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Into the West

Cafe European is a suburban surprise that's worth the drive

Few things are charismatic enough to send me out to the 13900 block of Westheimer, a neighborhood so far west that the air actually seems to contain less oxygen. But the riveting pepper snails produced by chef Art Scharhag at his obscure little bistro, Cafe European, are -- as the Guide Michelin would say -- worth a journey.

These tender curls dwell beneath an expansive puff pastry dome, bathed in one of the headiest garlic butters this town has ever tasted: tinged with subtly warm paprika peppers, rich with sweetly sauteed shallots, so outrageous that a waiter who attempts to remove the ceramic dish before every last drop is sopped up risks bodily harm. Nitpickers might carp at the scattered damp spots on the crust's underside, but the dish is so much fun to eat the flaw barely registers.

Escargot freaks and garlic lovers are not the only ones who'll find this unassuming restaurant a pleasant surprise. Anyone who's ever complained that there's no really good German food in Houston should prepare to reconsider: in Scharhag's eclectic European repertoire are some fine specialties from his native land, including a sauerbraten so gutsy it can take your breath away. People who shun cream sauces should likewise prepare to be converted: the chef's thin, quietly resonant versions fly in the face of the bland sludges produced by all too many kitchens. And don't be misled by the presence of such fusty Continentalisms as duck with Bing cherry sauce or lamb chops in puff pastry. The food here has the appeal (and the prices) of a down-to-earth neighborhood spot.

Peek into the windowed kitchen, past the garlic braids and spiky, mean looking mother-in-law's-tongues, and you can see Scharhag laboring mightily over his stoves. Although he could double as a mad scientist in a B movie, it's a strangely reassuring sight; a couple of meals here prove that this is a guy who can cook. You taste that proof in his russet-red goulash soup, winy and spicy and rich of stock. Or in his special of pale, perfectly cooked salmon in a lemony caper wine sauce that sounds hackneyed -- and tastes anything but.

Aside from the great snails and the goulash soup, Cafe European turns the conventional restaurant order of things (which dictates that entrees often suffer in comparison to the first courses) on its head. The dinners here come with either a forgettable salad or a soup du jour, thin and buttery and simple, that has a way of growing on you. Slightly too salty cream of onion one night; comforting cream of mushroom on another.

But you're really just marking time until the main event. Consuming Scharhag's sauerbraten is like putting your palate through the 100-yard dash, so bracingly tart is its burnished brown sauce. There's a note (not a sledgehammer) of sweetness to it, and the beef has the fall-apart tenderness that bespeaks long marination and gentle simmering.

A sauce this challenging wants one of Scharhag's spongy, tennis-ball-sized potato dumplings to temper matters -- or a mound of squiggly spaetzle, spaghetti-wide, noodlelike dumplings with a springy, delightfully mealy texture. Since you get to pick two side dishes with your meal, you could even go for broke and order both, on the theory that a truly interesting starch is hard to find.

Potato dumplings or noodles also maximize the benefits of the cafe's distinctive sauteed pork dishes. Paprika schnitzel wears a brick-red cream with an earthy flavor that unfolds slowly; the pounded-thin jaeger schnitzel, or hunter's style pork, gets a more assertive mushroom cream with a rich brown hue and a burgundy-wine edge. So homey and effective a match for sauces are these blessedly un-fried pork variants that you wonder why more restaurants don't do pork this way. (Or why more restaurants don't do pork, period.)

Texans may find they have a strong affinity for the beef rouladen here. There is something in this thin, tender beef roll, with its intense, winy sauce and its smoky stuffing of bacon, pickles and onion, that suggests a strange and fabulous barbecue dish. Its flavors are strong but alluring -- and well-tempered by the cafe's potato dumplings, noodles or oniony home-fried potatoes. There's a decent sweet-sour red cabbage option, too, although I could live without its slightly glutenous quality. And the day's vegetable might be buttery zucchini batons that are tenderly cooked rather than trendily half-raw. It's exactly the kind of vegetable you'd expect to find in this resolutely unhip place, where arugula and fennel have yet to tread.

Cafe European's wine list is woefully sketchy, but there's a perfectly drinkable Beaujolais Villages that intensifies the pleasure of those pepper-sauced snails. Scharhag's food deserves better wine, and his sauces deserve better bread, too; the small French rolls are adequate to the crucial task of sopping, but they're just a couple of steps removed from the brown 'n' serve variety.

Dessert fiends will want to sample the grainy but powerful chocolate mousse, alive with tart, bittersweet flavors. Do not be tempted by the bland cheese blintz in an insipid strawberry sauce; far better is the unprepossessing apple cobbler, which is really more of an innocent-tasting fresh-apple sundae.

Set with bentwood chairs and unclad tables, the pinkish dining room has some of the homely sweetness of that apple-and-ice-cream dessert. Sectioned into cozy alcoves with homemade, faintly skewed plywood partitions and bric-a-brac-laden shelving, planted with those hopelessly unfashionable mother-in-law's-tongues, it exudes a comfortable, shoestring air. Flower bouquets painted by the chef hang on the walls; so do his yellowed press clippings, copper pans and cowbells. The multicultural staff, which runs from Hispanic to kicker to Amerasian, is just as sweet, just as unslick -- and a microcosm of the far west Houston world to which Cafe European is such a useful addition.

Travel tip: if you cross Highway 6 going west, you've gone a couple of blocks too far.

Cafe European, 13920 Westheimer, 558-6867.

Cafe European:
Escargots in pepper sauce, $5.75;
goulash soup, $1.50;
jaeger schnitzel $10.50.

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