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A Tale of Two Houses

A lease is lost, and a pair of lunch spots are found

Sometimes, what appears to be a disaster can turn out to be a blessing -- even if not everyone involved recognizes it. Linda Williams, I suspect, would be one of those reluctant to admit to the blessing, but that's understandable. She was, after all, the one who bore the brunt of the disaster.

That brunt fell last year when, after a decade of catering to ladies who lunch, her Heights-based Ashland House was tossed from its home. The details of how she ended up losing her lease vary depending on whom you talk to -- Williams or her former landlord -- but it was not a happy parting. Toward the end, Williams even took to posting a notice for all her customers to see lamenting her unwelcomed eviction. Not that it mattered. By midsummer of '96 she was on the street and someone new owned her former abode. Williams was left to fend for herself in the big, bad world.

As it happens, she's fended pretty well. And the folks who ended up possessors of her former house in the Heights haven't done badly either. Where once there was a single Ashland House, now there are two, which for those who lunch is a double delight. Williams's Ashland House -- the real Ashland House, she's quick to insist -- ended up in a single-story building in Spring Branch that had most recently been a hair salon. There, in July 1996, she opened the Ashland House Restaurant, bringing with her all of her staff and many of her old customers. And since the new place is twice the size of the old one, she's busier than ever. At the same time, over in the Heights, Jim and Brenda Walters laid out some serious bucks for renovations and in September of last year opened Ashland's in the Heights, which has done very well, thank you. And so everyone lived happily ever after, and all is forgiven.

Well, maybe not all. When asked if Williams's customers following her to Spring Branch put a crimp in the business of Ashland's in the Heights, a waitress at the Ashland House Restaurant does reply brightly, "One can only hope so." But Williams, now nicely ensconced in her new place, seems more interested in strengthening her new business than obsessing over her old. Though the dwelling that now houses her restaurant has the appearance of something built in the '50s, she has managed to create that tearoom look. And while the dining areas here are larger than in her former house, there is still a sense of intimacy, especially if you sit at one of two tables tucked behind a pair of huge trees that grow through the roof of one of the backroom additions.

Williams's new tearoom is, like her old, a soup, salad and sandwich kind of place. And as was the case in her old incarnation, the offerings here vary in their level of success. While the cup of vegetable soup is laden with vegetables and was very warming on a chilly, wintry day, it lacks anything memorable. Better is the cheese soup, a house specialty made with three different cheeses that's smooth and yet is chock full of vegetable chunks. Thanks to a dose of cayenne pepper it has a nice heat level. That touch of imagination is lacking in the pita sandwich, a baked chicken breast served with sauteed mushrooms, onions and melted cheese that is then stuffed into half of a pita shell along with lettuce and guacamole. Unfortunately, when I had it, the pita bread was cold; it would have been improved by grilling, which would have brought out more of the flavors. The chicken tarragon salad was enhanced by the tarragon; with the fresh fruit served on the side it could be considered a heart-healthy lunch (assuming you exclude the sour cream).

Williams justifiably prides herself on her desserts. On any given day, displayed on a sideboard for all to see are more than a dozen cakes, all homemade. An Italian cream cake is a triple-layered example of her flair with desserts: A cream cheese walnut frosting is interspersed between the layers and covers the top. My delight with this made me perk up when the server described the hummingbird cake as "a layered spice cake with bananas, pineapple, pecans and a cream cheese frosting." What I got, however, was not quite as exotic as what I'd expected -- it was basically banana nut bread gilded with a cream cheese topping. Not bad, but I would probably have skipped it if not for the delicious description.

One nice point that sets the Ashland House Restaurant apart from other such places is its high tea. The English have elevated the taking of tea to an art form, but except for the Ritz-Carlton, the Ashland House is the only place I know of in Houston where this civilized ritual can be enjoyed. Except for the use of tea bags -- which are soon to be replaced with loose tea -- this is as close to the real thing as you can get. High tea is a mid-afternoon repast normally served between lunch and supper, and is made up of tea sandwiches, cakes and pastries. A glimpse of what's available can be seen in the still life promoting the tea service that's arranged in the middle of the Ashland House's dining room. Set upon a lace tablecloth is a teapot, some fine china and a pair of ladies' gloves.

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