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See and be Scene

Q Cafe may push style over substance, but substance comes through anyway

"Uh-oh" is the natural response to the slogan, "Q Cafe, The Only Thing Square About Us Is The Ice." This hipper-than-thou tone suggests a scene rather than a serious restaurant; so do the brand-new Q Cafe's glamorous good looks, studiedly cool clientele and location in the burgeoning nightlife hub around Shepherd Plaza. The surprise is that as a representative of the growing bar/restaurant trend, Q Cafe turns out some strikingly good food.

"Some" is the operative word in that assessment. Not everything on this shrewdly edited, neo-Texas menu is as irresistible as the P.B.T. sandwich, 1994's variant on the B.L.T. theme -- meaty, grilled portabello mushrooms layered with lettuce, tomato and grilled red onions, the whole galvanized by a basil mayonnaise and accessorized with sweet-potato fries that practically scream up-to-the-moment. Nor does this understaffed, neophyte dining room run with the smoothness and professionalism of an established restaurant. But if the stylish and reasonably priced Q Cafe manages to de-kink itself, it could prove ideal for a lunch, a casual supper or -- rarity of Houston rarities -- a late-night snack that's actually worth eating.

I can think of few things I'd rather have after a late show than Q Cafe's quesadillas havederos, admirably thin triangles bursting with the flavor of roasted tomatoes, poblanos and onion, with a suggestion of smoky, blackened salmon jacking up the interest level. That they come with one of the city's best pico de gallos -- singing with lime, its finely minced tomatoes unusually red and lush -- only increases the urge to inhale them with unseemly haste. The mango pico de gallo thrown in for good measure? Not bad, if slightly pulpy, but trying a little too hard for comfort.

Both picos escort the spectacular roasted jalapenos stuffed with char-grilled chicken, refried black beans and just enough cheese to hold things together. Unlike the legion of goopy, fried, stuffed jalapenos that infest Houston menus, this roasted version allows the chile pepper to maintain its primacy. "Is it too hot?" our waitress kept asking anxiously. "No way," we kept reassuring her, wondering if Q Cafe thought its audience was composed of wusses. On our way out, one of the owners had the same question: too hot?

Just a month into its infancy, Q Cafe seems to be second-guessing the instincts of the semi-celebrity chef they hired to create their menu: 26-year-old Grady Spears, who has received state and national press coverage for his work at Marathon's Gage Hotel and Alpine's Cinnabar restaurant. Spears lives in Alpine, so his Q Cafe role is basically a consulting one. (Day chef Patrick Sleeper and night chef Greg Gordon are on the scene in Q Cafe's kitchen.)

Too bad Spears isn't on hand to stick up for such items as his terrific sounding pork loin mole sandwich with avocado and grilled onion, a dish that's already been modified to a far less interesting grilled pork chop with a little cup of earthy, sweet-hot mole on the side. The stark, unadorned chop and the sauce seem to have little to do with each other; one can only wish that Q Cafe's owners had allowed the sandwich version time to find a following. For new and nervous entrepreneurs, the urge to tweak is a powerful one.

Mostly, though, the menu stays within genres Houstonians find viscerally appealing -- usually with a contemporary twist. You've got your "Certified Black Angus" chicken fried steak in a sage gravy that one night tasted inexplicably of fish (perhaps somebody grabbed the wrong pan or dipped into the fried-oyster batter by mistake). You've got your nachos and your burgers and your world-class beer-battered onion rings, these last fine, fat specimens with superb crunch and heft.

You've even got your homage to Berryhill's fish tacos -- and damned if Q Cafe's version, double wrapped in splendidly flabby blue-corn tortillas, doesn't come close to its transcendent role model. The catfish involved is crisply, juicily fried; the red cabbage and cilantro leaves are present and accounted for; the secret sauce, while less gripping than Berryhill's, does the trick. Well-seasoned black beans and that great pico de gallo round out a very appealing plate.

Occasionally, Chef Spears' modern notions confound. I confess I don't get his smoked cabrito enchiladas, which remind me (thanks to a sea of too-sweet chipotle chile sauce) of a barbecued-goat burrito. I confess further that the neatly cross-sectioned, sauce-on-the-side presentation of this dish threw me: I guess I'm not ready for the enchilada as finger food. And confronted with Q Cafe's so-called Sunshine Salad, I had to wonder what its orange segments and dryish grilled shrimp had to do with each other -- or with the upscale greens, cucumber, peppers, pecans and red onions with which they were hanging out. Nice sun-dried-tomato balsamic vinaigrette, though, its how-trendy-can-we-getness notwithstanding.

Like all restaurants today, the Q Cafe has its grilled chicken Caesar salad. ("What can we say?" asks the menu rhetorically, to which the natural response is, "Nothing.") And like all restaurants, Q Cafe has its grilled chicken breast platter. This one is delivered in Mexican world-beat style: the perfectly cooked, neatly striped bird given an entourage of mushrooms, grilled onion and minimal cheese (thank goodness), plus such eclecto sides as blandish couscous and poblano corn that never seems to taste the same two times running. One night the corn kernels were so grilled that the dish had a weird, gray-brown cast; on another, a vibrant note of lime and tomato had snuck in; on a third, the dish had settled into a low-keyed plainness. Go with the lime, guys. And please accept some bonus side-dish points for the voluptuous dilled mashed potatoes that came with the pork chop.

At dessert time, Q Cafe offers some formidable cakes, most notably a truly wicked, deep-deep chocolate fudge confection that out-Empires the Empire Cafe. It can't help but overshadow the cake du jour (think of it -- cake du jour!), which on one occasion was a cloud light, blackberry Waldorf angel-food number. Forget the distressingly named Mound of Joy, however, a sundae of vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce and coconut that is shy of impact and flavor but oversupplied with those irritating sauce-drizzles that make dessert plates such a nightmare of late.

And come equipped with a tolerance for disorganized service. The staff is pleasant, but overworked and inexperienced. (Mercifully, the befuddled young woman my companion dubbed "The World's Worst Waitress" has vanished, perhaps to a job for which she has more aptitude.) Large time lags are par for the course, and screwed-up orders are not unknown. It's here, on the service front, that Q Cafe feels far more like a bar than a restaurant.

Of course, it is a bar, with a bar's peculiar energy and sense of expectation. Sirens perch on long-legged stools at the curving counter, their own long legs silhouetted by fashionable down-lights, sipping martinis from flared cocktail glasses and watching the guys watching them. Expensively groomed men in suits and women in faux-Armani parade to the sexy pool room with its amber-colored tables and gorgeous wrought-iron halogen chandelier. A Chanel bag or two bobs through; a male ponytail or two sweeps back as sleekly as the curved-metal sconces that echo the constructed curves breaking up the space.

In front of the nostalgic banana palms and creamy tabbed curtains, a young neo reggae band struggles to erect a towering pile of amplifiers; it's Wednesday, Q Cafe's "Rhythm and Revival Night," and soon the spillover from nearby World Bait and 8.0 will filter in, bringing the average age down by about a decade, and bringing the decibel level up by a factor of ten. In a corner, the latest word in jukeboxes glows like some neon sculpture, emitting everything from Sam Cooke to the inescapable Gypsy Kings; far back in the pool room, an angst-ridden, neo-expressionist canvas looms moodily over the proceedings. For now, it's a scene; maybe later, when the cool edge of newness has worn off, when the owners quit fiddling compulsively with the rheostats and when they get comfortable with what their hot young menu consultant has wrought, the place will become a real restaurant as well. In the meantime, it'll do fine.

Q Cafe, 2205 Richmond, 524-9696.

Q Cafe:
quesadillas havederos, $5.50;
P.B.T. $6.25;
onion rings $1.25;
double-deep chocolate cake, $3.95

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