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Taking No Chances

Cafe Chino plays it safe

Visiting Cafe Chino for the first time, we were seated in front of a massive and handsome floral arrangement containing some very substantial lengths of bamboo. It made one grateful that Houston didn't experience earthquakes because, had the earth moved even slightly, that arrangement would have come toppling down and sent both of us to kingdom come. Which would certainly have put a crimp in the evening. I was neither in the mood, nor in any fit state that night, to meet my maker.

Cafe Chino, which showcases the dishes of Hunan, is a nice-looking place. A splendid, red-silk Chinese wedding dress graces the lobby, and along the walls of the dining room is a series of lovely prints. Three light shades over the bar look like bra cups -- shades of Madonna in her Jean-Paul Gaultier lingerie days -- and through the floor-to-ceiling windows that front the street, there's a splendid view of a line of trees. The restaurant has some 20 tables, nicely spaced and each boasting a set of lacquered chairs.

The proximity of that floral arrangement wasn't the only thing that gave us pause that first night. Because we were seated under strips of neon concealed in the ceiling, our table was bathed in a strange purple light. Suggesting as it did the inferno, I took the precaution of checking the staff for cloven feet. The last thing I wanted was someone saying, "My name's Beelzebub, and I'll be your waiter this evening."

People obviously like Cafe Chino. We ate here early -- about 6:30 -- and had for company a good-sized crowd. A happy crowd, too. Not boisterous, of course. These people were much too refined. Several of the men wore chinos, which made me wonder whether the chino in Cafe Chino refers to the Spanish word for "Chinese" or to its customers' mode of dress.

What was most striking about these people -- by all appearances, many of them were regulars -- was their obvious air of ease. You'd swear they were at home and entertaining a few friends for the evening. They clearly felt safe here. Why? Because they had every expectation of a first-class meal? I don't think so. The two times I ate at Cafe Chino, the experience was, at best, mediocre. These people, I suspect, had come, not for excellence, but for predictability. Cafe Chino doesn't pull surprises. This is a place that plays it safe.

By and large, that's the problem. You want a restaurant to veer from the tried and true from time to time. You want it to take chances. Cafe Chino has much in its favor -- a handsome dining room, a pleasant wait staff and a menu that seems to offer promise. Roast duck, the intriguingly named General Tso's shrimp, and cinnamon-apple baby ribs are just some of what's available. But much is lost in the execution. The dishes we sampled looked -- and, quite frankly, tasted -- tired. I don't doubt that the kitchen staff has talent. But for now, at least, they seem to be in a rut. A reappraisal may be in order.

What distinguishes a really good dish is clarity and a sense of purpose. The menu at Cafe Chino has neither. I'm not suggesting that the food was unpalatable, even though the quail, since shuffling off this mortal coil, had clearly spent too much time in the freezer. The problem with most of these plates was a certain fuzziness. The soft-shell crab ($13.95) might have been fine were it less greasy and had the accompanying chile sauce not been compromised by the addition of honey. And the sliced lamb with basil ($10.95) might also have passed muster had the meat been a little fresher and the sauce a lot less unctuous. On the evidence, I would be forced to say that eating at Cafe Chino is a bit like gazing through an old pair of binoculars: What you're seeing is recognizable, but you can't help wishing it were better defined. Fuzziness seemed to characterize almost everything we ate here. A lot of this food just hems and haws, suggesting nothing as much as chronic indecision.

The word "crispy" appears all too often on this menu. In addition to crispy quail, there is crispy spring roll, crispy duck and crispy whole fish. Other items, though not billed as such, get the crispy treatment, too: the fried wonton, the buffalo wings and especially the shrimp toast. Cafe Chino needs to go easy on the crispy. There's more to cooking than plunging things in oil.

Along with cheese sticks and fried walnuts, the spring roll, fried wonton, buffalo wings, and shrimp toast make up the tidbit platter ($4.95 per person, minimum two). Some of the walnuts tasted of shrimp for some reason, and the roll had no flavor at all, moving my companion to remark that the ones she buys at the supermarket are infinitely better.

The assorted steamed dumplings ($5.25) disappointed, too. Instead of being delicate, the wrappers were thick, stolid, positively off-putting. To their credit, though, they were expertly crimped. The crispy quail ($4.25), while nicely marinated, was something else that suffered from an excess of crispiness -- the line between crispy and burnt is a fine one -- and from a little too much grease as well.

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