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Cuisine des Beaux Arts

Cafe Artiste offers culinary masterpieces within a Cajun aesthetic

To the small patheon of Houston culinary originals, add the name of Tom Meredith -- breakfast genius out of southwestern Louisiana and resident talent at a radically homespun new coffeehouse called Cafe Artiste. From his rustic cornflour pancakes to his souffle-quality eggs, Meredith's creations will not remind you of anyone else's; they are sui generis. As are the cafe's unpolished digs in the former Chicago Pizza Company location -- so near and yet so far from the studied refinements of Menil World, just up the street!

With its thrift-shop furniture, airplane plants, makeshift library and grabbag local art, Cafe Artiste summons up grad-student life, circa l967. The crucial difference is that grad-student life never featured coffee that would pass muster in Vienna, or inventions like Meredith's pillowy pain perdu, an ingratiating French toast variant made from split sourdough biscuits. A little cinnamon, a little blueberry sauce, and you'll wonder why you thought that day-old French bread was the only possible basis for this dish. Throw in stout cappucino or a gentler, tall latte capped in froth with a life of its own, plus the morning papers, plus Meredith's idiosyncratic Cajun foodlore (sample topic: how to fertilize tomatoes with crawfish heads), and you'll have all the excuse you need to hang around for hours.

I knew I was going to like Meredith even before his croissant du lait blew me away. "Can I still get breakfast?" I asked him plaintively at eleven o'clock one morning, expecting the standard negative reply. "As long as a Cajun can stand up, he'll scramble you an egg," declaimed Meredith, thus winning a friend for life. Thereupon he conjured eggs with the texture of silk, the fluffed-up body of a souffle, and a mysterious tangy undercurrent that came from his magic ingredient: du lait ("of milk" in French), a haunting cross between a light yogurt and soured cream. Seldom have eggs been so subtly dimensional as du lait renders them here.

Layered with a croissant and some milk-fed Cajun ham, these eggs make a croissant du lait that is to your basic Egg McMuffin what cashmere is to acrylic. Du lait also works its alchemy in Meredith's su du lait crepe, a gorgeous, puffy affair that is more like a sublime blueberry-jam omelet -- oven-browned and dusted with confectioner's sugar -- than a member of the pancake family. It seems almost ungrateful to point out that listless canned peach slices are unworthy accompaniments to this opulent dish.

The du lait factor likewise transforms a perfectly nice waffle (dubbed an "Awaffalaya," I am sorry to report) into a festive number topped with Òcream and cheese," as Meredith calls it. To arrive at this exotic substance, he separates du lait into its component parts, making a sort of cottage cheese and a reduced, heavy cream which he then whips together and sweetens slightly. Sounds strange. Tastes good.

I'll admit to being slightly gaga on the subject of Meredith's pain de Ville Platte -- tender cornflour pancakes that manage to be both substantial and light, their texture splendidly countrified. That's because the cornflour is milled in Church Point by one of Meredith's Louisiana cousins; indeed, a quintessentially Cajun network of relatives and friends also supplies him with du lait, sundry pig products and other necessities du chef.

One has only to engage Meredith in food talk to understand how completely he is the son of a culture devoted to the obsessive swapping of recipes, ingredients and covered dishes. He'll tell you how to make sourdough starter out of potatoes or expatiate on his gumbo philosophy, which dictates the use of file powder rather than a roux, making his gumbo lighter and more immediate than the murky swamp-mud school. He adds his chicken and andouille sausage toward the end, "so the meat won't take over," a contrarian rule that produces surprisingly good results: a buoyant broth with an insidious warmth rather than a cayenne burn, its smoky-tart edge courtesy of the andouille. I'd cut down on the salt a shade, but this is good stuff on a chilly day, and nothing if not expressive of the cook's convictions.

There's usually a gumbo on the blackboard list of lunch and dinner specials, along with assorted sandwiches and one-pot meals (red beans and rice, chili) that are pleasantly homey, if not possessed of the breakfast menu's brilliance. A cooked-to-falling-apart brisket in a sweetish barbecue sauce is like something you'd get in a friend's kitchen (more heat than sugar in the sauce would make this French-bread poorboy irresistible). There's a sturdy club sandwich featuring Cajun bacon and honey mustard, and a serviceable French dip accompanied by grilled onions, a gilding of cheese and a too-salty broth. Mustardy potato salad that the blackboard touts as "gourmet" is really of the gratifying church-supper genre that held sway in America before the Sysco Era. Among the awfully solid-looking desserts is an apple pie that a friend of mine swears by, but my spirit of scientific inquiry failed me once I saw its awesomely thick crust. Since I can go on about pie crust as fervently as Mr. Meredith can discourse about gumbo or coffee (thin, crisp and lard-based is my crust gospel), I passed.

Cafe Artiste is the antithesis of slick in the service department as well as the looks department. It's a family affair manned by Meredith and his grown daughter, a restaurant-and-hotel-school product whose demeanor seems oddly desultory and detached; it is not uncommon to walk in and find an empty counter, with nobody to take your order. Paying your tab can require an eagle eye and quick reflexes. But so far the place is so undiscovered that it hardly matters. I worry, though, about how they'll cope once word gets out that when it comes to breakfasts, they're right up there with the Quilted Toque and Jim Goode.

Meanwhile, initiates can linger over coffee dripped to individual order while classical music and Sade tapes amplify the cafe's dreamy lassitude. The Montrose pageant comes and goes: young men in jackboots and lengthy horsetails; hip middle-aged women in earnest conversation; a guy noodling on his guitar; a striking girl in a purple African turban. Inducements to a genteel, impecunious, Montrosey life of the mind abound, from notices of cafe literary readings to hand-lettered schedules for the cafe's Sunday jazz sessions.

And Meredith and daughter, sometimes assisted by his wife and small son, keep tinkering with the place in best loving-hands-of-home fashion. One day, after a bout of ladder-climbing and electrical-fiddling, Meredith demanded, "That doesn't look too bad, does it?" I regarded the orange extension cord that snaked over the paint-speckled pink walls where a nascent coffee boutique was going to go. "No," I lied.

Another day, Meredith confided that they were thinking about putting in a full galley so that he could whip up his special Cajun spaghetti and lasagna. "Great," I told him. I wasn't lying at all.

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