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Diner's Notebook

At Home and Abroad

A moment of silence, please. That slew of Empire Baking Company mailers that slid through Houston mail slots last week made reference to "Real Breakfast ... Hot Lunch ... Cool Dinner." But don't get so excited by the allusions to beef tenderloin in coarse-grain mustard sauce or shallot smashed potatoes (so much chic-er than mashed) that you rush off to the Empire for supper. Because -- here's where the moment of silence kicks in -- two weeks ago, with the mailers in the works, proprietor Robert Ozarow decided to put dinner on vacation at least until fall. The nighttime meal hadn't caught on quickly enough to support its considerable overhead; more's the pity, because the well-edited menu was a joy, and the place took on a real big-city glamour at night. I was about to write as much when the ax fell. My plan was to tell you how simple and superb that beef tenderloin plate was, with its lumpy, shallot-laced potatoes and gorgeous grilled vegetables. I meant to speak kindly of a distinguished roasted chicken stuffed with apricots, apples, raisins and lemon. I wanted to praise the tomato-free Sicilian lasagna with golden raisins. I intended to make the point that it's unusual to get such sophisticated food in such easy, casual surroundings. Now all I will do is tell you to go for breakfast or lunch instead, to keep your fingers crossed in the hope that Ozarow reinstitutes his dinner hours come September and to take in that mailer for a free loaf of the Empire's truly splendid bread. I myself am partial to the pane paisano.

Field Trip: It's an event when a chef of Mark Miller's stature opens a Texas outpost -- even if that outpost happens to be in a certain smug burg called Austin, where the Coyote Cafe made its debut two weeks ago. Plenty of Houstonians know Miller's New Southwestern oeuvre from his Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, where he reigns over the local culinary scene as the New Mexico equivalent of Robert del Grande, Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing. Those who have business in Washington, D.C., may have battled lobbyists and politicos for a table at Miller's Red Sage. He's even got a Coyote Cafe in Las Vegas. And now he's talking about opening a bunch of casual Asian/Southwestern spots, too.

So, two questions: Is Miller managing to keep the quality high with restaurants popping up all over the map? And does he have anything to show our jaded Texas palates? Yes ... and yes. The food is swell at Austin's clean-lined, understated Coyote Cafe, from an electric yellow-tomato gazpacho tantalizingly flavored with hoja santo leaf to a fragile stack of enchiladas layered with huitlacoche, the musky and dizzyingly soft corn fungus that is so prized among Mexicans. Miller obviously has hired capable people to execute his particular vision, and his bold use of chiles should click with Texans. His grilled-quail salad -- a standard among the New Southwestern boys -- leaps from the pack by virtue of its habanero glaze and its exhilarating serrano-pineapple vinaigrette. And the infamous Miller 20-ounce Cowboy Steak ("the legendary steak that made the cover of Bon Apetit!," as the menu feels obliged to inform us) actually lives up to its hype. All those skinny red-chile onion rings add to the charisma of this dry-aged Angus rib chop; so does a fire-roasted salsa with black beans. Even the Coyote's improbable-sounding watermelon margarita works, for that matter. Just skip the tortilla-crusted sea bass and you'll go home happy, having eaten some of the feistiest high-ticket food in Texas.

-- Alison Cook

Empire Baking Company, 1616 Post Oak Boulevard, 871-9779; Coyote Cafe, 612 West Sixth Street, Austin, (512) 476-0612.

 
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