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Avoid the Crowd

Clive's does best when it's serving the fewest people

Elvis might be dead, but Sisyphus isn't. He lives -- at least in spirit -- in the person of a busboy at Clive's. No, he's stopped pushing a rock up a hill. The topography at Clive's rules that out. This time he's enduring a more terrifying fate: replenishing water glasses.

Dashing hither and yon with a water jug isn't as glamorous as pushing rocks. But he's lost none of his tenacity. The man was tireless, rushing to the table every time I raised my glass. It was all a bit wearing. Sip, refill. Sip, refilI. On and on. If I do this long enough, I thought, he's going to stop. But he didn't and, in the end, I played a trick on him, raising my glass and pretending to take a sip. But he topped it off, anyway. Topped it off until it was brimming. After that, I couldn't raise it at all. Had I done so, all that water would have sloshed down my arm. Score one for Sisyphus.

That remarkable busboy isn't the only personality at Clive's. Another is Alan Levine, the chef. A tall, grave-looking man, he wafts through the restaurant from time to time, looking like the ghost of Hamlet's father. I've exchanged pleasantries with him twice now and, both times, failed to make him smile. But come to think of it, gravity isn't such a bad quality in a chef. Levine takes his cooking seriously, which is one reason he's as good as he is. Another is talent. For one who's been cooking professionally a mere five years, he's very adroit. If he has a shortcoming, it's that he tends to limit himself. And one gets the feeling as well that he doesn't enjoy being pressed. On our initial visit to Clive's, there were, in addition to ourselves, seven people in the restaurant, and our meal was first-class. The second time we paid a call, the place was more populous -- and our lunch that much less satisfactory.

Clive's occupies what was once Charley's 517, which, until its demise last July, had long been a downtown institution. Clive Berkman, who owns Clive's, also owned Charley's and is determined to keep its memory green. Sugar wrappers still bear Charley's name. And the crab cakes, too. Which greatly alarmed me. Seeing "Charley's Crab Cakes" on the menu, I assumed they were, at the very least, nine months old.

As much as Clive's is determined to preserve its own history, it's committed to honoring Houston's as well. A mural filling an entire wall depicts the city's metamorphosis from tiny riverine settlement to gleaming metropolis. It makes modern Houston look very glamorous: as exuberant as Rio, as bustling as Hong Kong, as elegant as London. If only....

Clive's is a handsome place -- a mixture of brick and wood and etched glass. Each table has its own floral arrangement. Ours -- and I must admit to knowing nothing about flowers -- consisted of small pink things mixed in with slightly larger yellow things. And very nice they looked, too.

On our first visit, we thought the lunch offerings a little limited and asked if we might order from the dinner menu. Often, this will throw a kitchen into a deep and instant panic. But at Clive's, that didn't happen. The waiter returned to say that he'd talked to the kitchen, and it was the chef's wish that we order anything we liked.

To launch this meal, we chose crab cakes ($9.50) and the shrimp and salmon chowder ($4.50). The crab cakes looked like macaroons and were all that crab cakes should be: charred outside; inside, sweet and moist. The chowder was great as well. A bright red in color, it had all the briskness you expect of a good gazpacho. But this provided more nuance. Of everything I ate at Clive's, the chowder was easily my favorite. It had something few dishes have anymore -- a capacity to surprise.

The lamb chops ($28.50) came a close second. Oven-roasted, they were huge things, one resting gently on top of the other like two mastodons that had fought themselves to a standstill. The chops were napped in a vigorous demi-glace and came to the table with a red and yellow pepper relish. The pecan-grilled chicken breast ($8.50), while not as spectacular, tasted pleasantly smoky.

Our second meal was less successful. The wild-boar sausage soup ($5.50) -- the wild-boar sausage aside -- struck many of the same notes the chowder did on my earlier visit. The smoked Scottish salmon rolls ($8.50) fell short as well. They looked very nice -- nice enough to pique my interest. But how disappointing they proved! They were filled with cream cheese, of all things. Surely the kitchen can do better than that. There was no poetry in this dish. Ingredients should transcend themselves. These just lay there.

I didn't much like the pecan-grilled beef rib eye ($22), either. All in all, I would have to say, it was a thoroughly unexceptional piece of meat -- except for the fact that it packed a lot of fat. Clive's specializes in "prime, aged steaks." This one proved a poor ambassador.

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