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The sunshine striking our window-side table on this brilliant winter afternoon makes the seafood in my soup sparkle and glow. Chunks of fresh fish, sweet scallops and jumbo shrimp served in a seafood stock tinted bright yellow by a generous dose of saffron are just what you'd expect in a bouillabaisse. But here at Restaurant Ronit/Café Beigneton Westheimer, it also has some crawfish and andouille sausage, which gives the French fish soup a pronounced Louisiana accent.
"So is it French or Creole or what?" I ask the manager when he stops by my table to see if everything's okay.
"It's New American cuisine," he says with a smile. Whatever else the soup is, it's a brilliant hybrid of bouillabaisse and gumbo. I particularly like the dollop of garlicky mayo (a.k.a. aioli) spooned on top, which mixes into the broth when you stir it. I could eat this stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner -- which is entirely possible, since the charming little eatery serves Gulf bouillabaisse for all three meals on the weekends.
Houston, TX 77056
Gulf bouillabaisse $20
Eggs Sardou $11
Beignets (order of three) $2.10
Four-course brunch $40
Chicken crepes $17
Beef stroganoff $22
It was a flyer advertising the restaurant's Valentine's Day weekend specials that caused me to stop by recently. On the actual holiday, the restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. And on Sunday the 15th, the place will be serving four meals: breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. I thought I might be in the market for a romantic venue this Valentine's Day.
It was a similar advertising flyer that convinced me to take my date to Sam Houston Race Park last Valentine's Day. What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time. The horse track is offering a similar pitch this year: "The romance of Valentine's Day coupled with the excitement of live Thoroughbred racing."
Unfortunately, the chewy steak and rubbery rolls we got with the $24.95 dinner at the park's Winner's Circle Restaurant (red rose for the ladies included) didn't impress. And while the bright fluorescent lighting made it much easier to read the handicaps, it certainly wasn't very romantic. I still think my sales pitch -- "a fun, kooky way to spend a meaningless Hallmark-created holiday" -- might have gone over if we'd picked the right ponies. But instead, we bet on the dogs. This year, I'm looking for a place that doesn't require any willful suspension of disbelief on the part of my dining companion.
Restaurant Ronit/Café Beignet is a very attractive restaurant, especially at lunchtime with a bowl of illuminated Gulf bouillabaisse on your table. There are also several tables outside, a definite plus in the romantic-dining category. The interior space is divided between a dark and cozy dining room in the back, and a light and airy cafe in the front. Given last year's experience, the first thing I take note of are the restaurant's elaborate light fixtures. There are serpentine track lights over the bar and exotic-looking goosenecks bending down from artful suspended ceiling structures. And there are candles on the tables in the back dining room.
As the name suggests, the restaurant is undergoing treatment for an identity crisis. It was called Café Beignet when it first opened. And there is a bakery up front that offers breakfast pastries, including the square French doughnuts called beignets. There's also a display case with chocolate-dipped macaroons, rugelach and other typical Jewish bakery items. The crisis surfaced when the establishment called Café Beignet attempted to be taken seriously as a restaurant. Since few people think of eating dinner at a place named after a doughnut, the owners eventually added "Restaurant Ronit" to their signs and menus.
I've eaten three meals at Restaurant Ronit/Café Beignet -- a breakfast, a lunch and a dinner. Of the three, lunch was the winner. Along with the Gulf bouillabaisse, I sampled "country beignets." These are savory fried dough balls that look like hush puppies. They're stuffed with chicken, ham and mushrooms and served over a tossed salad -- not bad, but not extraordinary, either.
Breakfast came in second by a nose. I had eggs Sardou, featuring two poached eggs over creamed whole-leaf spinach on a bed of artichoke hearts, topped with hollandaise and accompanied by a basket of hot beignets and a cappuccino.
Though I didn't sample the brunch, the menu is tantalizing. Brunch appetizers include such choices as a shrimp or crab cocktail or mushroom pecan blini. The second course is a soup or salad. For the entrée you can choose between crepes, eggs Benedict, a grilled Cornish game hen, or combinations of one egg Benedict and steak, crab cakes or salmon. Dessert choices are presented on a tray afterward. We had some chocolate-dipped macaroons that are baked on the premises.
Dinner finished a distant third in this horse race. After an appetizer of some extremely bland "tea-smoked salmon" egg rolls served over a wilted salad, we decided to take a chance on some of the dated "French" dishes in hopes that a warm and fuzzy sense of nostalgia would make them taste better. And we were quite charmed with the fluffy crepes rolled around a grilled chicken and mushroom stuffing and topped with a pesto cream sauce. But the beef stroganoff was a disappointment. I remember the dish as long, thin strips of beef tenderloin in a sour cream-enriched sauce. But what I got were chewy sirloin tip chunks in a brown gravy.
"What happened to the sour cream?" I asked the waiter. He went to the kitchen to ask the chef.
"It's in there," he said when he came back, leaning over and inspecting my gravy. "That's the way he always makes it." Maybe there was a thimbleful of sour cream in there, but the chef sure wasn't wasting any.
While the food wasn't terribly exciting, the atmosphere was lovely. My date and I were seated at a banquette in the cozy dining room. We chose to sit romantically side by side against the back wall, and the owner came over and lit a candle on our table to enhance the lighting. My dining companion was quite fond of the place.
But Restaurant Ronit/Café Beignet was no longer in the running for a Valentine's Day meal. It's not that the restaurant wasn't good enough for the occasion. In fact, if we were going to be in town, I think I'd try to make reservations for brunch. But we're going away for the weekend. I finally realized that there isn't a restaurant in the whole city that's romantic enough to get me off the hook for last year's fluorescent-lit fiasco at the racetrack. So, I booked a suite in a romantic New Orleans bed-and-breakfast. I hope they have nice lighting.