play, the clumsy lout, and I played along. I’m the guy who reviews cheeseburgers and eats in his car. I’ll take one for the team, I’ll Jethro it up.
Just as long as you know I’m acting. I don’t eat cheeseburgers in my car every meal. Sure, once in a while. So do you. I’ve seen you at red lights digging into a Wendy’s bag.
I’ve been to many of the restaurants on Alison’s Top 100, and I’ll bet that hers will close before mine. I should come up with my own Top 100 restaurants. I recently had dinner at La Favola — which is not in Houston. You get the idea.
During Alison’s visit to the restroom, I called the waiter over. I’m going to be leaving the moment this ordeal is over: I hear that you guys make a pretty strong pizza next door. As I walk out, how about you slip me a pie with sausage and mushrooms? I ate that pizza, on my lap, in my car, on my home.
Here’s the where this story falls off the track. I took photos of each plate and posted them on Twitter. I do that a lot. It used to be bad manners. Now restaurants encourage guests to post photos. I did not write one word, did not say where I was, with whom I was dining. Twitter lit it up:
“Does that restaurant know it ruined a pretty plate by putting a tiny bit of food on it?”
“There’s always Whataburger on the way home.”
“I hope you snuck in a Snickers bar.”
Other comments were brutal and got personal. The next day I went to work, and the big editor said, “I heard you got into a Twitter war with Alison Cook.” Whoa, not me. I didn’t write one word on Twitter last night. True.
The capper: a few days go by, it’s the night of Alison Cook’s big Top 100 Restaurants party. It’s her moment. Guess who the emcee was?