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New Digs, Old Tricks

The Riviera Grill has moved downtown, but it doesn't know how to make an urban statement

My friend started with the excellent roasted beet and goat cheese salad, a Sheely signature item that also appears on the menu at the chef's less expensive Mockingbird Bistro. For his entrée, he selected an off-menu special that the waiter described as another Sheely signature dish: a piece of sea bass crusted with chile and served over a tomato ragout.

I would have liked this dish a lot more if it had actually been a firm-fleshed sea bass, but the vapid taste and texture indicate the waiter has left out the word "Chilean." I don't like it, but many writers have raved about Sheely's Chilean sea bass.

Gourmet magazine also loved Sheely's "superb pork chop with bacony apple slaw…" While the slaw was pretty tasty, I found the pork to be nothing special compared to the juicy chop you can get at the Daily Review Cafe. Maybe I just had a bad attitude because I was drinking a glass of flat, oxidized red wine from the bottom of the bottle instead of the ale I really wanted.

Street scene with squid: John Sheely just won't give up on an appetizer that's long past trendy.
Troy Fields
Street scene with squid: John Sheely just won't give up on an appetizer that's long past trendy.

Details

832-200-8800. Hours: Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Calamari: $10
Eggs Riviera: $16
Scallops: $26
Pork chop and slaw: $27
Dry-aged Angus porterhouse: $36

1117 Prairie (in the Sam Houston Hotel)

My dining companion's Beckman Sauvignon Blanc was much better: a crisp, lemony wine that's perfect with fish. Unfortunately, when I examined the check later, I discovered that although the wine is offered for $7 a glass on the Riviera's wine list, it was billed at $9.

We finished with Sheely's warm chocolate tart, a molten masterpiece. Unfortunately, it took more than 20 minutes to arrive. The waiter explained that the new chef was having trouble getting it right. We weren't charged for the dessert.

On my second visit, a companion and I split a clever foie gras club sandwich, a big slab of fresh foie gras seared and served between diagonally cut toast slices. For the main course, she ordered Sheely's much- mentioned seared scallops served over white bean puree with roasted fennel. The scallops were sweet and firm, and the soft fennel, with its aromatic hint of licorice, was a delightful complement. The bean puree, on the other hand, was way too slimy to eat.

I got an outstanding porterhouse steak with Stilton and port wine sauce over horseradish "mashies." The Riviera Grill is the first place I've tried dry-aged Black Angus beef, and although it's a notch below dry-aged USDA Prime, it's a big improvement over regular Black Angus.

We finished with a cheese selection that turned out to be a big disappointment. A miserly slice of Reblochon was forced into the dessert spirit with a lot of fruit and syrup. "Please, let the cheese be cheese," I railed to my dining companion, who was busy scoping out the interior. Talk about cheesy, she said, of the glitzy "linear chandelier" hanging from the ceiling in the boring beige-on-taupe dining room.

Just then I noticed the frisée salad with poached egg on somebody else's table. The greens weren't cooked this time. "Hey, that's my salad!" I wanted to jump up and shout. Instead, I just demanded an explanation from the waiter.

"Don't you usually cook the greens on that salad?" I asked.

"No, the poached egg just wilts them a little," he replied.

I wondered briefly if I was losing my mind. A more logical explanation is that the chef was having a hard time getting the frisée right, too. While there are lots of great dishes on the Riviera's menu, too many of them are getting screwed up. Perhaps the organization is stretched thin staffing two restaurants, and we're simply suffering through the new employee training period. Sheely is a trouper, and I suspect he eventually will rise to the challenge. But after eight weeks in business, the new location of the fabled Riviera Grill seems to be struggling.


After the calamari, one of our brunch threesome orders eggs Riviera -- a variation on eggs Benedict with prosciutto instead of Canadian bacon, topped with a tomato confit and Choron sauce (hollandaise tinted with tomato). The potato hash served on the side of the eggs is disgustingly watery, but otherwise the dish is excellent. My other companion gets the banana-walnut waffles with Nutella. The big Belgian-style waffles are too dry, but that's remedied with plenty of syrup.

I try an innovative brunch dish, one I've never seen before: two fried eggs served over cassoulet. Cassoulet is a slow-cooked stew of white beans with pork and sausage that is native to the southwest of France. There are many variations -- some recipes call for duck confit or goose, some call for mutton -- but every version requires that the beans be baked in a crock until a crust forms on top and that the crust then be broken several times and stirred into the stew to thicken it.

Unfortunately, what they call cassoulet at the Riviera Grill is more of a bean soup. And while a couple of eggs served over top of a thick bean-and-sausage stew sounds great, fried eggs on top of a bowl of brothy soup isn't a good idea at all. I struggle to sop up some yolk with toast but finally give up.

Score it one decent entrée out of three, and a golden oldie for an appetizer.

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