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My lunch partner starts giggling. Is it my deconstruction of the ham and cheese sandwich that's cracking her up? I've just told her that I think the version at Mockingbird Bistro Wine Baris almost, but not quite, perfect: The ham is sweet and firm, with none of the watery texture of cheap lunch meat, and the baguette is toasted to a warm crusty shell. But I would have expected chef John Sheely to use Gruyère, or some other full-flavored cheese, instead of mozzarella. That's when she doubles over laughing.
Is it ridiculous to take ham and cheese so seriously? I ask her.
She gains control of herself long enough to lean over and whisper, "Alison Cook is sitting right behind you." I turn around as nonchalantly as I can. The restaurant critic and two senior editors from the Houston Chronicle are seated three tables away. In the same restaurant at the same time? What are the odds?
Houston, TX 77019
Region: River Oaks
Ham and cheese sandwich with frites: $7
Cheeseburger with frites: $8
Roasted beet salad: $7
Charcuterie plate: $10
Rigatoni Bolognese: $14
Pork chop with apple slaw: $18
Lamb T-bones: $20
Rabbit Ridge cabernet (glass): $5
I'm glad to see Cook back in town; there's no doubt that having two restaurant reviewers is going to be a good thing for the Houston dining scene. But I have to admit, it's pretty funny to try to eat lunch while casually checking out what the other critic is ordering. With our recent back-to-back reviews of Ling and Javier and now this, I guess Cook and I are going to have to get used to bumping into each other -- literally and literarily.
Maybe it isn't so surprising that we should both turn up at Mockingbird. The Montrose bistro has been open one month (the usual waiting period for restaurant reviews). And the chef is John Sheely, who has earned quite a reputation at his oddly located but highly acclaimed Riviera Grill out near Town & Country Mall. He's not known as a flash-in-the-pan celebrity chef but as an all-around performer who produces consistent quality day after day -- the Craig Biggio of Houston cooking.
Sheely says Mockingbird Bistro will be an inexpensive restaurant that serves a "downscaled" version of his American-Mediterranean cuisine. The place is still decorated with many of the hokey trappings left by the location's former inhabitant, Quasimodo's Sanctuary. The Notre Dame cathedral decor doesn't exactly match the spirit of the restaurant, but the stained glass, wrought iron and oversize chandeliers are a welcome breath of funkiness in a neighborhood of identical ticky-tacky town houses. Just be glad the restaurant interior is not another architecture lesson in modern minimalism.
What I like the most about Mockingbird Bistro is the unpretentious menu. This is a perfect place to enjoy a big fat steak with french fries and an earthy Rhône red wine or a hamburger with a cold beer. And the quality of the ingredients often elevates the simple dishes to unexpected heights.
Such is the case with a bowl of mussels I sampled at lunch. The menu calls this dish "pei mussels, andouille sausage, garlic, shallots, tomato and white wine." Pei (or P.E.I.) is short for Prince Edward Island, a Canadian province next to Nova Scotia, where mussels are cultivated on ropes. This technique produces mussels with no grit, no tooth-shattering pearls and a higher meat-to-shell ratio than the natural variety.
The mollusks are pale ivory rather than the usual orange, with a milder taste and meatier texture. By adding the Louisiana pork sausage to the broth, Sheely gives the classic bowl of mussels a Mardi Gras twist. The menu doesn't mention that the sausage and tomatoes that give the "pot liquor" so much flavor are tossed with lightly cooked spinach leaves before they're served, but this is a nice touch. The mussel shells come neatly arranged in concentric circles around the pile of sausage-studded greens with an order of french fries.
Moules frites, a bucket of mussels in broth with french fries on the side, is a favorite European cafe offering that originated in Belgium. I can't say I've ever really understood the combination. You don't get much out of dunking french fries in mussel broth except wet fries; bread is much better suited to the sopping. But they make some awesome frites in that part of the world, so I generally shut up and eat them.
Mayonnaise and rémoulade are the usual condiments for french fries in the Benelux countries. Mockingbird Bistro is the latest Houston restaurant to serve its french fries in a paper cone with mayo (see "Patriotic Excess," October 25, 2001), but the frites are one simple dish that eluded Sheely's usually sure grasp. When you draw this much attention to your fries, they better be hot out of the fryer, crispy and perfectly cooked. The ones I got were limp and not very hot.
The other problem I had at Mockingbird Bistro was with an even simpler item: bread. When I visited for dinner, we got a basket that contained focaccia and walnut-raisin bread with a little dish of olive oil infused with garlic and basil. The squishy, slightly underbaked focaccia was passable, but who dips walnut-raisin bread in garlicky olive oil?
The disconnect between the breads and the bistro fare was especially evident in the charcuterie plate. Hot and spicy venison sausage and a rich and chunky housemade pâté were served with cornichons, olives and greens. I don't know about you, but I like to spread pâté on something crusty. The waiter was kind enough to bring us a sliced sandwich baguette when we asked if there was any other bread, but hopefully the restaurant will fine-tune the selection so special orders aren't necessary.
Along with the charcuterie appetizer, we sampled a roasted beet salad with goat cheese, walnuts and greens, which was a humble masterpiece. The natural flavor of the deep purple beet quarters was so intense that I was grateful for the lack of seasonings. Together with the walnuts, cheese and simply tossed greens, the naked beets made an extraordinary salad.
In between the appetizers and entrées, we split a bowl of rigatoni with one of the best Bolognese sauces I've ever had. The ragout was thick with ground veal and light on the tomatoes, with a gentle base of carrots, onions and parsley. The amount of sauce was generous in proportion to the pasta, and the whole thing was topped with a glob of ricotta and a sprinkling of chopped chives. The pasta was terrific, but it was so rich that half an order nearly ruined my appetite for the entrée. Order the full plate with caution.
The entrées were fantastic -- maybe a little too fantastic. My dining companion had a giant pork chop, very juicy and grilled pink as ordered, served with a warm, wilted apple-and-bacon slaw over mashed potatoes with a bold, creamy Stilton sauce. But it was the lamb chops that made me suspicious.
I ordered a pair of lamb T-bones, medium rare. They came to the table rare, so I asked the waiter to take them back for a little more grilling. But when the browner chops returned, they were accompanied by a profusely apologetic manager. Then the hostess came to the table, introduced herself and apologized some more. She even offered to give us free desserts. At that point I came to the conclusion that I had been recognized. The manager must have seen me jotting some notes. It's my duty to tell you when this sort of thing happens so you know that I probably got special attention. But you don't have much to worry about in this case. John Sheely's cooking is so honest and straightforward that there isn't a lot about it that could be changed at the last minute.
The American-Mediterranean food at Mockingbird Bistro doesn't try to wow you with cleverness. Instead it impresses with simple things like the intensity of a roasted beet, the plumpness of a cultivated mussel or a time-honored combination like cabbage, apples and pork. The trick with uncomplicated cooking like this is to let good ingredients do the talking, and Sheely seems to be a good listener.
He needs to fix the frites, maybe put some real cheese on the ham sandwich, and reconsider what kind of bread is going in the basket -- but these are minor quibbles for a restaurant that's barely a month old. The unassuming but knockout food, cheap but adventurous wine list and medieval-cathedral-gone-funky atmosphere preserve the eccentric spirit of Montrose in a newly homogenized neighborhood.
Sheely may have just been trying to loop a single into right field with the modest Mockingbird, but he could end up with an inside-the-park home run.