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Hans Mair, longtime lord of the old-guard institution Vargo's, recently opened Darby's, a time warp of a new restaurant. The mood and menu recall fine dining of the '50s -- and yes, there was such a thing. Dishes such as Long Island duckling with bing cherry sauce ($19.95) and shrimp cocktail ($8.50) offer a retro supper-club thrill, and the experience is delicious.
It's an especially interesting effect because the room itself has understated, entirely contemporary élan left over from its previous tenant, DaCapo's on the Parkway. A few fixtures and furnishings have been added, but the warmly lit, high-ceilinged dining room still offers a view of the semi-open kitchen. The walls offer a peek at Hans Mair's history: Framed full-color photographs show scenes of Austria, specifically scenes from the countryside just outside Salzburg.
Not even two months after opening, Darby's on the Parkway seems to have no problems, save for location issues. The first location issue is site-specific: Mair's Austria-influenced restaurant is tucked away on D'Amico, a tiny street off Allen Parkway. Unless you're taking a shortcut to Stages, you're not going to stumble across the white brick building. The second location issue is city-specific: Darby's menu showcases heavy foods craved in cooler, more bracing climates than ours.
Perhaps you could play the Sound of Music soundtrack for mood music before a visit, or simply hum "Edelweiss" to whet your appetite for this hearty fare. Sitting through a few show tunes is a very small price to pay for savoring Darby's hearty fare. It is, after all, an event to find meats drenched in sauces flavored with broth, instead of a spiked sugary glaze.
Natural meat juices dominate the sauces, but their flavor is only the start of most dishes -- we're talking baroque stuff, such as chicken Florentine ($12.95), double frenched lamp chops in bordelaise sauce ($29.50) and osso buco ($18.50). All show an old-fashioned refinement. The sauces and breadings never overwhelm, and polite side dishes such as properly creamed spinach and unpretentious green beans have a down-to-earth charm. You know a restaurant works when simple vegetables, such as fresh, tender green beans, are so well selected and well prepared as to make a major impression. In the long run, such quality means much more than showy presentation; who needs another overcooked whatever piled up in a haystack with crisscrossed colored pepper strips?
Neither the dishes nor those who present them demands attention. Instead, you have the luxury of realizing, slowly, that every detail has been attended to -- and if you have a question about any little thing, you'll notice that a waitperson has materialized at your elbow.
Elegant service and excellent food do not add up to a stodgy experience; the wine list is excellent, and the menu is downright whimsical. Shrimp "Bimini," with quotation marks, is cheerily labeled "Hanzee's selection from my 'island life'," while pepper steak is identified as "a most delicious choice!"
Perhaps the meat-heavy menu is at odds with some diets, but the prices won't wreck your financial health. The Wiener schnitzel, a slender slab of veal delicately breaded and flavored, costs only $16.95 (and it's not like you find a Wiener schnitzel at your neighborhood cigar-and-steak-house).
Stuffing yourself is not mandatory, of course (although I recommend it). Lighter fare includes Atlantic salmon in dill sauce ($16.95), grilled snapper flavored with cilantro, ginger and soy sauce ($19.95), Colorado rainbow trout or Dover sole meunière ($14.95 and $29). These at least seem heart-healthy, but of course Darcy's isn't the kind of place that brags about its low fat grams.
Even unrepentant dieters, though, will admire the exquisite Austrian cucumber salad ($5.50). Though this delicate and lovely creation is the only menu item designed to bring coolness into a swampy hot Houston day, it carries enough chill to be worth a trip. Marinated seedless baby cucumbers, pared thin, rest on a fan of thick-sliced garden cucumbers with accents of Roma tomato and onion -- and all in a sprightly marinade. The assemblage looks like carved glass and tastes like just what you need to become cool and calm.
Either way you order -- mighty, meaty meal or nibbles -- you ought to save room for dessert. Darby's strudel, another one of the simple things the place does well, tastes like apples, spices and pastry instead of the syrup-soaked mass of dough which passes for strudel in restaurants that really should know better. (It's $4.95, $5.95 with Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and the Häagen-Dazs gains something in the pairing.) Again with the simple, Darby's offers a dainty chocolate dessert. It's not the overkill so popular now (you know: chocolate death and chocolate indulgence and all the other all-but-served-with-a-syringe sops to chocolate junkies). Instead, we're offered things that display baking skill: a complex Belgium chocolate torte, and even a Charlotte berry torte (both $4.95).
Mair's latest venture combines his long experience in fine dining and lessons about leisure time learned at his Sundance Grill, on the shore of Clear Lake. The side-street location is a hardship, and to date the restaurant has not tried hard to raise its profile. But maybe it doesn't need to; maybe word will get out. The service, spacious dining room and unusual, interesting and perfectly prepared food ought to attract adventurous diners.
Darby's on the Parkway