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Nuevo Voss

Escalante's: south of the border, west of the Loop, high on profile and middling on menu... so far

Tamale bisque sat cheekily on the menu; a brooding, wall-length mural coaxed tired south-of-the-border cliches into the uneasy realm of dreams. So I was immediately inclined to root for Escalante's Comida Fina, a sleek and ambitious new Mexican eatery on the edge of Second Baptistland, that burgeoning commercial mecca at Woodway and Voss. Here, in a surreally lit brickwork universe, a flock of amenities normally associated with the Inner Loop has come to roost: the Grotto, Carrabba's, La Madeleine, Whole Foods, Whole Earth Provisions, the Cotton Club. Obviously the upmarket Mexican-food niche needed filling, because after just seven weeks, Escalante's is jammed on Friday night.

Who's there? Manfred Jachmich, on a busman's holiday from his Cattle Kings Grill, in the company of a pretty blonde -- her sweater cascading off one shoulder just so -- and his small son. Houston Post gossip columnist Betsy Parish, who lives nearby. Neiman-Marcus executives. Stray socialitems. The young and the restless sending up a cerveza- and margarita-fueled racket. Whole families from the "hood, looking like ads for Tweeds and L.L. Bean, being attended to by impossibly cosmetic waiters who might have stepped from the pages of GQ.

What are they eating? With a few notable exceptions, food that does not yet live up to the menuÕs provocative promise, or to the room's sophisticated look. Take that tamale bisque: off-puttingly thick and sporting a wrinkly skin, it arrived so hot I could scarcely taste it. Once it had settled down, its subtle shrimp flavor grew on me, but its ungainly chunks of tamale seemed to have little real connection to the soup that bore their name.

Take also the camarones rellenos -- please. The way the waiter described them, these shrimp sounded great: stuffed with white cheese and chile, wrapped in bacon, charcoal-grilled. But the results were a mess, the infinitesimal slivers of chile and cheese (not to mention the shrimp themselves) wholly overpowered by the bacon and an overload of salt.

Indeed, salt was the bane of my first visit. Green chicken enchiladas cowered under a tomatillo sauce that might have seemed sharp and lively had it not been insanely salted. Oversalting and overgrilling canceled the potential of the attractive-sounding, mix-and-match parilla mixta that handsome young owner Patrick Torres has adapted from his family's Town & Country restaurant, the Guadalajara. A fat little quail was dryish and insufferably salty; ditto relentlessly cooked beef fajitas with nary a trace of pink. Matters were not helped by one of those ubiquitous sizzling black platters -- a deplorable modern marketing gimmick that keeps food cooling past the point of decency. It was a sorry day when Texas restaurateurs started selling the sizzle instead of the fajitas, is what I say.

Still, there's plenty to inspire hope at Escalante's. Tart white-fish ceviche is refreshingly simple and pristine. Caesar salad, Tijuana's contribution to contemporary American eating habits, has the courage of its convictions. And guacamole made right at your table, by a waiter who scoops out the avocados and mashes them on the spot, reassures in a world full of pasty green mystery goos. This rough-textured version lacks only a couple extra squeezes of fresh lime (which the waiter can supply) to achieve transcendence.

Assemble that guacamole with chewy, handmade flour tortillas, plus a gratifyingly stringy white-cheese queso baked with just the right amount of spicy, tactfully de-greased chorizo, and you have the makings of a very good time. Okay, the red salsa could use more spirit (I found myself longing for Mama Ninfa's sainted version, with its complexity and full, roasted flavor). Nevertheless, this was primal Mexican fare of a high order.

On the neo-Mexican side of Escalante's ledger, pollo rostizado -- ingeniously fortified with cracked black pepper and deeply imbued with fresh rosemary -- ranks with the best roasted chickens in town. Grilled onions and roasted poblano chile strips provide nominal Mexican credentials, but the authority of the seasonings speaks a universal language. It seems almost ungrateful to wish that the skin were crisper. Yet this bird had not suffered the torments of overcooking or oversalting -- cause for optimism.

Also cause for cheer are the restaurant's newfangled sopes. These are not the sturdy little red- and green-sauced masa circlets that sizzle on huge griddles in Mexico City, where an entire street near the zocalo is devoted to them. Escalante's gentrified version resembles a thin-crusted cornmeal pizza, and a nice one at that. The sopes a la parilla came layered with white cheese, poblanos, a hit of red chile, and fajitas (half chicken, half beef) that had not been cooked to death. It worked.

Not all the details do. While the frijoles a la charra that accompany some entrees are swell, black beans can appear in a sludgy, moribund state, and the cilantro rice recalls something out of a box. Margaritas are annoyingly sweet. The obligatory Tex-Mex combos, while decent enough, are nothing to write home about. "These cheese enchiladas are as good as Felix's," a friend of mine insisted, alarming me no end. And sure enough, they were clad in the standard-issue, flat-tasting chile gravy most Texans will remember from their childhood.

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