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Cheaper By The Bottle

Former Tasca chef uncorks a food and wine bar for those on a budget

The dynamic duo of Charles Clark and Grant Cooper are at it again, adding a little more heat to the already boiling Houston restaurant scene. This time around, the originators of Tasca Kitchen and Wine Bar [908 Congress, (713)225-9100] have a fresh concept scheduled to go into a booming part of town, a concept that may cause a lot of other restaurateurs to break into a cold sweat when they find out about it. In a recent interview, Clark rapidly described the outlines of this new dining spot amid the clatter of pans in the kitchen at Elvia's Latin Grill [818 Travis, (713)222-2254], where he is finishing up a stint as a consultant, menu creator and executive chef.

"We signed the deal last week" was Clark's opening declaration.

"It will be called Ibiza Food and Wine Bar," Clark explains. Ibiza, pronounced "ee-BEE-tha," is the most bohemian and laid-back of the Spanish Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. While Majorca attracts the wealthiest of wealthy mainland Spaniards as summer residents, Ibiza gets the ex-girlfriends of Mick Jagger, retired art forgers and expatriate American novelists, plus the more common, backpack-lugging Lonely Planet seekers after sunshine, sex and good, cheap red wine.

The concept, while not new to the United States as a whole, is certainly novel to Houston. "I got the idea from a San Francisco restaurant called Plump Jack's," offers Clark, adding that he and Cooper have been working on the concept for ten years. "The restaurant will serve beer and wine only. If you want to bring your own liquor, you can, and we will have a cart where you can get the fixings for a martini or some other cocktail for a dollar or so."

A few old-time Houston spots, such as Griff's Shenanigans Cafe & Bar [3416 Roseland, (713)528-9912], still have what are called setups -- a glass, ice and a mixer of some sort -- but they are not fine-dining spots of the sort Clark and Cooper have been associated with in their professional careers. But that's not the bombshell. "The beauty of this restaurant," Clark continues, "is that all the wine will be sold at retail. If a bottle costs $15 at a Kroger or Rice Epicurean supermarket, that will be what we'll charge. That's a big difference from the $40 or so that other restaurants charge for the same bottle."

The 4,100-square-foot restaurant, located in a new commercial plaza at 2450 Louisiana ("We'll be the first to go in," Clark enthuses), will be at the same latitude as the huge Spec's Liquor Warehouse [2410 Smith, (713)526-8787]. It is within sniffing distance of the burgeoning Midtown neighborhood where several savvy operators have opted to open new restaurants rather than join the increasingly dense ecosystem of downtown diners and discos.

The look of the restaurant should be fresh as well. Paris-trained Belgian architect Ferenc Dreef, who lives in a huge loft in downtown Houston and whose architectural firm is called, simply, The Loft, is creating a design that "will be real clean, real minimal, nothing showy, with very good lines," Clark explains. "The idea is that the bar and the kitchen, which will be what is called a display or open kitchen, suggest the shoreline and beaches of Ibiza, and the dining area will be the sea. There will also be a food bar, with seating for ten or 15 people, looking into the kitchen. I'll be able to do a sort of chef's table there. Outside, there will be a patio with a fountain where we can seat 30 or 40 people."

Clark and Cooper have a single silent partner who is bankrolling this venture, set to open in mid- or late January. The angel approached after reading about their problems with their former partners at Tasca (see Dish, "Tsk, Tsk, Tasca," April 13). They also have a surprise guest, Clark's new wife, Sherry, who will be a partner and assistant-in-training to the culinary team of Clark and Cooper.

Gettin' Down...town

The downtown dining scene continues to attract new players. This October, Robert del Grande's ever-expanding Houston-based Express Foods will open another Cafe Express outlet, in Chase Center, at 650 Main and Capitol. Austin's popular Saba Bluewater Cafe, a tropical-themed seafood operation, will reproduce, paramecium-like, adding a location at 416 Main. It's also scheduled for an October opening date.

On a more modest basis, Aldo Elsharif, owner of Aldo's Dining Con Amore [219 Westheimer, (713)523-2536], who lives in the century-old Sweeney, Coombs & Fredericks building, will soon open an operation in his residence's street-level space. Named Salumeria di Aldo [306 Main, (713)227-5999], the spot is billed as "an Italian and kosher deli." The mind, as well as the stomach, boggles at such daring synergy.

 
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