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In his new digs, Angelika Cafe's Zumm Escudier exudes star power

To: Zumm Escudier, executive chef, Angelika Cafe and Bar

From: Dennis Abrams, Houston Press

Subject: Groveling

Angelika Cafe: Too casual for opera-goers, perfect for popcorn-poppers.
Deron Neblett
Angelika Cafe: Too casual for opera-goers, perfect for popcorn-poppers.

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(713)225-1609.
510 Texas Avenue in Bayou Place,

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Mr. Escudier, I may owe you an apology. As I'm sure you remember, I wrote a rather scathing review of the former New Renata's (see "Out with the New," December 30, 1999) when you were the executive chef there. I felt at the time, and still feel, that the review was fair and accurate. Since then, however, you've moved on and taken over the kitchen at the Angelika Cafe and Bar, overhauling the menu to reflect your own East-meets-West sensibilities. Now, I don't now if it was me, or if the pretensions of Renata's straitjacketed your talents into a somewhat woeful approximation of continental cuisine, but I have to say, this time around your food pleases me. And if you feel that I was at all unfair to you the first time around, I'm sorry.

Nestled into a corner of the Angelika Film Center, your place is comfortable, if a bit crowded. It might be a little too casual for the opera and ballet crowds (although the food belies the cafe's casual attitude), but it is still an ideal place for a meal before or after a movie, or the theater, or even a ball game.

The one item that I truly and thoroughly enjoyed at Renata's was the lobster bisque, and at the Angelika, it is still as good as I remember ($5.95 cup/$8.45 bowl). It's rich without being cloying, a deep, full-bodied lobster taste, but light on the cream. And if I can't necessarily agree with the menu's boast that it's the "best lobster bisque in town," it's only because I haven't sampled every lobster bisque in town (not for lack of trying, goodness knows).

Your other appetizers are worthy of note, too -- so good, in fact, that I could easily envision a wonderful meal consisting solely of soup and a couple of appetizers. The taco shimi ($7.95) is a triumph, chunks of blackened yellowfin tuna, rosy red on the inside, with sautéed mushrooms and a flavorful Asian coleslaw, served in fried wonton "tacos." It's a refreshing blend of flavors and textures. I also relish the shrimp empanadas ($7.25); a fine example of East meets West, the appetizer is a French puff pastry stuffed with shrimp, then bathed in a nicely balanced sweet ginger sauce. Sure, the pastry could have been crisper, but honestly there wasn't a speck of food left on my plate.

Also good, if a bit less creative, is the "angel dip" ($6.95), a tasty concoction of roasted garlic, artichoke hearts, fresh spinach and Parmesan, served warm with crispy toast; it's an appetizer practically custom-made to share over drinks while perusing the menu. Another good table-sharing treat is the crispy calamari ($8.25), nicely tender squid dusted with a secret mixture of "seven spices" and served with a chunky, well-seasoned marinara sauce.

As for your sandwiches, the "bayou country crispy oyster" ($10.25) is delicious, if a bit unwieldy, what with the well-fried oysters balancing precariously on slabs of soft country French bread spread with jalapeño tartar. (Don't you think the sandwich would hold together better if the bread were toasted? And don't you think the crunch of toasted bread would accent the texture of the oysters better? Just a suggestion.) No suggestions are necessary, though, for your black Angus burger ($8.95), a rugged slab of top-quality ground beef served on a delicious onion roll. I also like the fries that accompany your burger, though I like the crunchy, refreshing jicama slaw even better.

Your "just Alfredo" pasta ($8.95) is a stunner as well. Normally with an Alfredo I prefer a wide fettuccine so that the sauce has more surface space to cling to, but with your lighter (though still wonderfully rich and cheesy) sauce, the thinner egg linguine proves a good match. One complaint about your jalapeño pasta, though ($11.95): The penne pasta tossed with sweet peppers, grilled chicken breast, onions and jalapeño-cream sauce is tasty at first bite, but by about halfway through the bowl, it seems a bit, well, dull. There are simply not enough contrasting flavors (although it's strange that the Alfredo fettuccine doesn't suffer the same fate). I guess next time I'll split an order with someone.

One thing that I refuse to share, though, is your chocolate mousse cake ($4.75), which may be a slice of dessert perfection, a dark moist cake layered with a lighter mousse. Anyone who dares to sling a fork near my cake will suffer a fate worse than Renata's. Trust me.

One more thing before I close this note. Located as you are so near to the concession stand, your patrons are constantly being bombarded with the aroma of freshly popped popcorn. As good as your menu is, this is quite a distraction. To alleviate any cravings the aroma may inspire in your customers, couldn't you introduce popcorn to your menu? A big bowl of it as an appetizer, perhaps? Served on the side of a burger instead of fries? Or even as a garnish for lobster bisque? Just a thought.

Angelika Cafe and Bar, 510 Texas Avenue in Bayou Place, (713)225-1609.

 
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