Gawkers' Palace

Lagniappe's neo-Creole cuisine may sound wacky, but it works

I take it as a good sign that Lagniappe's grilled shrimp on the obligatory polenta is way too frisky to sink into modern cliche-dom. Firm, charcoaly shrimp help; a spicy mishmash of fresh tomato, winy calamata olives and gorgonzola cheese puts it over the top.

Gorgonzola happens to be the least esoteric cheese on this esoteric-or-bust menu: McIntosh's dishes are infested with asiago, manchego, the chevre that gives the waiters such pronunciation fits, and something called mizithera cheese. Ever heard of it? I thought so. How about cambonzola swirls? Such overheated flourishes could seem irritatingly affected if McIntosh's food weren't capable of startling you into saying, "Hey, this really works." As it is, I'll spot him his mascarpone drizzles, his tarragon-bourbon sabayon glaze, his mint couscous and his smoked duck ravioli -- get this -- "mounted with raspberry butter." And if I'm not quite ready for tempura shrimp on a strawberry-tomato horseradish sauce, I say bring on the turnip cakes and the grits croutons.

I even went so far as to order the nectarine and poblano pepper pie. ("It's really good!" enthused a waiter. "You can't even taste the chiles!") And you couldn't. Unfortunately you could taste the pasty, stodgy crust and experience the refrigerator chill. An appealing sweet-potato and pecan pie suffered from the same chilly syndrome. Room temperature, please.

Desserts may not be Lagniappe's strong point (witness also a lemon-and-berry "summer pudding" that resembled a namby-pamby jellyroll), but -- like virtually everything in this showy restaurant -- they are the occasion for bigtime presentation. At the rear of the dining room stands a miniature dessert temple that functions as a stage for a chef in one of those funny checked sailor caps; theatrically lit, he pipes on pastry cream and arranges garnishes in grave, solitary splendor.

Up front in the dramatic bar, another mini-stage is presided over by a chef who seems to have been selected for his facial bone structure; he makes a glamorous picture for the fast young Galleria types who sip from sculptural pilsener glasses, basking in the muchness of it all. Lagniappe's official translation of its hallowed Cajun name -- meaning "a little bit extra" -- takes on an unintentional irony; "a whole lot extra" would be closer to the truth. How else to describe the Dancing Waters effect on that alabaster ceiling -- reflections cast from the outdoor fountain and pool, a Caesar's Palace-style nod to Transco's waterwall across the street.

Whether the Tanenbaums can fill their big, flossy room with enough diners to support a way-out menu -- historically a tough sell in Houston -- is certainly debatable. But if wit and chutzpah and surprisingly good food count, perhaps they (and McIntosh) can pull it off. The tableful of shirtsleeved oil guys from the Offshore Technology convention one night may have been a lucky omen: at first these gentlemen peered about in bemusement, squinting at the menu as if it were written in Swahili. By evening's end, however, they were chowing down with loud, oilmanly gusto.

Lagniappe, 3009 Post Oak Blvd., 621-5900.

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