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Beignet Blahs

Good ideas. Bad execution.

Sometimes a restaurant just makes you sad.
Cafe Beignet is just such a place. I walked in with high expectations. It's a nice space: tile floors, comfortable wood chairs and tables, open-beam ceilings and a large bar dividing the room in two, the front half with floor-to-ceiling windows, the rear overlooking the open kitchen. The room buzzes with happy patrons. And new chef Ron Klotzer has put together a varied and interesting menu -- so interesting that even before I ordered, I was happily planning what I was going to choose on my next visit.

Unfortunately, on this visit, as well on my subsequent visit, the food itself was almost uniformly disappointing. The ingredients were top-notch, and most of the ideas were good. But in the execution, something was definitely lacking.

In the appetizers, it was balance that was missing. For instance, there's quesadilla topped with duck confit, black beans and goat cheese ($6.75). It's a good idea, but all you taste is an overabundance of warm, slightly grainy cheese -- the few shreds of confit don't stand a chance. The radicchio salad ($4.50) suffers from a similar problem. Blue cheese overwhelms the radicchio, normally a potent green, to the point that it might as well be iceberg lettuce.

Soups didn't improve matters. The French onion soup ($3.75) was a little thin-tasting and slightly sweet, with one large cheese-covered crouton floating like a life raft in the broth -- not the plenitude of bread and cheese I hope for in French onion soup. The roasted garlic soup ($3.75, a daily special) posed a different problem: It tasted oddly of fish, which hadn't been mentioned in the waitress's recitation. When I asked, the waitress didn't know why it had, but she relayed back to us the chef's confirmation that the soup was, in fact, based on seafood stock. That raises two questions: 1) Isn't this the sort of information that should be provided before ordering, given allergies, personal preferences and such? and 2) Why use seafood stock in the first place? It added nothing to the soup and masked the flavor of the garlic.

Of course I tried the beignets, the cafe's namesake dish: fried puffs of dough, done more in the French than the Louisiana style. Done right, beignets are all about lightness, and with high hopes I ordered the artichoke version, stuffed with olives, feta cheese and herbs, with a spicy red sauce ($11). They arrived atop a bed of lightly dressed greens: four of the heaviest, greasiest beignets that I've ever seen -- really more like fritters than beignets. At least the filling was good. I ended up scooping it out and pushing the sodden doughballs to the side.

The most successful entree was the simplest: grilled filet mignon ($19.95). Nicely charred on the outside, pink on the inside, with a good, beefy flavor, it was accompanied by a flavorful garlic potato cake and vegetables. But ask for the steak's sauce on the side (or not at all). The peppery bordelaise is flavored, we were told, with chipotle peppers, but all we could taste was the acrid, bitter flavor of burned chilies.

More disappointing was a daily special of almond-crusted trout stuffed with lump crabmeat ($19.95). A huge whole trout arrived overcooked, with a scant amount of stuffing, sprinkled, not crusted, with slivered almonds. Again, a victim of the kitchen's execution: With more stuffing and less time in the oven, the dish could have been excellent. As it is, it was slightly upscale trout almondine, and not a particularly good version.

The chicken and mushroom crepes ($11.25) were negligible, neither interesting nor appalling. The filling, slightly dry and underseasoned, was draped with a light "Noilly Prat" sauce. I'm still not sure what a Noilly Prat sauce is. I suspect the phrase translates as "bland and flavorless."

More problematic was the wild mushroom risotto ($12.75), which the menu said was topped with sauteed vegetables and white truffle oil. I wondered idly: Has white truffle oil become the roasted garlic of the late '90s? But even if it has, if a restaurant promises the stuff, it ought to show up in the dish, and here it wasn't in evidence at all. Likewise, the only wild mushrooms to be seen were (ahem) portobellos. And most depressing of all, the risotto at the dish's foundation had gone badly astray. After tasting the bland stuff, I tried some remedial salt-shaker work at the table. My ministrations helped a bit, but with a dish like risotto, if it's not properly seasoned while simmering, you can never quite fix it later. And I couldn't do a thing about its texture. The undercooked rice wasn't quite crunchy, but about halfway through my jaw began to tire, as if it were laboring over a bowl of Grape Nuts.

Fortunately, Cafe Beignet's desserts were a bright spot. The peach and white chocolate mousse cake ($4.75) was good; the homemade ice cream was better. I tried two flavors -- coffee and vanilla ($3) -- both fabulous. Rich and creamy, full-flavored and balanced, they are everything you want ice cream to be. If only the rest of the food were that good...

Cafe Beignet, 5381 Westheimer, (713)626-9664.

 
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