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A man in a gray sleeveless T-shirt and striped shorts carries a plastic basket full of neatly folded laundry down the sidewalk in front of my table. That's something you don't see in the suburbs. I have just finished a lackluster salad at Café Compliqé on Westheimer. Now I'm sitting out on the restaurant's deck, drinking a caramel latte and failing miserably at the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle.
That curvy little stretch of Westheimer between the old Oak Farms Dairy and the Texas Tattoo Emporium in Montrose is a tree-lined boulevard in a quaint village of antique stores and sidewalk cafes. The patio of Diedrich Coffee (1901 Westheimer) was full of coffee drinkers in meticulously casual clothing when I passed there at noon this autumn Sunday. And Empire Cafe (1732 Westheimer) was packed with antique-shoppers in leather pants. A few blocks east, La Strada (322 Westheimer) had set up a tent in the parking lot with tables, chairs and throbbing loudspeakers to accommodate the overflow of its every-Sunday-is-Mardi-Gras brunch. In between these bustling outdoor scenes, the patio of Café Compliqé was completely empty, which doesn't bode well for this recently remodeled restaurant.
There is something odd about Café Compliqé. Actually, there are many odd things about it, starting with the name. "It's French, it means complicated," the man behind the register tells me. According to my French dictionary, the Gallic word for complicated actually has a uin it. This brings to mind a great advertising slogan for the underpopulated restaurant: "Café Compliqé, where the only thing missing is U."
Houston, TX 77006
Caramel latte: $2.75
Margharita pizza: $7.75
Tuna lemonaise sandwich: $5.90
Légumes du France salad: $5.90
Al Menga salad: $6.25
Chicken curry sandwich: $5.90
House Favorite salad: $6.25
Small mushroom soup: $1.99
Everyone seems to agree that the former Pot Pie Pizzeria location has been imaginatively redecorated. The walls are papered with newsprint and overpainted in Easter-egg colors to match the built-in furniture. The booth tabletops are spring-green, and the adjoining wooden benches are robin's-egg blue. The wainscoting is papaya- colored, and the pillars are lemon-yellow. The art show currently on exhibit features a lot of spiritual scenes in matching pastels. Lava lamps occasionally make an appearance too. The music tends toward spacey jazz vocals in obscure foreign languages. Incense burns at all times. Café Compliqé feels like a Montrose day-care center for adults. Which is a good thing.
The funk factor makes you want to love the place. But while the lighthearted interior design comes across as whimsical and witty, a similar attempt at clowning around with cuisine falls flat.
Take the pizza called Hearts, for instance. It's made with hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes and melted cheese, and sells for $8.75. It sounds adorable. Until you compare it to the one called Margharita, made with sliced tomato, fresh basil, sliced palmetto, artichoke hearts and melted cheese, which sells for $7.75. What's the difference between these two? A sprinkling of basil and a dollar, if I'm not mistaken. Palmetto and hearts of palm are the same thing, the waiter agreed one day at lunch, and so are the two pizzas. He recommended the margharita, because it's cheaper.
Similarly racy in the reading but slow in the eating is a tuna "lemonaise" sandwich, a tuna salad sandwich with "a lemonaise that will knock your socks off," according to the menu. After a few bites of this poorly made tuna salad with lemon mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and what appears to be canned corn, you will find your socks firmly in place.
The "Légumes du France salad" is confusing. I thought it was a bean salad, since legumes in English are beans or peas. But légume in French means vegetable, explained the cash register man. It would have been a great name if this was a salad of cardoons or celeriac, but this is lettuce, tomato and onions with a little roasted eggplant and big slices of grilled portobello mushrooms on top. Still, it's the best salad at Café Compliqé, if you like mushrooms.
The "Al Menga" salad is made with mango, black beans, corn, fried tortilla strips and lettuce. When a food critic says that a dish didn't quite come together, he usually means it in a figurative sense. In this case, the criticism is literal. After spending a few minutes chasing the elusive beans, corn kernels and tortilla strips around the plate with a fork, I had to conclude that this salad needs a better organizational principle. And again, what's the point of naming a dish something that few people understand? I had to ask the waiter what "menga" means -- mango, he told me.
The waitstaff plays a mere walk-on role at this restaurant. They don't take your order. You have to get up and walk over to the counter for that. Although they deliver your drinks, your food and everything else to the tables, you are supposed to pick up your own silverware and order at the cash register. Why ask why?
The pizzas take a little longer than the other items, but they're worth it. Whoever formulated the recipe here knows that the way to keep the crust from getting soggy is to not overdo it with too many ingredients. The margharita was a light and fresh-tasting pie with a flavor dominated by sliced roma tomatoes on a splendidly crunchy pretzel-colored crust.