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Bernardo Versus the Volcano

Can a graduate of Cafe Annie find true happiness at Senor Frog's?

There's a talented chef trying to break out of Senor Frog's kitchen. Here's hoping Bernardo Orozco, a Cafe Annie veteran who's full of interesting ideas, can triumph over his current circumstances -- which involve the fastest case of Management Cold Feet on record, not to mention a party-down cantina concept more conducive to major margarita consumption than serious food.

The story so far: backed by Mexican investors, Senor Frog's opened April 14 with an ambitious, engaging Orozco menu featuring the likes of grilled redfish with pumpkin-seed pesto, seafood chiles rellenos with goat cheese sauce, and beef filet on cascabel chile sauce and garlic cream. Twenty-four hours later, that menu was history.

What happened? Panic, pure and simple, fueled by an opening day lunch at which habitues of Senor Frog's good-time outposts in Mexico complained that this New Southwestern stuff wasn't what they were expecting. Nor was the 15 minutes that it took to get such food to their tables. Overnight a more conventional menu based on Nacho's & Charlie's -- a way-the-hell-out-I-10 restaurant to which Senor Frog's then-manager had ties -- was substituted. And that's how Bernardo Orozco ended up cooking nachos, chile con queso and fajitas instead of herbed shrimp on potato cakes with jalapeno sauce.

I'm sorry the powers that be chickened out so fast, because Orozco's Southwestern ideas are persuasive when they sneak out in the form of the chef's daily specials. There's nothing wrong with the Mexican food this kitchen turns out (indeed, it is better than average). But a recent evening's special of plump roasted quail in a resonant red mole sauce was something to write home about -- particularly in tandem with Orozco's seasoned fries, their strange magic courtesy of dried ancho chile strips lightly caramelized with pecan candy. Now there's an idea: simple, playful, all the more effective for being so unexpected.

The regular menu can't compete with the earthy sophistication of that plate of food. There's certainly stuff to like here -- most notably a carne asada Tampiquena platter to rival your favorite border spot's -- but you'll have to like it to the tune of thunderous rock and roll backed by the sound of many margaritas talking... er, shrieking. On weekends, when the young Galleria-area nightclubbers are out in force, a couple of intrepid mariachis flail away beneath the carousel horses outlined in red neon, while a three-tiered fountain gurgles in the center of the room.

Senor Frog's early media blitz was designed to foster precisely this sort of tequila-sozzled, cantina-with-a-vengeance atmosphere. "Mexican Food with the Volume Turned Up!" promised the billboards. "Dance in the aisles! Scream with laughter!" enjoined a press release. "Frog out!" commanded the ads. The twentysomething investment-bankers-in-heat at the next table one weeknight -- the ones engaged in random fondling and mock breast-grabbing -- had obviously taken the invitation to heart. Likewise the long table of Friday-night revelers who felt obliged to wear the restaurant's red napkins on their heads.

To regale this kind of audience with Orozco's smart, thoughtful menu was hopelessly schizoid from the get-go. Still, I'd cheerfully brave Senor Frog's clamor on the chance that the chef will have a special up his sleeve -- on my second visit he didn't, but new manager Bernard Cortez (late of the Cadillac Bar) vows to introduce Orozco's notions gradually as off-the-menu items. So ask for Bernardo's Southwestern dishes: lobby for his prime rib torta at lunch; whine for his seafood enchiladas in red chile at dinner. If customers keep up the pressure, this menu could move in a more stimulating direction.

Meanwhile, it'll do. The kitchen produces a classy version of beef fajitas, smoky and restrained, neither marinated nor grilled to within an inch of its life. This beef works on nachos composed so nicely that I hardly noticed the jalape–os were missing; and -- in the form of a blade-thin steak that it pays to order rare -- on that first-rate Tampique–a plate. With it comes the requisite cheese enchilada in a fine, sharp tomatillo sauce (Senor Frog's should be serving these by the plateful), respectable guacamole and a seductive tangle of sauteed onions and poblano peppers. There are good, thin handmade tortillas to wrap the steak in, plus a swell red table salsa with an insidious chipotle afterburn. Excellent Texas grub.

So's Orozco's chicken in the same multilayered, brick-red mole that does so well by those roasted quail; ground walnuts and three different chiles contribute to its distinctive character. Cafe Annie has long been a hotbed of superior moles and chile sauces, a legacy that Orozco has carried with him.

Yet he seems stymied on the fish front at his new post: instead of the spicy mango relishes and pumpkin-seed pesto he'd planned, Orozco must now content himself with grilled mahi-mahi in an emphatically garlicked mojo de ajo sauce that cries out for a brightening note of lemon. The same fish (a bit dry on a recent night) also comes in a "Latino" version with a none-too-thrilling olive-oil-and-vegetable topping, along with the universal panacea of humdrum cookery -- melted cheese. And compared with the stellar ceviches at Pico's or Goode Company Seafood, Senor Frog's rendition comes off as unduly tame and salad-y, more tomato and avocado than lime-spiked fish and shrimp.

Other Mexican standards meet with varying degrees of success. On the plus side are straight-ahead carnitas, the deep-fried chunks of pork crusty outside, tender (mostly) within. They make a nice tortilla-wrapped package with meticulously composed pico de gallo that is far superior to most restaurant versions. I missed the punchy tomatillo sauce that Ninfa's furnishes with their carnitas, but Senor Frog's has a good green sauce back in the kitchen. It wouldn't hurt to ask.

On the minus side, the important-sounding garlic shrimp quesadilla turns out to be a plain little cheese-filled half moon cowering under a mound of unseasoned sauteed onions and not-so-garlicky grilled shrimp. Not much advertised pasilla chile flavor; not much essential quesadilla-ness, either. And not much to energize a gentle chicken-and-vegetable soup of the day, although it would make a fine cure-all for someone feeling puny. The restaurant's borracho beans, however, could hold their heads up anywhere in town.

The margaritas that lubricate Senor Frog's target audience are very decent ones that profit immeasurably from fresh lime. Lurking among the lily-gilding fresh-fruit versions is a surprising margarita made with the tart pulp of the tamarind pod; it's a shade too sweet, but tamarind and tequila seem made for each other.

Whether Bernardo Orozco and Senor Frog's are made for each other remains to be seen. The restaurant, and this city, are lucky to have him around. Now if only management will give him room to work -- and give his ideas a fighting chance to catch on.

Senor Frog's, 5016 Westheimer, 871-1616.

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