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Breathtaking Boudin

Norris defines the Southern art of upscale down-home cooking

Somewhere between the unexpectedly wonderful deep-fried boudin balls and the sweet-potato pie, an aggrieved thought crept into my brain. Where had the Norris restaurant been all my life? More to the point, where had I been for the past year and a half? It pained me that I could have been eating such stupendous fried chicken and yams and etouffee all along. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Norris has that effect on me.

Owners Craig and Alveda Allen have staked out a unique Houston niche -- upscale, contemporary soul food -- and proceeded to fill it with Louisiana verve. They've won a picture-perfect, largely black clientele (you keep waiting for O.J. Simpson to parachute in, just like in the TV commercials). The only thing missing at this comfortable and welcoming Astrodome-area spot is the wide audience the kitchen richly deserves.

For all its well-mannered touches -- brickwork, vividly patterned booths, African-American art, vintage mirror collection and light fixtures -- Norris clearly expects its patrons to do some serious chowing down. The white butcher paper covering each table extends the invitation; the first bite of those boudin balls does the rest. They're anything but the lily-gilding joke dish they sound like: skillful frying gives them a thin, crisp shell that sets off the voluptuously earthy rice-and-pork sausage to great advantage. Suddenly boudin seems interesting enough to warrant an extra half-hour on the Stairmaster.

Peppered shrimp are the other great first course here -- when the kitchen is on. The first time tried them they are mind-blowers, plump and beautifully sauteed in a vibrantly seasoned butter bath that demanded to be sopped up with Norris's first-rate corn muffins. But

n a Sunday afternoon, with a dressy after-church crowd
n attendance, the shrimp had mysteriously lost their punch. Maybe the Sunday crew just forgot to give the butter sauce a good stir,

speculated mournfully, unwilling to lose faith in a dish that could out-New-Orleans New Orleans.

Otherwise, Norris seems remarkably consistent in its execution. They fry with considerable finesse -- for once, you can

rust a menu's claims about "Houston's best," because the Southern fried chicken here really is the finest in town. In fact it's perfect: judiciously seasoned instead of trendily overdosed with cayenne, its skin crisply browned, even the white meat optimally moist.

The stuff you want to eat with fried chicken is just as good. Mustard greens arrive with an intense, bitterish pot liquor that I'd be happy to drink in straight shots, like tequila. Spectacular baked yams, skinned and split in half, wear a light glaze that's exactly sweet enough. Dirty rice loaded with chopped-up gizzards makes no concession to mainstream blandness. Indeed, my only complaint about these dishes is that you must order them a la carte with your chicken (it comes with perfectly nice but rather less suitable red beans and rice).

Far more expensive restaurants -- not to mention Lafayette's best kitchen tables -- would be proud to serve Norris's resonant crawfish etouffee, a triumph of thin, brick-colored roux that delivers layer upon layer of flavor, finishing off with a finely calibrated afterburn. Decent salad comes with it, best had with a sprightly house dressing of the disappearing Gulf Coast breed known as "white French."

Some of the Cajun and Creole dishes here work better than others. Thin, swampy chicken-and-andouille gumbo got good marks from the Lafayette Aesthete. "They've used a hen," he pronounced approvingly, noting the light film of grease that gave this brew real gumbo credentials. But Norris's jambalaya left us unpersuaded. Too wet, too tomatoey, we grumbled, unmoved even by its andouille and generous chunks of ham. And the newfangled Bayou Mama pasta -- fettuccine bristling with crawfish, andouille, ham and shrimp -- engendered a certain ambivalence. Its smoky, red-peppery quality appealed, but its thin, gravy-like sauce is the sort of thing that takes some getting used to.

Norris serves another pasta dish that they'd do well to make more of, though: an amazing bordelaise-style angel hair, bright with garlic and green onion and colorful peppers, that comes with grilled shrimp alongside. Dried-out grilled shrimp -- at least on the night I tried them. Enraptured by the pasta, which tasted as interesting at last bite as at first, we started improvising. On went some of the restaurant's Ponchartrain sauce, a gentle (perhaps too gentle) mix of shrimp, cream and mushrooms that you can order on the side for two bucks. That worked fine. I figure the peppered shrimp would work even better. Next time I'll know to ask for a custom order. With a little fiddling, this angel hair could end up in the Houston pasta hall of fame.

Norris's grilled catfish is already hall-of-fame material: discreetly dusted with Cajun spices and not overcooked by so much as a second, these satiny fillets could redefine the way you think about the whiskery bottom-feeder. If you're worried about the health hazards of Southern-fried indulgence, here's your answer.

Be advised that there is genuine lemonade to drink with all of the above -- a barely sweet, barely lemony version that wisely refuses to interfere with the restaurant's food. It comes in a Mason jar and is conducive to an innocent sort of happiness.

So is the stirring sweet-potato pie, sweetened with admirable restraint and housed in a rich crumb crust. It beats the dismally thick conventional crust that sabotages the pecan pie. Real whipped cream -- remember real whipped cream? -- comes with both, a heartening touch. There's the kind of dense, compacted bread pudding you'd get in a great New Orleans dive, too, pooled with a graceful caramel-colored whiskey sauce. But would it be ungrateful to suggest that an old-fashioned cobbler, layered with deliciously slippery strips of dough, would profit from recognizably fresh fruit instead of peaches that are dead ringers for processed?

So much for the blessedly few complaints that Norris inspires. Good-humored service is dispensed by crisply aproned waiters, some of whom could find work as movie stars. They go the extra distance: I actually saw one of them bolt out the door with a forgotten takeout container and sprint after the customer's rolling car. He caught it, too.

Connoisseurs of menu prose should note the unprecedented length of Norris's appended disclaimer, which covers everything from maraschino cherries to alcohol consumption to sulfites, with lots of room for '90s paranoia in between. Al fresco diehards should note that Norris's patio is oddly inviting, despite its stony look and the surrounding sea of concrete.

Devotees of good Southern cooking should rejoice that Norris is in the process of setting up a buffet line for weekday lunch and weekend brunch. Fried chicken, yams, greens, fresh corn and green beans... it kicks off in mid-March, and I can't remember a prospect I've looked forward to more.

Norris Restaurant, 2491 S. Braeswood at Kirby, 664-9447.

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