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From Start to Finish

The Fox Diner knows how to begin and end a meal. Now about that middle...

I was certain that someone in the kitchen had made a horrible mistake. I'd ordered dessert; what was placed in front of me looked more like breakfast. Two dark triangular wedges rested against each other, their outside obviously fried crisp. French toast, without question.

"Excuse me," I started, "I wanted the ..."
"The pound cake," my waitress said. "I know. This is the pound cake." Then she launched into an explanation that she'd obviously given more than once before: The chef had started out making basic pound cake with a standard seven-minute icing, but the kitchen was too humid and the icing turned to sugar. The cake just wouldn't keep. So he had to figure out some other method of preparation. Finally, he decided to take the cake, saute it in butter and then grill it.

"You'll like it," the waitress insisted. "It's a little different, but it's really good."

She was right. It was different -- the crunch of the exterior gave an extra dimension to the softness of the interior, and the sweetness that can sometimes make pound cake cloying was muted -- and it was good. Really good. In many ways, that pound cake is a reflection of all that's right about the Fox Diner, the restaurant that, last November, moved into the former location of Mom's Cookin' on Taft. It's comfort food given a twist, one that often has you moving a piece of your meal around on your tongue, searching to identify an elusive extra ingredient -- and one that, conversely, sometimes isn't twisted enough.

For the people who went into mourning when Mom's closed last year -- and their number is legion -- the opening of the Fox Diner may come as something of a surprise. Mom's locked its doors, or so the story at the time went, because all the street repairs on West Gray and surrounding areas had made it hard for customers to make their way in. But if that was indeed the case, the problem has now been solved. If you come from the West Gray side, getting to the Fox Diner can still be a bit of a pain, but if you enter Taft from the Allen Parkway side, it's a straight, uninhibited shot to the diner's front door.

When Tom Williams (who owns the Fox Diner with partner Carlos Berlin) chose to refurbish the shuttered Mom's -- tearing out its drop ceiling to open up the small space, placing a half-wall where the self-serve counter had been, drizzling paint on the bare floor to give it a modern, artsy look and in general brightening what had been a dark, if comfortable, pair of rooms -- the ten-year veteran of hotel catering assumed that the people taking that straight shot would mainly do it during lunch, when the offices along the parkway emptied out. He discovered he was only half right: The lunch crowd did take to the place, appreciative perhaps that the highest priced entree was under $10, but a growing evening crowd showed up as well. The result is that this week the Fox Diner will expand its weekday hours, closing at 10 p.m. rather than 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and at 11 p.m. on Friday, and move into the weekend by opening from 5:30 to 11 p.m. on Saturday as well.

It's a good change, because to truly appreciate what the Fox Diner has to offer, you need to eat dinner there. Lunch tends to be fast, and limited to a main course, while dinner can be leisurely and expand to include an appetizer and dessert, and it is in these latter areas that the restaurant shines most brightly.

The desserts, in particular, are noteworthy. So much so, that I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Fox became an apres-movie/apres-theater hangout (if, that is, it moves its hours even deeper into the evening). The pound cake ($2.95), in both a sour cream and an interestingly gritty corn meal version, is the most inventive of the sweets, and the creme Berlin ($2.25) and the lemon bars ($1.95) are worth writing home about, but my choice for best of show are the gourmet double fudge brownies ($3). It's not simply that they're moist almost to the point of melting, though they are, and it's also not just that the chocolate manages to be thick and intense without being overpowering, though it is. What kicks it over the top is the just-right-amount inclusion of nuts and raisins, which pop up as occasional surprises while you're shoveling it in.

Subtle is a peculiar word to use for such excess, but subtle it is: As rich and full-flavored as the desserts tend to be, what distinguishes them is that they all carry suggestive undercurrents of ... well, to be honest, I'm not really sure what some of the extra tastes creeping into the chocolate (a little touch of raspberry?) or the lemon bars (orange peel?) were, but I could tell they were there, piquing my interest. That seems to be the method of chef Paul Rodrigues, who most recently ran the kitchen at the Wentletrap in Galveston. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Rodrigues has an affinity for taking basic recipes and giving them a slight turn. When he was hired by Williams, the basics of the Fox's menu had already been put in place; it was Rodrigues's job to add the filigree to the down-home dishes that Williams had decided to focus on.

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