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Vibrant green threads of lime zest decorated the top of the exhilaratingly tart key lime pie at Dharma Cafe on Houston Avenue. The pie is authentically cream-colored, not artificial AstroTurf green. It's not too sweet and not too gelatinous. In fact, it's the best key lime pie in the city since Café Toulouse (later Bistro Toulouse) went out of business.
When you pick up their menu, right below Dharma Cafe you see the words "Food for Life." When I read a slogan like that, I don't think about key lime pie — I think about carob, tofu and tempeh. It sounds like a health-food restaurant, right? Well, don't be fooled. The best dish I tried here was a steak.
"The Buddha never said you couldn't eat meat," chef/owner John Gurney is fond of pointing out. According to the restaurant's Web site, Gurney isn't a practicing Buddhist, but rather a student of Buddhism. And the brand of Buddhism he studies is less informed by the Tibetan Book of the Dead than by Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums. "Dharma is what we do to return to our center; it is our life's work," Gurney says. "The dharma of a dog is to lie around and scratch. My dharma is to cook."
1718 Houston Ave.
Houston, TX 77002
Region: Downtown/ Midtown
Deluxe pizza: $8
Salmon carpaccio: $10
Shrimp pasta: $18
Happily, it is my dharma to eat steak and drink wine. And the filet mignon I got for dinner at the Dharma Cafe was cooked to a rosy pink and topped with a giant, perfectly cooked sea scallop and two crossed strips of crispy bacon. It came on a bed of buttery garlic mashed potatoes with crispy quartered Brussels sprouts and baby squash on the side.
Priced at $37, the steak was just as expensive as it would have been at a top steak house, but the spectacular presentation made it worth every penny. I got a glass of Argentine Malbec from Budini to go with it. It was one of those New World-style drink-it-now wines with reduced tannins and big jammy fruit flavors. And it was a bargain at $7.50.
Dharma Cafe has a short, value-packed wine list with lots of bottles under $50. Most wines are available by the glass — which made it possible for me to switch from white to red. I started off with an $8 glass of Zeepard Sauvignon Blanc, a white with tropical fruit aromas and a peppery finish to go with the appetizer.
Before the steak, my dining companion and I sampled a starter called salmon carpaccio. Instead of following the formula for beef carpaccio — a plate covered with paper-thin slices of raw meat topped with olive oil and capers — Dharma's carpaccio looked more like a salad. A pile of raw spinach leaves were dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and capers and surrounded by chunky slices of lightly cooked salmon filet. There was a white dipping sauce on top that turned out to be horseradish cream. It was a pleasant appetizer, though the horseradish made it more British than Italian in flavor.
For her entrée, my dining companion got a plate of giant sea scallops in red curry sauce served over wilted spinach. The four big scallops were brilliantly cooked, so the center remained moist. Each was topped with a sprinkle of crunchy black pepper. The coconut milk curry had a mild, sweet flavor that accentuated the sweet, nutty flavor of the seafood.
I skipped dessert, having already determined that Dharma's other offerings — dry brownies, ho-hum homemade cinnamon-vanilla ice cream and a cheesecake from an outside supplier — aren't even in the same ballpark with the key lime pie.
My key lime pie experience was the exciting end of an uneven lunch. For our entrées, we had sampled two pasta dishes.
"Shrimp with garlic basil mojo" featured four fat juicy jumbo shrimp, butterflied and sautéed in a butter sauce with garlic, fresh basil, capers and sun-dried tomatoes. The shrimp and sauce were ladled over a bed of fresh fettuccine noodles. The result was a little dry because there wasn't enough sauce for the amount of pasta, but it was still very good.
The daily pasta special was the same fresh fettuccine tossed with asparagus, red peppers and cedar-planked salmon in a cream sauce with blue cheese. The result was a rapidly congealing macaroni and cheese-like mass that tasted way too rich. Together, the heady aromas of blue cheese and fish weren't very appetizing. Ordering a dish that combines fish and cheese is never a good idea, if you listen to Italian food authorities like Marcella Hazan. There are exceptions — but this wasn't one of them.
We started our lunch with Dharma's deluxe pizza, an appetizer-size circlet of bread topped with artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, pine nuts, feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. When I tried to pick a slice of pizza up, the toppings fell off. Without any melted cheese, it didn't behave the way you expect a pizza to. "It's sort of halfway between bruschetta and pizza," my dining companion remarked as he sawed at it with a knife and fork.
Funny, when I visited the original Dharma Cafe six years ago, I had the same problem. I complained about a tortilla-like pizza crust that flopped around and shed its toppings when you tried to pick the slices up. The pizza hasn't changed much since Dharma moved from Nance Street to its new home on Houston Avenue.
Much remains the same. The City Lights Bookstore poster of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac that hung on the wall at the old Dharma Cafe hangs in a place of honor at the new place. Portraits of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs are prominent as well. And chef John Gurney, who moved to Houston from Northern California shortly before the first restaurant opened, still has a long ponytail just as he did six years ago — although it's a little grayer now.
But the restaurant's vibe is different. The original Dharma Cafe had only seven tables and no bar. Chef Gurney hoped to sell books on the side, and he had a collection of Ginsberg poetry on display. It was the sort of impractical business that you might find in North Beach, San Francisco, down the street from Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store. But it made sense in that odd little neighborhood near Last Concert Cafe that was frequented mainly by artists with studio space nearby.
The new Dharma Cafe is located in the Kessler Building, an historic brick edifice on Houston Avenue at Crockett, conveniently close to downtown and the Heights. The dining room is at least three times as big as the old place, and there's an impressive bar. The floors are treated concrete and the wooden tables and chairs are mismatched and funky. At one end of the bar, there is a nook where you can relax in a sofa and easy chairs.
It feels like the quirky Dharma Cafe got an extreme makeover and turned into Onion Creek. It's all very charming. And the food and wine is much better than it used to be. But I liked the old place. We've got plenty of faux Austin around here — I'll miss the faux San Francisco.