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Sometimes a reputation, even a good one, can be as much bane as boon. According to at least one close associate, that was on chef Mark Cox's mind when he set about opening his new Mark's American Cuisine, which two months ago moved into the onetime church that had previously housed the Italian restaurant Affresco.
Cox -- who has, among other things, been executive chef at Brennan's and a cooking instructor at the Art Institute -- has one of the most storied culinary resumes in town. But for many Houston foodies, his reputation is inexorably twined with that of Tony Vallone, for whom Cox worked for more than a decade, both as head chef at Tony's and corporate chef for the entire Vallone restaurant empire. It's not surprising, then, that Cox might have worried that some would expect his Mark's to be little more than a Tony's junior, with the same high-ticket Europeanized food that has made Tony's a Houston institution. At the same time, if he deviated from that formula, how would the Tony's faithful -- who were sure to follow him wherever he went -- react?
It must have been something of a dilemma. But in the end, Cox decided to toss the past and go for something new. True, he's followed the Vallone signature of attention to atmosphere and detail, but both in price -- not cheap, but not wallet-busting either -- and food -- a melting-pot cuisine that draws influences from French, Italian, Caribbean, Cajun, Northeastern, Southwestern and even Native American dishes -- he's come up with a restaurant that has a flair, and an identity, all its own.
Houston, TX 77006
Obviously, to Cox, the term "American" isn't at all limiting, but instead takes delight in the idea of an immigrant smorgasbord. Several menu entries provoke immediate double and triple takes: smoked salmon cheesecake? Roast duck with mango and champagne grape sauce? Eye-catching offerings aside, however, one element remains constant: outstandingly fresh ingredients that aren't smothered but are allowed to express themselves.
One notable example of this approach is the orcchiette pasta with shrimp and roasted cauliflower in lobster sauce. If dictionaries came with culinary illustrations, this dish would exemplify "al dente." Its springy pasta shells provide just enough resistance, remaining distinct without being oily. Mark's sense of timing extends to its shellfish and vegetables as well; fork-sized cauliflower buds were steamed decidedly past raw but retained a delightful firmness and flavor, while the flotilla of juicy, near-bursting shelled jumbo shrimp had one of my companions convinced that they must have been caught only minutes before. More impressive than that, though, was the attendant lobster sauce. I had expected a thick, bisque-like coating that would carry the rest of the entree, as in a linguine alla pescatora. Instead, the sauce was light, almost translucent, and gently seasoned with basil and a hint of oregano.
The roasted halibut with portobello mushrooms in ancho pepper sauce likewise holds to the light-sauce principle, although it packs a stronger punch. Encrusted on top with ground portobellos, its breading almost tastes beefy at first -- I had to check the menu to remind myself exactly what I'd ordered. The thin, creamy sauce smacks more of the tart ancho cheese than what few peppers it contains; it backs up the moist, flaky halibut without overpowering the fish's light flavor.
Several of Mark's other dishes also offer up a variety of peppers, especially one of the appetizers -- a chilled poblano soup with roasted peppers. Thinner than one might expect from a cream-based soup, this offering places its emphasis on the freshness of the poblanos rather than on the spicy turn that the dish could have taken. Instead, the soup was rich and reassuring -- call it nouveau comfort food -- without being too filling.
For that matter, none of Mark's appetizers suffer from the creeping entree-itis that's infected so many other restaurants' appetizers. Too rarely does a chef recognize that the purpose of an appetizer is to whet the appetite; fortunately, Cox doesn't succumb to this delusion. One particularly interesting foray into Mark's world of tiny appetizers is the L.A.'s smoked salmon cheesecake, a crab-cake-sized cream-and-orange-colored slice that's decorated with four long, slender leek-like leaves at right angles to one another. Initially, the combination seems bizarre, but the slightly smoky flavors blend together surprisingly well; it's like a bagel with cream cheese, lox and no bagel.
Unfortunately, the smoked yellowfin tuna with wasabi sauce didn't fare so well. Not all fishes smoke as nicely as salmon, and the minuscule fillet tasted overwhelmingly fishy. This time around, a stronger sauce -- which actually ended up being a hummus-like amalgam with strong wasabi overtones -- would have been welcome.
However, that was Mark's only seafood disappointment, and it's considerably overshadowed by one of the most outstanding dishes on the menu: the cumin and pumpkin seed-dusted red snapper. As with the portobellos on the roasted halibut, this dish engages in culinary camouflage. At first taste, the roasted pumpkin seeds do a perfect job of emulating the pecans that normally encrust this Cajun/Southern-inspired dish. Same thing for the second and third taste. It took yet another check of the menu to realize what had been ordered; only then was it evident that the cracked, smoky-tasting seeds were in fact pumpkin. Meanwhile, the grilled snapper had absorbed the flavor of the pumpkin seeds on the surface, while the rich meatiness of the fish -- much more substantial than the halibut -- welled up from within. The snapper is yet one more tribute to the kitchen's sense of timing: While the thick slab of fish was grilled straight through and snatched away just before dryness might have set in, not a single burnt seed marred the taste.