The Art of Cooking?

At the Restaurant at the Art Institute, professional cookingis taught -- sort of

Okay, so I was wrong. So sue me.
A couple of weeks back, after a deliciously delightful experience at the University of Houston's Barron's Restaurant, I delivered myself of the opinion that student-run cafes were treasures to be sought out, unknown gems unfairly passed by because of a bias toward professional operators. But then, alas, I ran across The Restaurant at the Art Institute.

On the surface, the Restaurant would seem to have a distinct advantage over Barron's. After all, while Barron's aim is to produce people who can slip easily into the food service industry, the Restaurant is focused on turning out chefs with a capital "C." (The difference between art and commerce, don't you know.) And considering that among the Art Institute of Houston's graduates are George Christie of Christie's Seafood fame, Charles Clarke of Da Capo's and Aaron Guest of Sabine -- one of the most talented young chefs in Houston -- the focus seems to work. Unfortunately, though, I discovered that while the Restaurant's emphasis on cooking may create noteworthy lords of the kitchen, it doesn't necessarily guarantee a good meal. Indeed, the one major lesson I learned at the Art Institute is that fine dining depends on a lot more than fine food.

Two of the things it depends on are service and atmosphere, and on those grounds, the Restaurant flunks. My first Restaurant experience was an evening event presented by the Great Chef's Club (which is made up of students of the Art Institute) celebrating the work of the famous Chicago chef Charlie Trotter. There was only one seating, at seven. My companion and I arrived promptly at 6:55 p.m. and were among the last diners to be seated. Then we began to wait. And wait. Twenty-five minutes later, a bread basket appeared. Even later was the first course.

Still, that first course was an encouraging start. It consisted of a chilled cucumber soup, a refreshing choice for a sweltering midsummer eve. The base of the soup was a puree of yellow and red watermelon combined with apple juice. The centerpiece was a thick slice of skinless cucumber whose hollowed-out core contained julienned jicama. Following this was a prawn brandade galette -- basically, a crab cake, only made with shrimp. The pan-fried cake was nicely and delicately crisp, though it suffered from the thin broth on which, for no apparent reason, it lay, and which sadly softened the underside. The cakes were also barely warm, which suggested to me that they'd been impatiently waiting to be eaten for as long as I'd been impatiently waiting to eat them.

The salad consisted of baby red and green romaine lettuce upon which a horseradish Caesar dressing had been drizzled. Shavings of Parmesan cheese added a nice flavor. But when I say baby romaine, I mean baby romaine -- all four leaves of it. It barely covered the center of its dish. Nouvelle cuisine, I mused, does not have to mean nothing on your plate. But I was mollified by the main course, a peppered lamb loin, four small slices of which sat atop a bed of spinach and a crisp slice of polenta. A ratatouille brought this masterpiece together. Dessert, too, was a plus: an incredibly rich chocolate cake with fresh berries on the side. The moist cake was made more interesting by the addition of dried banana chips, which added an enchantingly crunchy texture. It was all well worth eating; had going through these courses not taken three hours, I would have been well satisfied. But I twiddled my thumbs as much as I pleased my palate, something that puzzled me. Since everyone was served the same food, I expected faster, not slower, service. The check -- $70 for two -- also caused me to raise an eyebrow. This seemed significantly higher than it needed to be, especially considering the portion sizes.

A better deal was the $19.95 five-course culinary meal. A better deal financially, that is; time was still a problem. The culinary meal I sampled took two hours to conclude. My order was taken 20 minutes after I arrived, and then only after I could stand it no longer and asked which waiter had been assigned to my table. For excessively long periods there was nobody at all on the restaurant floor. No waiters, no busboys, no manager, no one. When someone did appear, he or she was pounced on by a multitude of patrons.

The sourdough bread, served only after I requested it, looked promising, but was raw in the center. An ice tea was ordered and forgotten. Water glasses were not quickly refilled. The food, however, did offer some saving grace. The roasted corn chowder was deliciously smooth, with large corn pieces that broke up the textural monotony. Its smoky flavor was enhanced by the addition of small chunks of ham. Another worthwhile appetizer was the portobello mushrooms served with a balsamic vinegar. Since part of what's taught at the Restaurant is food as art, the mushrooms were served on top of a slice of crisp polenta that perched precariously on some collard greens. My entree was a molasses-glazed pork tenderloin served with braised collard greens and black-eyed peas. Minutely sliced sweet potatoes, fried to look like hay, was an interesting Southern-style side dish. My faith was about to be restored when along came the dessert: cheesecake, still frozen at its core and consequently very crumbly, decorated with a hint of freezer burn.

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