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Conversion Experience

I was a doubter, but Cafe Beignet won me over

We're a skeptical lot, we Lawlors. Consider our coat of arms: a crossed knife and fork on a silver field and, below, the motto "Eater Beware." Never tell us you've discovered the perfect hollandaise or the ultimate ganache. Twaddle, we'll say. Things like that simply don't exist. They're grails of the culinary imagination, ever luring us on, always elusive.

For years, no one cast a colder eye than I did. But I'm a skeptic no more. For that, credit two recent lunches at Cafe Beignet. My forebears will squirm when I say this, but both came within a hair of being sublime.

Making this even more remarkable is the restaurant's age: When I visited, it was all of seven weeks old. Poise in such quantity is rare in a fledgling, especially one as ambitious as this.

The country is full of cafes that aren't really cafes, bistros that aren't really bistros and trattorias that are such only in name. Cafe Beignet introduces a new level of ambiguity to the nomenclature. Here, "cafe" is an umbrella term meant to describe a restaurant, a creperie, a bakery and a patisserie all in one.

Designed to look like the cafes of Europe, this is an elegant place. The floors are tiled, the countertops are marbled and there's glass galore. Cakes and breads occupy one wall. And in the rear, there's a view of the kitchen. A place of unusual serenity, to all appearances. Not at all the maelstrom most professional kitchens are. It's "Silent Night" back there. For all the noise that issues from it, it might be full of accountants. Chef Robert Pfister, a native of Austria and, at 28, something of a fledgling himself, doesn't only create remarkable food; he does so with very little fuss.

To judge from the waitresses -- all too happy to expatiate on Pfister's many talents -- he's also well liked. My companion was of the opinion that they over-expatiated. Which is typical of her. She's a notorious curmudgeon. She also complained that the wait staff was overly solicitous. And here, I was forced to agree. One quickly tires of being asked -- over and over -- if everything's all right. What is one supposed to say? "Well, not quite. The situation in Belfast is very worrying. And for the life of me, I can't decide if NATO should admit the Baltic republics."

Cafe Beignet is pleasantly unpretentious. Several patrons did sport expensive hairstyles. But most of those here were serious and had come not to model pantsuits bought on credit at Saks, but to eat truly memorable food. Of the appetizers, the one I liked best was the charlotte of escargot ($7.50), snails cooked in a tomato and red-wine ragout and baked with prosciutto in a bread-lined bowl. Most of the snails one eats in Houston taste like very old shower curtains. Not these, though. Farm-raised, they had the texture of nicely cooked scallops. Another standout is the lobster bisque ($4.50). Orange in color, it was smooth and sweet and rich with Armagnac. But best of all, it had a slightly dark undertow. I love that. You think you're done with something, and then it surprises you by changing character and doing something quite unexpected.

The chilled asparagus salad ($6.95), served with prosciutto and some wonderfully smoky roasted peppers, was nicely crisp. I don't know where you stand on the al dente question. I myself lean far to the left. Nothing's too dente for me. Which explains my nickname: Old Iron Teeth.

The only appetizer to disappoint was the bland-to-a-fault shrimp beignet ($12.50). Though no psychic, I'll venture this prediction: That shrimp beignet has a makeover in its future. And the accompanying "Thai-style" sauce is erroneously named. Containing the condiment known as sambal, its provenance is clearly Indonesian.

The entrees we tried were all excellent, but the one I'd trade my camel for was the bouillabaisse ($14.50). Pfister wisely avoids the Provencal version, which, Larousse tells us, "should be prepared using rockfish, ideally caught with rod and line just before cooking." Instead, Pfister draws his materials from the Gulf, filling his creation with large amounts of shrimp, crawfish tails, red snapper and a really good andouille sausage. The result is lighter and infinitely more fragrant than any rockfish, no matter how carefully prepared.

The hefty braised lamb shank au pistou ($12.50), cooked the way you would cook osso bucco, was exquisitely tender. I gazed at the shank, and the shank gazed at me, after which it sighed, and the meat slipped off the bone.

Pungent with portobellos, porcini and morels, the wild mushroom risotto ($12) is intoxicating. Before the rice is fully cooked, Pfister adds a quantity of mascarpone. The results are matchless: a risotto that isn't only unusually creamy, but unusually chewy as well.

My companion, whose tastes resemble those of the Marlboro Man, ordered the filet mignon ($16.50). It arrived nicely seared and ... what's the word? Meaty! That's it. It was very meaty. Inside, it was the color of pomegranate. The accompanying potatoes had been flavored with horseradish. Though "flavored" may not be the word. This horseradish didn't enhance; it detracted.

To finish, a few minor cavils. Once, the white wine was served warm; and twice, the breads came to the table cold. And the kitchen still has to learn how to pace itself. If the chef insists on preparing first-rate food, he should understand that diners will want to take their time over it. Instead, entrees on both our visits were served long before we'd finished our appetizers. And I wonder if the beignet theme isn't being overworked. The tiny beignets doing service as croutons in my lobster bisque were rock hard. And the shrimp beignet, mentioned above, doesn't work at all. I had qualms as well about the profiteroles ringing my plate of bouillabaisse. These, too, were rock hard, making me think of Stonehenge. And talk about tenacious! They clung to the plate like barnacles, requiring more than a knife and fork to pry them loose. Next time, I'll bring a chisel.

Cafe Beignet, 5381 Westheimer, 626-9664.

 
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