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Lunch at Houston's cities-within-the-city just got a lot more interesting. At the Galleria, Neiman Marcus has plunked its sleek, amusing sidewalk cafe of the future -- Il Posto -- right out on the mall's main street, with a painted Tiepolo sky above and sacred temples of consumerism on every side. And over at the restaurant-poor Medical Center, Houston's answer to the Silver Palate gals have conjured a charming, homey oasis -- the Cafe Don Bosco -- amid the towering acres of concrete.
In a perfect world, Don Bosco's captivating food would be served in Il Posto's captivating space, and everyone would live happily ever after. That's because Il Posto's pretty, pricey goods -- while better than they have to be -- are not as good as they could be; and because, for all its warmth and soul, Don Bosco is inconvenient for people who aren't already (expensively) parked and doing business at the Medical Center. But in this imperfect world, each spot manages in its different fashion to humanize its corner of the city.
The beauty of Il Posto is its vastly entertaining concept: it's the Houston equivalent of the posh little cafes that march up the middle of the pedestrians-only Karntnerstrasse, Vienna's Rodeo Drive. Only here there's a roof, and plenty of central air conditioning, and instead of a real city unfolding around you there is the perfumed cocoon of the mall to end all malls, complete with its rich human circus.
Sitting behind Il Posto's low chrome-and-wood fence, with one of its handsomely spare chairs pulled up to a burnished, streamlined table, you have one of Houston's catbird seats. Look! Going into Barneys, shopping bag in hand! Isn't that gallery owner Hiram Butler? And when did he chop off his signature ponytail, anyway? There's a guy who looks like an MTV star heading for the Versace Versus shop ... should you know him? Whoops. Someone you do know is bustling out of Neiman's, wearing his favorite Bottega Veneta tie, the one with the monkeys on it. You wave him over. He sits. He orders coffee. He raises a jaded eyebrow at the individual French press it arrives in: even Mr. Been-There-Done-That is impressed.
For this is nothing if not an individual French press kind of place. Il Posto is more style than substance, if you want to get right down to it, but here in the most upscale reaches of Houston's most upscale mall, that seems only fitting. The waiters and counter guys, looking like a multiethnic poster for Benetton, sport fashionably cut tunics that owe more to Commes des Garcons than to a chef's supply house. A full third of the beautifully designed little menu is devoted to "boutique varietal coffees" of the estate-grown sort, no less. Even the chips that arrive with sandwiches are hip chips, by god, wrought of beet and yucca and plantain instead of plebeian old potatoes.
The sandwiches in question are likable ones, mostly, made with respectable local breads and accessorized with such trend-conscious ingredients as horseradish aioli. My choice to accompany the spectacle of a cutting-edge Barneys window display under construction would be the grilled portabello mushrooms and tartly marinated eggplant on farm bread (from the Empire Bakery, I am happy to say). Or anything with the rare roast beef that shows up pretty regularly -- in the company of grilled peppers, perhaps, or (you knew this was coming, didn't you?) goat cheese.
I did take exception to the dryish pork tenderloin that adorned one daily-special sandwich, although its focaccia bread and pungent imported fontina cheese got good marks. So did its aioli dressing, which beat mayonnaise by a garlicky mile. There's always a salad (maybe immaculate spinach with bacon and marinated chicken, in a rather too laid-back vinaigrette). There's always a pair of soups, including a perfectly nice roasted-tomato and three-bean variety that tastes less special than it sounds. (I had visions of those multi-bean soup packets that upmarket grocery stores sell.)
Mostly, though, the food is room-temperature stuff that is more a matter of assemblage than cooking; at its core, Il Posto is little more than an exceptionally handsome kiosk with a lifeline to Neiman's third-floor cafe, The Cafe, whence cometh the cold, cooked meats and the clean coffee cups.
Not to mention the occasional ambitious special: poblano peppers stuffed with a good-quality shrimp salad on one recent afternoon, the shellfish bound with the gentlest of goat cheeses. With its boutique lettuces underneath and its vivid garnish of red and yellow peppers, this cold plate was modern Texas luncheon-party food; poblanos notwithstanding, Helen Corbitt, Neiman's late, great food guru, would have understood.
Still, Il Posto is a long, long way from Neiman's late Mariposa Room, the delft-tiled in-store restaurant that caused such a stir among Junior League types when it opened back in 1969. The Mariposa was its own polite world, shut off from the traffic of the store -- much less the brave new mall. I couldn't help wondering what the very civilized Corbitt would have thought about dining directly athwart such meccas of conspicuous consumption as Tiffany's, Mark Cross, Fendi and Piccolini, an Italianate kids' store selling tiny dresses that cost in the mid-three figures and look like something the very young Marie Antoinette might have worn.