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Hotel Haute

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

With a few rare exceptions, chain hotels are not places you'd expect to find fine cuisine. Chains are too often eyeing the bottom line; as a result, their dining rooms typically offer bland food. And yet here I was among the potted plants of the Radisson Town and Country, a business hotel tucked under the towering overpasses of Beltway 8 at the Katy Freeway, sipping a moderately priced red wine with my wife and lusting after the plate before her.

She had ordered the veal chop, a bountiful slab of meat sitting in a pool of intensely rich port-wine veal reduction in which floated three new-potato halves. Those new potatoes were to ordinary spuds as home-grown tomatoes are to the greenhouse variety. Tiny droplets of flavor bounced against one another on the gravy's translucent surface. It was a simple dish, but it exuded a Tom Jonesian sensuality.

I, on the other hand, had ordered the chef's special of grilled red snapper. The inch-thick fillet was lightly draped with a wine and butter sauce and fenced in by a rectangle of brilliant, neon-red onions that had been soaked in marmalade. The onions and butter sauce and moist fish melted together in a complex combination of the sweet and the salty. I ate slowly, letting the sensations linger, and kept a careful watch on my wife's plate, hoping that she'd leave some morsels behind that I could spear.

About 9 p.m., the chef emerged from the kitchen to survey the room. He wore a crisp toque and white shirt and placed his hands on his hips. It was a gesture I'd seen nearly 20 years ago on the outskirts of Lyon, France, when I was dining at a restaurant run by the legendary chef Paul Bocuse. Bocuse had emerged to take stock of his diners in just the way the Radisson chef, Paul Sheely, was doing now. But looks were not the only thing connecting the two; the last time I had eaten a meal as good as the one presented me by Sheely was when Bocuse had been behind the stove.

Sheely chatted a minute with a party of business diners. Trying to make conversation, one of them asked him where he had learned to cook.

"In Colorado," Sheely said blandly. "In heaven!" I wanted to jump up and shout.

I had not stumbled into the Radisson by accident. As residents of west Houston, my wife and I had known that the hotel had become home to one of our favorite neighborhood spots, Sheely's Riviera Grill. Two years ago, Sheely opened the Riviera in a strip shopping center on Westheimer near Gessner, to rave reviews. Within a few months, Michael Cordua of Churassco's brought Esquire food critic John Mariani to dine; Mariani promptly declared Sheely one of America's 13 most promising new chefs.

But the strip center was hardly the place for a first-rate restaurant. On weekends, lines of movie patrons waiting for tickets ogled the diners through the plate glass windows, and the view of the diners was, well, the moviegoers. Sheely tried to run the place almost single-handedly, which put a strain on the kitchen. The setting simply didn't live up to the food, but the food was so good that people on the west side regarded it as a local treasure.

Now Sheely had made another improbable choice of a place to display his culinary skill. The managers of the Radisson wanted him because they felt a great restaurant would keep business travelers returning to their hotel. And Sheely felt he could build up a loyal weekend clientele from local foodies.

Sheely doesn't seem to care that his next-to-the-Beltway location puts him beyond the pale for those who loathe to dine more than a short distance outside the Loop. Maybe he favors the far west side because that's where he grew up, in the Wilchester development, only a few blocks from where he now works. Both his Italian grandmother and his mother inspired him, and he's still fooling with their recipe for ravioli, one that features a sauce that calls for braising beef for two days. (Eventually it may end up on the Riviera's menu; so far, though, it hasn't.) At 15, he went to work for a defunct shopping center restaurant, and by the time he was 17, he says, he was running the broiler. Grilling formed the foundation of his career, he says, noting that "I fancy myself as a grill meister.

Sheely also fell in love with skiing and moved to Vail, where he worked in restaurants, not as a cook, but in the front of the house, where the money was better. Slowly, though, he got drawn back to the kitchen. "Two kids from the [Culinary Institute of America] came to work," he says, "and I watched them."

For two years he ran a restaurant at a small lodge and learned by doing. But the lodge went on the market, so in 1995 he returned to Houston and opened the Riviera. He and his wife, Lisa, had intended to just open a deli. (He still makes all his own breads, including a house staple, a peppery focaccia.) But then he wanted to make his herb-crusted lamb, and then Chilean sea bass with roast tomatoes, garlic, capers and olive ragout seemed necessary, and before long he had a three-course lunch menu for $6 and was losing his shirt.

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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