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Coming to America’s, part 1 – The Food

Some weeks ago I ventured out to America’s in The Woodlands to see if Jonathan Jones and Plinio Sandalio were able to drag this aging Cordua flagship into the new millennium. I ended up walking away thinking "this is one of the most interesting restaurants in Houston and of course it’s not even in Houston". Eventually, the new talent will take charge of the America’s on Post Oak as well, but for now the only way to sample their new creations is to drive down to The Woodlands.

I took 200+ photos and only recently got them down to a more manageable set of just under 100. By the time I started writing about the food I realized that I was generating far too much prose for a single post, so look for part 2 tomorrow. The dessert tasting Plinio staged for us was spectacular and really deserves it’s own post anyway.

The Woodlands location walks the line between the need to preserve the established corporate brand built by the Cordua family and a much needed update to the menu that has made the original restaurant such a coma inducing bore. Plenty of dishes still follow the "grilled protein with a starch or veggies" formula. The astronomically priced beef dishes designed for the moneyed oil set are there too, which must be a comforting thought for the Anadarco and Huntsman execs that work nearby.

But even when the menu plays it safe, the ingredients are sourced more carefully and execution seems a lot tighter than on Post Oak, so you aren’t left wondering why you just paid a lot of money for a botched dish.

Starters, salads, ceviches and desserts is where the new America’s menu is really at its best. Here’s the lineup:

Asparagus, tomato, hearts of palm salad
Not something we ordered, but I am really glad Plinio insisted we try this. An absolutely stellar salad with a bold acidic flavor and pristine vegetables.

Everything on the plate had touches of execution and technique you normally only find in the much more upscale restaurants. Asparagus was perfectly cooked and had uniform texture all the way through the stalk. Hearts of palm tasted as if they were cut and poached right before they hit the plate. They might have even come from a can, but I don’t care. They tasted great. The tomatoes were shocked and peeled to remove the skin. Neatly trimmed cippolini onions, cut in half and either poached or marinated to the point where they became mild and sweet. Few kitchens pay this much attention to a salad.

Kona kampachi ceviche – citrus seared kampachi with serrano chile and crispy corn
Another exceptional dish we would have missed had Plinio not "forced" it on us. Houston has several Peruvian restaurants that serve excellent, but this was in a different league, entirely.

Fish in ceviches is usually marinated for several hours. The America’s version used higher grade of fish marinated just long enough to give it citrus flavor, but before the acid burn sets in. The kampachi tasted like Peruvian crudo topped with a fine dice of Serrano chiles, which added a nice bit of heat without rough texture or harsh chile flavor. The marinade has was dotted with little droplets of flavored oil. I couldn’t identify the exact flavor, but it added a nice mouth feel and helped carry the flavor. Add freeze dried corn kernels and you have yourself a whole symphony of flavors and textures.

As if great flavor isn’t enough, the dish is served with dramatic flare I have only come across at Alinea before. One waiter places the ceviche in front of you, while the other opens a thermos and scoops out corn kernels onto your ceviche. I can only guess that the thermos contains dry ice liquid nitrogen, because your plate is enveloped in smoke for a few moments while you are trying to figure out what’s happening.

Apparently the ceviche is handled by a new Peruvian chef who recently arrived to America’s to work with Jonathan Jones, who has a very deft hand with flavors. Very impressive. Update below

Picapiedras – slow cooked Berkshire pork “ribpops” with tamarindo barbeque glaze
Another first course, another killer dish. Picture the best BBQ rib you’ve ever had in a lollypop form factor. These things were so good I actually considered ordering a whole plate.

The meat was far more tender than what you can achieve in a conventional oven or even using traditional Texas BBQ methods, but also had an intense crust. I asked Plinio how it was made and turns out that the ribs are cooked in a immersion circulator and flash fried before serving to give them a crisp texture. I think a hint of smoke would really put the flavor of these ribs over the top.

Salmon Ahuacatl – crisp roasted wild Coho salmon, ceviche beurre blanc, grilled romaine, and avocado mousse
Kampachi a la Plancha – Hawaiian kampachi , tamale gnocchi, fresh corn, and
smoked tomato jus

Both the fish courses were good, but to be honest, after the bright flavors in the earlier courses, these dishes felt a bit muted. The mains were closer to food I normally associate with America’s, but with a couple of interesting touches. The avocado mousse was quite nice with the salmon and the tamale gnocchi added a really great texture to my dish kampachi dish. I do think fish of high enough quality (and it is at America’s) can be served a touch more rare, but then again I take my fish much less cooked through than most people, so take that with a grain of salt.

Torta la Cubana – roasted achiote pork loin , jamon serrano, local provolone,
house made pickles
Off the lunch menu. Very nice flavors, but the jamon serrano made it quite difficult to eat.

Sopa Cubana
Didn’t have any of this, but reportedly an outstanding black bean soup.

Unfortunately, I visited America’s on a day Jonathan Jones was not in the kitchen, but there is plenty more to explore on the new America’s menu, so I definitely plan to come back for dinner. A few people I have sent after my original visit were quite impressed with the meat courses, but the starters are what I am really interested in. The "neo-traditional" chicken wings, the carnitas, ahi tuna brulee, not the mention a whole range of ceviches all look good enough for multiple visits.

As for the dessert tasting we had, that’s a story for another post.

Update from JJ:

The ceviche is actually a combined recipe from the R&D days when Randy R and I were locked away together. My serum, his fish technique and his knowledge of liquid nitrogen. The tuna brulee is his as well. He has had a profound effect on the restaurants evolution as well as my own.

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