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New World Order

The Brownstone tries to welcome the new while appreciating the old

To all outward appearances, the Brownstone is among the last of a dying breed: opulently decorated, overstuffed with Old World heirlooms, it looks like it was furnished half a century ago by a wealthy matriarch. One might expect the kitchen to be equally ancient in its approach to food. For that matter, over the last few decades, many Houstonians have come to depend on the Brownstone as an unchanging icon of the past, a reliable source of upper-crust comfort dishes. But even if your identity is that of an old favorite, staying the same for too long can be perilous in the restaurant business. That may be one of the reasons why, in recent months, the brain behind the Brownstone's kitchen has been thinking with a new frame of mind.

Douglas Bass has been executive chef at the Brownstone since January, and as is the case with many chefs who have launched their careers in the last decade, his influences read like a roll call at a United Nations summit gathering: Asia, the Caribbean, the Americas. Talking to Bass, it's easy to detect the ardor with which he embraces the global influences he's brought to the Brownstone's kitchen. But embracing diversity -- whether politically or culinarily -- isn't only about playing with the new and fanciful; it's also about dancing with the one who brought you. The Brownstone's owner, Beau Theriot, (now there's an old guard name for you) must realize this. He not only wanted to modernize his menu, but maintain the old favorites as well -- even though one senses a temptation on chef Bass' part to downplay the menu's standbys, to address them more from a sense of duty than excitement.

Fortunately, even if he doesn't seem all that enthusiastic about it (and who could blame him? who wouldn't be more interested in playing with the newer toys?), Bass and his kitchen have managed to maintain the high quality of the old favorites. The bottom line is a menu from which you're just as safe ordering the beef Wellington -- a Brownstone signature dish -- as you are the grilled quail and portobello mushroom salad, one of Bass' new creations.

A special that bridges the old and the new is a starter of wild game pate. Sturdy rather than creamy, the rich slab of boar, ostrich, venison and duck foie gras is served with drizzles of white truffle oil and aged balsamic vinegar. Calamata olives and caramelized garlic pods provide an interesting sharp/sweet contrast to the meaty lavishness of the pate, which also contains a flavoring of figs and cherries. Large pistachio chunks within the pate add a mild crunch. I loved it, but when I first laid eyes on the dish, I was shocked by the appearance of commercial crackers on the plate. All that elegance and sophistication just didn't marry well with fish-shaped crackers straight out of a box.

Bass' wild mushroom soup with curry cream is another updated -- and inspired -- version of an old and sometimes bland favorite: cream of mushroom soup. The broth's luminous shade of mustard yellow provides the perfect backdrop for all the mushroom varieties' subtly different brown tones, ranging from pale beige to silvery-gray to an earthy, organic chestnut. Slippery and chewy in texture, the mushrooms are nicely set off by the curry seasoning, which sends up a mildly throat-burning element.

The Brownstone continues one lovely traditional touch it has always proffered at dinnertime: a tiny scoop of sorbet between the appetizers and main course for cleansing the palate.

A special of grilled grouper one evening revealed an adroit touch, one sensitive to the importance of maintaining the integrity of natural ingredients. True, the fish flesh could have been less chewy, but that did nothing to lessen the appeal of a delicate infusion of peppers. The fillet, moistened by its own juices, was surrounded by a ring of fat, blue cornmeal-encrusted oysters that were so incredibly buttery, so amazingly juicy that their cloudlike texture came off as a wonder. How could something so ethereal pack so much flavor? Roasted new potatoes and roasted tomatoes over perfectly emerald haricots verts completed the picture, and a shower of paprika lay over everything.

The beef Wellington was a bit too rare, but it was beautifully served, with a marchand de vin sauce spooned over it by the waiter. The pastry shell, pretty with its crimped edges and fashioned pastry leaves, was delicate in contrast to the hearty hunk of meat it encased. A delicate bearnaise sauce came on the side, as did a serving of perfectly cooked snow peas, baby carrots and new potatoes.

Lunchtime at the Brownstone brings out a less formal ambiance all around, from waiters who might engage in friendly banter to patrons who might sport less cleavage and fewer blond highlights. It also brings out two of the dishes I liked best. Saffron crepes, a spiffed up version of the standard crepes that the Brownstone has always had on its menu, were an absolutely vibrant shade of yellow and stuffed with a flat strata of tender salmon bits, sun-dried tomatoes and asparagus tips. A roasted red pepper sauce added an ideal smokiness and tartness to what already seemed a perfect complement of flavors. An equally engaging Bass creation is an entree salad of wild mixed greens drizzled in balsamic vinegar that's virtually hidden by a mound of slightly warm grilled quail, complete with bits of black crust still on the meat. Grilled portobello mushroom slices join in, as do a few wilted red onion rings and ripe bits of gorgonzola cheese.

Alas, lunch also brought out the one truly disappointing item I ran across in my recent visits: a grilled lemon chicken breast that came off as dry and tough. The only redeeming thing about the meat was the honey-ginger glaze, with its pleasant, almost bitter aftertaste. Though the accompanying confetti of Asian stir-fried vegetables was simple and good, as was the lemon-scented basmati rice with its floral undertones, they couldn't compensate for the problems with the meat. It may have just been a bad day for grilled chicken breasts, but still, unless basic dishes are going to be treated with the care given fancier old favorites and experimental new creations, they should be removed from the menu.

The bread, too, is less than stellar. I've been puzzled for a long time by why the Brownstone doesn't offer something superior to the slices of sourdough bread it serves with each main course, especially given the number of first-rate bakeries Houston now boasts. The inside of the bread merits no real complaints, but the crust is so tough as to be almost inedible. This is a detail that needs addressing.

For that matter, so is the piped-in music. While dinner was served to the sophisticated backdrop of classical guitar, during lunch I had to endure canned Muzak. Please! Surely loyal customers would tolerate eating their lunch to something a little less cheesy.

But the joys that came with dessert helped me forget the pap my ears had to deal with. The creme brulee, always a good gauge of a dessert chef's expertise, was so rich, so thick, that it was more like whipped butter. At the mere touch of a spoon, its burnt sugar crust broke into the thinnest shards of what seemed like amber glass. I was also lucky enough to sample that day's addition to the dessert tray: a wild berry cream cake. Pillowlike layers of white cake alternated with crimson and scarlet tiers of wild berry jams. And a mascarpone cheesecake held together by an almond and chocolate turtle-style crust escaped the super-dense sourness that plagues some cream cheesecakes. Yum on all three counts. These are desserts that transcend categorization as either old school or new world. Here's hoping they're representative of the seamlessness with which Bass will lead the Brownstone's kitchen in its transition to a new culinary era.

The Brownstone, 2736 Virginia, 520-5666.

The Brownstone: wild mushroom soup with curry cream, $7; beef Wellington, $27; grilled quail and portobello mushroom salad, $11.50.

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