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The Queen of Tarts

People gravitate to certain restaurants for a host of complex reasons: a room that speaks to their souls, a waiter who makes them feel good, a chef whose notion of seasoning matches their own. Sometimes, however, there is a lure so fundamental it underpins everything else. In the case of Patisserie Descours, a storefront bakery-cafe on the mutating fringe of Spring Branch, that lure is a deliciously guilty one -- lunching here gives patrons the excuse to indulge in society baker Marilyn Descours' state-of-the-art desserts.

Oh, we may kid ourselves that we come for the intensely satisfying soups. The graceful, red-peppery corn chowder that proves cream soups needn't be pasty to earn their credentials, for instance. Or a fortifying tortilla brew -- light on skinny tortilla strips but long on deep, chile-infused soul.

We sit at our little faux-marble tables in this long slot of a room, feigning virtuousness over a very mustardy faux-Caesar salad that is so lavishly oiled and parmesan-cheesed, virtue is out of the question. We bide our time over pricey sandwiches constructed of the bakery's formidable wheat-berry and brioche-like white breads, their crusts sporting a whole fiesta of seeds: poppy, sesame, licoricey fennel.

If only these sandwiches had the zest of Descours' soups. Yet they are substantially better than average, thanks to the house bread and some thoughtful fillings. Eventful Frenchified meatloaf may be the best, coarse of texture in the manner of country pate, shot through with a bacon-and-onion confetti. A pleasantly retrograde pimiento cheese is the sort of thing we Texans relate to (although Descours could take a cue from the far livelier version dispensed by the Whole Foods Market). And chicken salad, that sandwich-shop sine qua non, appears in unusual guise: subtly flavored with bacon, it has a splendid roasted texture. Only a shortfall of salt and pepper keeps it from coming into its own.

For that matter, a more enthusiastic hand with fresh herbs or flavored mayos might goose the sandwich interest level here. Mostly they are accessorized with plain mayonnaise, plus buttery Boston lettuce and tomatoes -- grim, pallid winter tomatoes of late, the kind so disgraceful and tasteless that it's better to omit them entirely. Particularly in the case of a BLTA sandwich, in which decent tomatoes are vital, why not take it off the menu until the tomatoes improve? Add cold bacon and avocado, plus untoasted wheat bread, and you've got a chilly disappointment on your hands.

In the outright flop category went a sandwich du jour of weirdly fermented-tasting grilled vegetables, steeped in a sourish marinade and reposing under a thick mantle of cheese. Good Sicilian olive bread sat underneath, to little avail. A backdrop of pink faux-Fiesta ware didnÕt help: it's hard to imagine food that would look good on plates of this particular hue.

Otherwise, the place is visually tolerable, if a bit sterile. Ugly fluorescent lighting and your basic, cement-clad Houston parking lot view are mitigated by chipper, black-and-white checkerboard flooring that sets the tone. In back lurks a funny little mock-garden room, with painted windows surveying a painted landscape.

But nobody's here for the atmosphere -- any more than they are for the soups, salads and sandwiches that precede the main event. No, the Descours moment of truth comes when you stand before the meticulously arranged pastry case, pondering what to eat on the spot versus what to take home.

Marilyn Descours' intense flavors, opulent butter factor and gorgeous execution make it a tough decision. There are few missteps here, save for the rare instance when sugar dominates other ingredients rather than enhancing them. That's certainly not a problem with the vibrant lemon tart -- a sort of beatified lemon pie involving breathtakingly puckery mousse set in a sweet, well-mannered pastry shell. Or with the multilayered mousse confections in which bitter chocolate and deep, dark chocolate cookie crusts run interference against the sweetness.

If there are Danish pastries left, it's smart to snap them up: seductively buttery, both flaky and chewy at once, they are spectacular examples of the genre. I'd drive long distances to procure the version that combines tart, fresh peaches with almond paste.

Descours' brownie cheesecake is another earthshaker -- one of surprising finesse and subtlety, given its rococo concept. Fabulously light and richly tart, the cheesecake is studded with a mosaic of the bakery's killer brownies, which happen to wear a preternaturally silky chocolate icing. I'm not crazy about cheesecake, but I'm crazy about this one.

Then there are the subsidiary treats that antiques dealers would classify as "smalls": elegant sand tarts, that iconic Texas cookie; tender, buttery rugelach spiraled around cinnamoned nuts and raspberry. They'll sell you a few to eat on the spot with the bakery's very respectable coffee, if you don't want to buy them by the pound. But I'd forgo the brutti -- a brave attempt to de-cloy macaroons by adding tart dried apricots. Alas, still too sweet.

What to take away in Descours' crisp black-and-white boxes? Many-leaved croissants that could be crisper, but are so butter-rich that if there is a better-tasting croissant in this town, I have yet to meet it. Classic miniature brioches, eggy and fine-textured, their domes shiny with glaze. One of the half-size layer cakes -- Italian cream, perhaps, loaded with black walnuts, its edges sharded with toasted coconut, falling short of perfection only because its icing wants to be a shade tarter. But that's a quibble. Indeed, the only duds I can point to are the clunky orange rolls, and I'd probably like them fine if the ones Jackson Hicks serves at Jags hadn't turned my head.

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