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South of the Sabine

The Sunset Tea Room gives way to some new ideas about old-fashioned food

For close to two decades, the venerable Sunset Tea Room just off Kirby was the venue of choice for the sort of Houstonians who, at other times, would likely be found eating at the country club. The strip center space wasn't all that evident unless you knew it was there, all the better to maintain the exclusivity of its clientele. Protected from the outside world by heavy wooden shutters over the windows, cozily divided into small rooms that somehow felt as if they were needlepoint in 3-D, guaranteed not to surprise, the Sunset Tea Room was a haven for a loyal ladies-who-lunch crowd. The illusion that the world had stopped spinning in 1957 lacked only white gloves and flowered hats to be complete.

The menu, too, was decidedly retro, featuring Texas church-supper favorites such as King Ranch Casserole and unadorned chicken salad. But then early this year the Tea Room changed hands. Dallasite Bob Sarlay, the new owner, tried to keep the old guard happy while at the same time updating the offerings to draw in a new guard -- and it almost worked. The best part of Sarlay's venture was the advent of tyro chef Aaron Guest, a recent graduate of the Art Institute of Houston's culinary program, whose reimagining of the Tea Room's traditional dishes began to attract customers who would never have crossed the older Tea Room's threshold. Evidently, though, it didn't draw enough, and by summer Sarlay had decided to call it quits.

Enter the Johnson brothers, Tom and Bill. This pair of Lake Charles, Louisiana-born fraternal twins had been toying with the notion of going into the food business together for years, but hadn't done anything about it. Bill knew restaurants (he was general manager of both the Rivoli and Anthony's), but had never had his own place; Tom, a portfolio manager, knew the numbers, and could learn the food business. The question was, what kind of food would they offer? And where?

"After I left Anthony's in 1995," Bill Johnson says, "I traveled and read and visited restaurants. I knew there was no place in Houston I wanted to emulate. I didn't want to just follow the latest trend, I wanted to create my own. And finally it came to me: What I really wanted to do was right in my own back yard. We grew up on Southern food, but it's a truly neglected cuisine. There aren't that many places in the whole country featuring Southern cooking, because people have the wrong idea of what Southern cooking's about."

Okay, we'll give him that one, even though the idea of nouvelle Southern cuisine has been bandied about by chefs in Georgia and North Carolina at least since the late '80s. But the notion hadn't had much success moving west, and the Johnsons wanted to help put that right. Finding a space they could afford, though, wasn't easy. Until, that is, they ran across the soon-to-be-former Sunset Tea Room. After a name change -- they dubbed their new venture Sabine for the river that sits between their childhood home and their present one -- and a renovation, to say nothing of the razing of an interior wall or two, the site emerged, phoenix-like, in late summer.

It's unlikely that any lunching lady who wanders into the space will think she's stumbled into her old haunt. Though the traditional green awning remains, the shutters are gone, leaving behind large plate glass windows that make the once-cloistered interior feel bright and open. Restful old-rose walls are decorated with color field art, wine racks rise to the ceiling on one side and white linen covers the tables. Most notably, though, the restaurant has been remade as one large room, with a chest-high divider topped with backlit, multicolored tiling the only reminder of the barriers that once were. The new look provides a backdrop for a menu of Southern-influenced dishes that are as pretty to gaze at as they are tasty.

These are the result of a collaboration between Bill Johnson and Aaron Guest, whose work impressed the Johnsons enough for them to keep him on. Although young to be overseeing his second kitchen, Bill Johnson says his chef was destined to wear a toque, noting that as a youth he was braising lamb shanks while everyone else in his hometown of Amarillo was cooking spaghetti and meatballs.

There isn't any spaghetti on Sabine's menu, but there is a pasta dish that illustrates the restaurant's approach: mustard green pasta with crawfish maque choux and cherrystone clams ($13.95). This Southernized homemade pasta has a nicely pungent undertaste of traditional mustard greens, which provides a subtle contrast to the rich, savory, Santa Fe-style, roasted-corn version of a south Louisiana specialty: the onion, tomato and pepper bits maque choux melange. Add to all this the briny, chewy taste of mollusks from Cherrystone Creek, Virginia, and you have the paradigm for Sabine's contemporary Southern idiom.

Using familiar ingredients in creatively unfamiliar ways is what the restaurant is all about. Consider the complimentary bread basket: In it you find homemade sweet corn and pumpkin muffins as well as Native American-style corn flatbread that's rather like a thick, slightly sweet baked tortilla. Along with it come little servings of red-pepper butter whipped up with a micro-shot of Tabasco sauce for zest, corn cob jelly (don't ask, just try it) and an inspired creation: a hummus-style paste made not from the traditional mashed garbanzo bean mixture, but pureed black-eyed peas. Thick and subtly lemony, with the requisite fresh garlic and mere drops of oil, it's a revelation. A dollop placed on the flatbread is simply wonderful.

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