You might say that the Red Cat Jazz Café suffers from an identity crisis. Is it one of Houston's hip new downtown nightspots or one of its hip new restaurants? The very question is the problem. The concept of pairing quality food with live music -- particularly live jazz -- presents difficulties from the start. Followers of "America's classical music" have demonstrated time and again that they prefer their tunes straight, with no chaser, let alone food. Conversely, foodies enjoy ambience, but typically not the kind that includes a tenor saxophone wailing into a microphone.
Houston is littered with the corpses of establishments that tried to reconcile the two -- the Blue Moon, Billy Blues and the Bluewater Grill leap to mind -- as well as places like Sambuca, which insist the concept can work (see "See. Be Seen. Don't Eat," by Margaret L. Briggs, March 18, 1999). The Red Cat Jazz Café, owned by the folks next door at Tasca Kitchen and Wine Bar, is the latest to mix genres. Since this isn't the music section, we won't comment on the quality of music, but here's a hint about its food: The word "cafe" comes in dead last in the operation's name.
I certainly love the look of this Red Cat; it's a narrow two-story room with exposed brick walls, a New Orleans-style glass front and an arched ceiling reminiscent of a church. The focal point of the space is a huge bar (another hint to what makes this Cat purr), but my favorite part is in the back. A small loft dining area overlooking the main room is crowned with a huge glass atrium/greenhouse roof. During the day, you can see other historic buildings in the area; at night, you might even look up at the stars.
Inspired by the jazz joints of New Orleans, according to the legend on the menu, the spot sports retro black-and-red vinyl and chrome chairs and a lively black-and-red tile floor. All of this provides a snazzy backdrop for what the place serves so well: live music. In the front corner, small combos perform jazz, R&B and blues, packing the house at about 9 p.m. on weekends, when the Red Cat imposes a small cover charge. All that's missing is a dance floor, but patrons don't seem to mind. If the mood strikes them, they'll just swing in their seats.
When a group of friends and I visited on a recent Friday night, we had a genuine good time. Except for one thing -- this was a restaurant, and I, for one, was there to eat and report on the talents of the kitchen, not those of the keyboardist. Sadly, that subject had me singing the blues. The menu looked good if simple -- more Southern diner than New Orleans Creole, which was fine with me. There were no red beans and rice, no gumbo, no turtle soup or étouffée, but there was a shrimp rémoulade salad and a shrimp poor boy. There were also random notes like chili, burgers, club sandwiches, meat loaf and my favorite, macaroni and cheese.
I gravitated, however, to the "headliners" section of the menu, which boasted six entrées, each served with two sides. The list included jalapeño honey-glazed pork ribs, turkey meat loaf with a brown sugar glaze and, my choice, java and ginger pork loin. We could hardly wait for this culinary show to begin. But wait we did. It was like waiting for a headliner who was still back at the hotel. Actually, it was worse than that: It was like waiting for a ticket to get in to see a bashful headliner.
The service was as erratic as Miles Davis, despite a nearly empty room when we arrived at about 7 p.m. Granted, twice we pleaded for more time to look over the menu, but as punishment, our waitress left us unchecked for 20 minutes until we flagged her down. After another 30 minutes of waving her down for drink refills, our food arrived -- all of it. Appetizers, salads and main courses were unceremoniously dumped on the table by two men. Not only was I miffed to get the appetizers with the meal, but one look at my pork loin and I could see it had sat under a heat lamp for so long that the drummer could have used it for an extra percussion instrument.
We trudged on at the cramped table, divvying up crab cakes and stuffed jalapeños and placing them on our entrée plates. They were fine, though I would classify them as bar food -- a little sustenance to soak up massive amounts of alcohol.
The pork loin was even worse than it looked, nearly impossible to cut with a knife, much less chew. The coffee flavor came through a little, showing promise of a decent dish had it been executed well. My side dish of green beans with almonds was just as tough, forcing me to pick up individual beans with my fingers, an acceptable practice for asparagus but not green beans. The only thing I liked on the plate was the creamy macaroni and cheese. To me, it held the comforts of my youth. Nostalgia may not be the strongest form of criticism, but with a meal like this, you take comfort where you can.
Two of my pals sampled the New York sirloin strip, billed as Charlie Parker's favorite (when he wasn't strung out on heroin, one presumes). With no fancy preparation or presentation, it was just a slab of meat, tender if not altogether inviting. They chose the most inventive of the side dishes, bourbon sweet potatoes, which were good, with a taste more of maple syrup than bourbon.
In the middle of dinner, as we all shrugged over the nonevent this had become, my friend Alice crystallized my thoughts. "I just don't feel nurtured," she said. "I don't feel like any tender loving care went into the food." She was right. A meal, particularly one with alleged connections to the Big Easy, should be more comforting, but this one left us feeling like we had burdened the kitchen staff.
By this time, the mood of the place had changed dramatically. It was now packed with a different crowd. Happy hour had ended, and the downtown workers were heading home. Creatures of the night had taken their place, most munching on deep-fried appetizers before the real show began.
I left disappointed but determined to try again, and the Sunday gospel brunch seemed like the perfect opportunity. My family and I happened on the final brunch before it disappeared for the summer. We were fed from a pitiful buffet, which surprised me, as I had already scanned a tasty-looking breakfast menu of "Red Cat Rollers" (breakfast burritos), omelet dishes and, of course, hotcakes. But we weren't allowed to order from that menu. So for our $15, we got steam-table eggs, some with cheese and some with ham. Down the line were a bland chicken-and-vegetable stew and some pretty good fried pork shops. Sides were white rice with peas and mixed vegetables.
To add insult to injury, we weren't even serenaded by Sister Ward, the usual gospel headliner (see Playbill, by Aaron Howard, May 31). The sparse crowd -- a mix of thirtysomething couples, tourists and family groups -- was quite a contrast from the Friday-night scene, but none of them seemed to mind the lack of live music.
On this afternoon, I realized the Red Cat Jazz Café wasn't living up to either of its promises: It wasn't providing music, and it certainly wasn't serving anything worthy of a trip downtown. If this joint wants to be anything more than a downtown lunch spot, a convenient happy-hour location or a late-night hangout where nighthawks can pick up a plate of eggs at 3 a.m., it had better start singing a new tune.
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