A History Lesson

In a city where flux is the constant, the Confederate House has lived through five decades by staying the same. Even a move from its longtime Westheimer location a few years back (the windowless one where the big antebellum plantation mural set the tone) didn't alter the essential character of the place one iota. Within its new Weslayan home -- a low-slung brick structure that bears an unsettling resemblance to a classy mortuary -- courtly black waiters still dispense Gulf Coast country-club food to a well-heeled audience of vintage Houstonians: moneybags J. Howard Marshall, the unlikely groom of Anna Nicole Smith, is a regular, and his excellency Marvin Zindler often commands a front-and-center table under the crystal chandeliers.

Everything about this sedate restaurant, from its old-fashioned bill of fare to its well-padded aura of bourgeois comfort, has always been calculated to reassure a conservative clientele. (Not for nothing was the Confederate House once known as the place to which River Oaksians repaired for sustenance on the cook's night out.) So a recent bulletin announcing alterations came as a shock. "Eisenhower Era Ends," read this notice in a becoming tone of self-deprecation. "Confederate House Restaurant Changes Menu." Wondering what rogue spirit of modernity had seized this venerable relic, I went to investigate.

What I discovered was change of an amusingly glacial, quintessential Confederate House variety. No radicchio. No fennel. No tiramisu. The eternal steak-and-seafood verities still reign, along with chestnuts like vichyssoise and au gratin potatoes, but words such as "grilled" and "blackened" and "free range" have crept in; so have those ubiquitous '90s dishes crab cakes and Caesar salad. There's even a Texas game dish or two on the list. But the food that emerges from the kitchen is its same old self: middling fare of an engagingly mossbacked stripe, the sort of thing that transports you, for a few hours, to a lost era.

The world invoked here is the Houston that was still a Southern city -- pre-boom, pre-internationalist, a manageable place where things could be arranged by a few oligarchs meeting over cards in a suite at the Rice Hotel. Their spiritual (and, no doubt, literal) descendants now gather over shrimp cocktails and prime rib at this time-proof oasis, where the unmanageable snarl that the city has become seems safely at bay. Snowcapped seniors who have descended from their swanky retirement high-rises partake of the ageless Wilhelmina salad, a chopped up monument to iceberg lettuce, avocado, tomato and blue cheese. Ruddy businessmen tuck into oysters a la Edge (named for the restaurant's owners) that have more to do with the l9th century than the 20th: crisply fried, they sit in a forceful bath of Worcestershire-spiked brown sauce, exactly the sort of thing a Victorian glutton might have scarfed up by the dozen.

Entry to this theme park of Houston Past isn't cheap, and at dinnertime, men must wear a jacket to gain admission. (A row of dark blazers hangs in the foyer to accommodate the underdressed.) Women turn up at night costumed in everything from Neiman-Marcus-matron mufti to cocktail dresses; this must be one of the few places in town where women still feel the urge to show up for dinner wearing hats. At noon, the Confederate House is a sea of business suits that has the look of a pre-S&L-crisis crowd: hearty, palpably male, well-pleased with the world and their place in it.

They seem pleased as well with their Confederate fried steak, a time-honored version that cheats by substituting rib eye for more plebeian cuts of beef. This Houston classic seems to have slipped a little: it remains crunchy of crust and tender inside, but the cream gravy on a recent noon had the inert, wrinkled appearance of dead-white sludge. "It looks like it's in a coma!" announced my companion in some alarm, nudging her scoop of mashed potatoes dubiously. The results tasted surprisingly good, though, uncosmetic as they were. This was not, however, one of those rare chicken fried steaks that makes you feel as if your life is better for having consumed it.

Among the newfangled offerings are a crawfish-stuffed jalapeno that is best avoided, being gummy and stodgily fried and sporting a spiritless mustard cream sauce that adds nothing to the bottom line. The shockingly trendy wild game sausage is a happier innovation, nicely grilled and savory, if a bit too much on the salty side. The Caesar salad that no restaurant can afford to be without lately is only passable (while tart enough, it could use more garlic and anchovy bite). But it beats the Confederate salad, with its too-tame sour cream dressing. And if one day's bland broth stocked with dread Mixed Vegetables was any indication, I don't even want to think about the soups.

I do want to think about the frog legs Provencale, however. Small and buttery and gilded with brown crumbs, they hum ever so gently with shallot and white wine; if only the garlic quotient weren't so gentle, too. But the Confederate House patrons do not look to be rabid garlic fiends. Indeed, the restaurant's cautious seasoning is perfectly in keeping with its older crowd.

Fortunately, twin tenderloins of Bellville venison, cooked precisely rare, need only a touch of pepper and charcoal to reach a blissful simplicity; with a wild, faintly liverish note underpinning the meat, this venison is the exotic equivalent of a steak dinner. Order the baked potato to go along; the rice pilaf seems a close relative of the stuff that comes from a box. And leave the "unique sauce of three peppercorns and tasso ham" sitting stiffly in its little bowl; introducing trendy ingredients is to little avail if you merely inject them into a thick, antediluvian cream sauce. Add the pepper and Cajun ham to a reduction of pan juices and red wine, though, and the kitchen might really have something. But then it wouldn't really be the Confederate House, would it?

The fried shrimp are essence of Confederate House, butterflied and crisply breaded, neither better nor worse than they have to be. The crackly onion rings that come with them are as splendid as ever (would that everything were this good); but the requisite French fries in this Gulf Coast trilogy are too pale and self-effacing. Plain broiled snapper dusted with old-fashioned paprika actually tastes of the sea -- a rare phenomenon undercut by its lunch-special accessories of wan, much-cooked green beans and tepid mashed potatoes smothered in cream gravy.

But then you're not here for culinary thrills, or even definitive versions of hallowed classics. You're here for the museum-piece atmosphere, for the friendly, cosseting service that rectifies the occasional screwups with a smile; you're here, in the Smithsonian of Houston restaurants, for an entertaining time trip of the sort that is not readily available anymore.

Oh yes -- and for the puckery lemon-chess pie that would do a Southern belle proud, and for that justifiably famous pecan ball. In that cold, nut-crusted vanilla globe with its piercingly bittersweet robe of chocolate, there is more truth and beauty than you'd find in a hundred tiramisus.

The Confederate House, 2925 Weslayan, 622-1936.

Confederate House:
onion rings, $3.25;
frog legs Provencale, $15;
venison medallions, $18.75;
pecan ball, $3.75.


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