Four-Star Fun

Tony Ruppe serves serious food and wine. So why are his patrons laughing?

We mercilessly teased the waiter who brought us cabbage tamales ($9.75) instead of a chicken-avocado club sandwich -- the only serving gaffe in all my visits -- then forgave him completely when we fell in love with the accidental entree. Surprisingly tender green leaves of cabbage wrap around smoky barbecued duck, nutty tidbits of toasted pumpkin seeds and creamy queso fresco, swimming in a deep red, smoky chipotle dressing.

Ruppe's colorful salad combinations sound mischievous, even unlikely, but once tasted seem inspired. I love the grilled fennel and green apple salad ($4) where, miraculously, fennel manages to play well with others. Lightly grilled, the fennel is sweet and tender, with only the faintest suggestion of anise; in counterpoint, the green apples are crisp and tart. Lunchtime's combination of red onions, sweet peppers and juicy orange segments sparkles on the tongue ($3.75); at dinner, the "romaine, rocket and radicchio" salad ($6.50) rules. It's as much fun to pronounce as it is to eat, punctuated with chunks of marinated goat cheese and sprinkled with a sweet-sour vinaigrette of caramelized shallots and green apples.

Desserts are not currently listed on the menu, and change frequently, so save room on faith to try them. I heartily recommend splitting the huge, speckled wedge of creamy pumpkin cheesecake ($5) with a friend; ditto for the fig upside-down cake ($5), featuring fresh figs buried in a moist spice cake. Keep the beggar's purses ($6) to yourself if you can. The delicate pockets of phyllo pastry stuffed with chocolate and fresh raspberries are heavenly, afloat in cream sauce laced with bourbon.

Ruppe's wine list may induce sticker shock, but it's an eclectic selection of "boutique" bottles and blends for the adventurous, with helpful pairing suggestions for the neophyte. The pairings may be a bit too precise for haughty oenophiles ("White Wines for Grilled Light Meats and Fish with Richer Sauces" for example), but less-serious souls will appreciate the tongue-in-cheeky suggestions ("Big Reds That Like Peppery Hot, Smoky Foods and Rich BBQ"). In the admittedly arbitrary under-$40 category, I particularly like Sonoma Cutrer's Russian River Chardonnay or La Crema's Pinot Noir at $36 each, and Benziger's 1996 Merlot at $34 is appealing. A short list of wines by the glass starts at $6.50 but rapidly ramps up to $12.50 per stem; try the Murphy Goode Reserve Fume Blanc for $10 or the Gundlach Bunschu Cabernet/Merlot/Zinfandel blend for $8.

It's not surprising that Tony Ruppe has earned the respect of Houston's culinary community; what's more unusual is that he seems universally well liked by his fellow chefs, who hope his new place succeeds. "He's not one of those holier-than-thou chefs," explains a friend in the business. "It couldn't happen to a nicer guy," another was overhead to say. Others admire his managerial style. "Tony has always acted like an owner," says one observer. "He and John Puente [at Urbana] are Houston's two most conscientious owner/chefs. They both understand that visibility on the floor is crucial." Despite the long and awful struggle to open the doors, Ruppe has built a restaurant worth the wait.

Tony Ruppe's Fine American Food and Wine, 3939 Montrose, (713)852-0852.

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