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Among the surest signs of downtown's new liveliness is the presence of the sidewalk menu pusher, the guy who politely forces you to take a Xerox of his restaurant's menu. Houston has reached some tipping point, a critical mass of pedestrians: Finally, we've become a target market.
And the odds are pretty good that the menu wadded in your pocket at the end of the day belongs to New York House [502 Main at Prairie, (713)237-0055], a place fervently trying to capitalize on all that critical mass. Originally a simple deli and salad bar, it reopened in April with a sushi bar, a greatly expanded menu and the ambition to be all things to all people. In truth, "expanded" doesn't begin to cover menus that for lunch and dinner include -- prepare yourself -- deli sandwiches, soups, salad bar, Japanese bento boxes, sushi and sashimi, steaks, "three kinds baked fish," soft-shell crab, ostrich prepared five different ways, udon noodles and teriyaki, "French-style" frog legs, fried alligator and quarter-pound cookies.
The breadth of those offerings unnerved me. It's hard enough to prepare one cuisine well, and this place was attempting to serve everything but tacos. The first few minutes of my initial visit early one Saturday evening did nothing to ease my fears. One of the restaurant employees was sleeping across a row of chairs against a wall. A couple of minutes later he woke up, stared at me blearily and went back to sleep, this time with his head resting gently on the table.
After we ordered, the waitress brought the salad that accompanies New York House's entrees: a kaleidoscope of Caesar salad, kidney beans, cold ziti and bamboo shoots, topped with one great soggy crouton, like the cherry on a sundae. The assemblage, like the menu, seemed to be a bunch of motifs in search of a theme. Were they cleaning out the salad bar?
Following that plate of weirdness, things were bound to pick up, but I didn't expect them to pick up so substantially. A sashimi assortment ($14.25 for 13 pieces) yielded an impeccably fresh assortment of tuna, salmon, whitefish and yellowtail. This was closely followed by charbroiled ostrich ($14.25 for eight ounces, $24.25 for 16). The lean meat comes nicely grilled, served with its "natural juices," along with baby carrots, giant asparagus drizzled with oyster sauce and sesame seeds, and an ice cream scoopful of white rice.
The ostrich entree was so good we nearly didn't notice that our soups hadn't arrived. They came just as we were finishing our entrees. First the waitress delivered the miso soup ($1), a good rich broth with lots of tofu and scallions. Then came beef udon ($7.50), thick noodles in a traditional delicate broth. If the shreds of beef had been a tad more tender, this would have been a completely satisfying bowl of food.
Finally, just as we were finishing our meal, we received our appetizer, an order of gyoza ($4.50). The little Japanese dumplings weren't what we expected: round and filled with a smooth seafood mixture, not the crinkly-topped pork dumplings you get elsewhere. They weren't bad at all, though they'd probably have tasted better at the beginning of the meal.
Timing, though, wasn't the problem with the quarter-pound chocolate chip cookie ($1); the problem was its execution. The quarter-pounder is a little too thick and cakelike to be a cookie -- it's closer to a scone -- and a little too flavorless to be worth the crumbs. But as a bonus, our extremely friendly waitress gave us a little bag of brownies as we were leaving, in case we should get hungry later.
The restaurant was still quiet when we left -- but then, New York House isn't really a place for a prime-time dinner. It gets busy at lunch (it's especially popular with jurors and court officials), when the offerings include deli sandwiches (try the Philly Roast Beef) and Japanese bento boxes.
Such offerings are even more impressive very late at night, when, as the menu pusher's materials note, "there is no other place to go." On Thursdays through Saturdays, New York House stays open until 4 a.m., feeding club-hoppers after the clubs have closed. At that hour of the morning, standards are low, and New York House's decent offerings are better than you have any right to expect. As our waitress explained, "The late-night people are often too drunk to know what they're eating, but we try to serve them good food anyway."
New York House, 502 Main at Prairie, (713)237-0055.