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In the low cool light of the glowing Plexiglas squares behind the bar, the black-clad bartender doesn't appear old enough to drink. But he says he knows how to make an apple martini. It's seven o'clock on a Wednesday night at Dish, and I am the only person at the bar. There are maybe six or seven people eating in the dining room, but things are way too quiet. I had heard that Dish is one of Houston's hottest new restaurants, so I can't figure out why I am sitting here all alone. "People start coming in around seven," the bartender says. Then he looks at his watch. "Oh, it's after seven."
My apple martini arrives. It's cloudy, pale green and ungarnished. I had never heard of apple martinis until I read about them in The New York Times. (See Stirred and Shaken for the recipe.) According to the Times's cocktail correspondent, it's the trendy drink of the moment in both L.A. and New York. So I thought I'd go on an apple martini tour of Houston, a bachelor's search for the city's hippest new restaurants.
The bartender at Dish apologizes that he doesn't have any DeKuyper's Sour Apple Pucker, the liqueur that is usually combined with vodka to make the drink. But he swears that a combination of Midori and sweet-and-sour mix tastes exactly like the green apple stuff. I have no idea what the drink is supposed to taste like, but I like it anyway. It has a pleasant crispness that reminds me of autumn. Unfortunately he doesn't have the proper decoration, a green apple slice.
Big Seafood Platter, per person: $9.50
Chargrilled New York strip: $18
Curried mussels: $10
Tomato pizza salad, regular: $11; large: $14
Half rotisserie chicken: $9
Macaroni-and-cheese Cakes: $7.99
Buffalo meat loaf: $12.99
B.A.L.T. sandwich: $7.50
Dish is a spare-looking place. The interior walls are squares and rectangles painted lavender and rose and set off with minimalist art. Spindly orchid stems sprout from an elevated planter box separating the bar from the entrance area. Dish's menu describes comfort foods that have been "gussied up" with premium ingredients or innovative twists. The grilled pork chops come with caramelized apples, mashed sweet potatoes and asparagus; a steak comes with sautéed spinach, blue cheese mashed potatoes and a zinfandel reduction sauce.
After a forgettable appetizer of macaroni-and-cheese cakes, I dig into an entrée of buffalo meat loaf with potato pillows, cream of corn and sun-dried tomato ketchup. The portion of meat is larger than even a big eater like me can handle. I discover that sun-dried tomatoes taste almost exactly like plain old tomato sauce when reconstituted. Potato pillows are deep-fried cubes of mashed potatoes. (Why?) The low-fat buffalo makes a pretty good meat loaf, but it is screaming for seasonings. I want to dump some Bufalo chipotle, that spicy Mexican ketchup, over it. The corn appears to have been cut from the cob and cooked in cream. But again the dish stops just short of having any big flavors. I muse about how I'd doctor it up at home -- some roasted garlic and green chiles, maybe?
I have heard some grumblings about the incongruity of the food and interior design at Dish. A big serving of upscale comfort food goes over great as the blue-plate special at a chic new diner or in a cozy American bistro. But at Dish, the homey food and stark art-gallery decor are as mismatched as plaid pants and a striped shirt.
Some would disagree with this criticism -- like Rebekah Johnson, for instance. I happened to meet Rebekah at Bossa, the new Cuban bar and Nuevo Latino restaurant on Main Street. It is only the third night the place has been open, and I find myself there at a big table with an Art Guy, a corporate consultant and two great-looking women. One of the women is Rebekah, a stylish blond who not only is witty and urbane but also is wearing some very sexy shoes.
"I like to be surprised by things that don't seem to go together," Rebekah argues in defense of Dish. I consider this for a minute. I have to confess that I love it when elegant food is served in inelegant surroundings, such as at the Green Room in Dallas, a restaurant that Gourmet magazine recently described as an "haute dive." But I am not so sure it works the other way around. Rebekah suggests that I go back to Dish for another try. She likes the B.A.L.T., a bacon, avocado, lettuce and tomato sandwich.
Bossa is also pretty quiet, but it's a Monday night, and the restaurant hasn't even been open a week. An item from Bossa's "Small Plates" menu, called a "Big Seafood Platter," arrives at our table to the sounds of oohs and ahs. This multistory metal tower is loaded with bowls of seviche, escabèche and shellfish; the whole edifice is placed in the middle of the table. I would guess that the presentation is modeled after the three-story seviche sampler at Patria, Douglas Rodriguez's groundbreaking Nuevo Latino restaurant in New York.
Bossa, whose menu is identical to those of the Samba Room restaurants in Dallas, Chicago and Florida, is owned by the Minnesota-based Carlson Restaurants Worldwide. (See Dish, "A Mojito? Ya Betcha!" September 28.) The corporate folks have done a beautiful job with the interior design, but the food, as you might expect, is geared toward the mass market. Take, for instance, the gleaming tower of seafood on our table. At Patria, the seviche tower is loaded with Honduran seviche with tuna, chiles and coconut milk; Peruvian seviche in a fiery-hot squid-ink-blackened marinade; and Ecuadoran seviche with a garnish of corn nuts and popcorn. While the presentation at Bossa is impressive, the sea bass seviche is plain old lime juice and cilantro; the grilled calamari is served in a simple escabèche; and an avocado-and-tuna seviche tastes like sushi chunks in guacamole.