Hotel Haute

John Sheely's Riviera Grill shows that even a chain hotel can host first-class food

Sheely eventually fixed the pricing, but he couldn't fix the shopping center location. So when the Radisson offered shelter, he took them up on it. One of his worst problems in shifting his operation, Sheely says, was that he had to learn to delegate. Managing a hotel dining room, which must be open seven days a week and provide breakfast, catering and room service, required help. A short while back he hired former wine merchant Mark Thrun to manage the front of the house. Another addition has been chef Glen Trumble, who trained eight years in France. It was Trumble who had created the snapper dish with the neon onions and the classic French sauce I'd liked so much. Sheely says the two of them enjoy collaborating, and trading off responsibilities: Sheely on the grill, Trumble on the sauces, and vice versa.

The menu in the Radisson version of the Riviera reflects what Sheely was doing in his solo venture, but there's much that's decidedly new. He's playing with a mix of Mediterranean and Southwestern flavors, using combinations of olives, tomatoes, field greens, fresh corn, sweet peppers, arugula and pecans to highlight various dishes. The seared tuna carpaccio is a mainstay of the appetizers, a mignon cut of pepper-encrusted rare tuna that flakes away into savory red morsels that melt in contact with crisp, finely sliced sweet peppers. And Sheely's calamari must be the best in town -- squid made so tender by a milk bath that they dissolve in the mouth.

Anything Sheely grills tends to the wonderful, from an eggplant appetizer to the asparagus used as a garnish. Admittedly, there are occasional gaffes, as on one Saturday night when a tenderloin swimming in its own juices came out well done instead of rare, and had to be sent back; it returned promptly accompanied by luscious gratin potatoes, redolent with cream and pepper.

Sheely's seafood specials are also worth trying. Scallops on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes with grilled asparagus was wonderful, though the caramelized onions marched a little too close to the edge of butterscotch. Scallops with angel hair pasta were better, and shrimp fried in phyllo pastry proved light and heavenly.

The hotel's weekend clientele is still coming to terms with what Sheely's trying to do. One Saturday night I watched a woman come in with her young children, study the menu and leave. A pair of men did the same thing. There is a downscale menu, if the patrons know to ask for it -- Sheely makes a great club sandwich, and his hamburger is ground Angus with smoked applewood bacon -- but real success will come only if enough diners have the wisdom to try the upscale offerings.

The room is comfortable and spacious, but there is something a touch depressing about the vast green expanse of its rug, and the green interior garden outside the plate glass windows. A restaurant should be warm, and this is, well, still a hotel dining room. But there are possibilities. Sheely plans to build a chef's dining table near the kitchen where a table of diners could watch him work. That would be wonderful. Then you wouldn't have to fly to Lyon to see a master of great ingredients at work. You could just drive a few miles to west Houston.

Riviera Grill in the Radisson Town and Country Hotel, 10655 Katy Freeway, 974-4445.

Riviera Grill:
Seared tuna carpaccio, $9;
kataifi wrapped shrimp, $9.25; roasted veal chop, $27.50;
grilled rare number one tuna, $21;
roasted red pepper risotto with grilled shrimp, $12.95;
sundried tomato polenta, $19.

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