Cafe sans Society

While the lighthearted interior design comes across as whimsical and witty, a similar attempt at clowning around with cuisine falls flat.
Deron Neblett

A man in a gray sleeveless T-shirt and striped shorts carries a plastic basket full of neatly folded laundry down the sidewalk in front of my table. That's something you don't see in the suburbs. I have just finished a lackluster salad at Café Compliqé on Westheimer. Now I'm sitting out on the restaurant's deck, drinking a caramel latte and failing miserably at the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle.

That curvy little stretch of Westheimer between the old Oak Farms Dairy and the Texas Tattoo Emporium in Montrose is a tree-lined boulevard in a quaint village of antique stores and sidewalk cafes. The patio of Diedrich Coffee (1901 Westheimer) was full of coffee drinkers in meticulously casual clothing when I passed there at noon this autumn Sunday. And Empire Cafe (1732 Westheimer) was packed with antique-shoppers in leather pants. A few blocks east, La Strada (322 Westheimer) had set up a tent in the parking lot with tables, chairs and throbbing loudspeakers to accommodate the overflow of its every-Sunday-is-Mardi-Gras brunch. In between these bustling outdoor scenes, the patio of Café Compliqé was completely empty, which doesn't bode well for this recently remodeled restaurant.

There is something odd about Café Compliqé. Actually, there are many odd things about it, starting with the name. "It's French, it means complicated," the man behind the register tells me. According to my French dictionary, the Gallic word for complicated actually has a u in it. This brings to mind a great advertising slogan for the underpopulated restaurant: "Café Compliqé, where the only thing missing is U."

Everyone seems to agree that the former Pot Pie Pizzeria location has been imaginatively redecorated. The walls are papered with newsprint and overpainted in Easter-egg colors to match the built-in furniture. The booth tabletops are spring-green, and the adjoining wooden benches are robin's-egg blue. The wainscoting is papaya- colored, and the pillars are lemon-yellow. The art show currently on exhibit features a lot of spiritual scenes in matching pastels. Lava lamps occasionally make an appearance too. The music tends toward spacey jazz vocals in obscure foreign languages. Incense burns at all times. Café Compliqé feels like a Montrose day-care center for adults. Which is a good thing.

The funk factor makes you want to love the place. But while the lighthearted interior design comes across as whimsical and witty, a similar attempt at clowning around with cuisine falls flat.

Take the pizza called Hearts, for instance. It's made with hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes and melted cheese, and sells for $8.75. It sounds adorable. Until you compare it to the one called Margharita, made with sliced tomato, fresh basil, sliced palmetto, artichoke hearts and melted cheese, which sells for $7.75. What's the difference between these two? A sprinkling of basil and a dollar, if I'm not mistaken. Palmetto and hearts of palm are the same thing, the waiter agreed one day at lunch, and so are the two pizzas. He recommended the margharita, because it's cheaper.

Similarly racy in the reading but slow in the eating is a tuna "lemonaise" sandwich, a tuna salad sandwich with "a lemonaise that will knock your socks off," according to the menu. After a few bites of this poorly made tuna salad with lemon mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and what appears to be canned corn, you will find your socks firmly in place.

The "Légumes du France salad" is confusing. I thought it was a bean salad, since legumes in English are beans or peas. But légume in French means vegetable, explained the cash register man. It would have been a great name if this was a salad of cardoons or celeriac, but this is lettuce, tomato and onions with a little roasted eggplant and big slices of grilled portobello mushrooms on top. Still, it's the best salad at Café Compliqé, if you like mushrooms.

The "Al Menga" salad is made with mango, black beans, corn, fried tortilla strips and lettuce. When a food critic says that a dish didn't quite come together, he usually means it in a figurative sense. In this case, the criticism is literal. After spending a few minutes chasing the elusive beans, corn kernels and tortilla strips around the plate with a fork, I had to conclude that this salad needs a better organizational principle. And again, what's the point of naming a dish something that few people understand? I had to ask the waiter what "menga" means -- mango, he told me.

The waitstaff plays a mere walk-on role at this restaurant. They don't take your order. You have to get up and walk over to the counter for that. Although they deliver your drinks, your food and everything else to the tables, you are supposed to pick up your own silverware and order at the cash register. Why ask why?

The pizzas take a little longer than the other items, but they're worth it. Whoever formulated the recipe here knows that the way to keep the crust from getting soggy is to not overdo it with too many ingredients. The margharita was a light and fresh-tasting pie with a flavor dominated by sliced roma tomatoes on a splendidly crunchy pretzel-colored crust.

The chicken curry sandwich is another big winner. It's stuffed with a mayonnaise-based chicken salad, which has been flavored with curry spices, not an actual curry. (As you may recall from the Vietnamese sandwich review, "Desperately Seeking Sandwiches," September 20, I am still looking for a real curry sandwich.) Gently spiced curried chicken salad is an old Southern tradition, and it tastes great on a sandwich. Café Compliqé serves their sandwiches on excellent fresh baguettes.

By one-thirty on this perfect Sunday afternoon, three of the ten tables on Café Compliqé's deck are occupied. One by four women, one by two men, and one by me. Then a French-speaking couple with three kids takes the table right behind me. The kids range from prekindergarten to maybe fourth grade. The youngest one walks around the deck playing with the silverware and condiments. Having raised a few kids, I recognize the appeal of a nearly empty outdoor restaurant. The kids can wander around without bugging anybody.

"How do you like the food?" I ask the French family.

The woman is eating the chicken curry sandwich. "The sandwich is very good. It is very good bread," she says. Coming from a French immigrant, that is high praise indeed. Dad turns out to be Denis Simonneau, the new consul general of France. He and his family moved to Houston from Brussels about three months ago, he says. The kids miss Belgian frites, the world's greatest french fries. But they are pretty enthusiastic about Café Compliqé's pizza. "They say the crust is very good," Mom translates.

I'm glad to see the French consul and his clan have ordered well. The "House Favorite" salad I just finished was the most boring thing I ever ate at Café Compliqé. It was a romaine salad with canned sliced black olives, red onions, roma tomato slices, and some ham and turkey cold cuts rolled up and cut into strips, all covered with creamy Italian dressing. I've had better salads at the Randalls salad bar. Serving canned black olives at a place like this is particularly pathetic. How compliqué would it be to get some kalamatas?

A mug of mushroom soup, on the other hand, was thick and satisfying. The simple button mushrooms were cooked until they were black and chewy. And the creamy roux-based stock was spiked with lemon or vinegar, providing a crisp note of contrast to the slightly earthy flavors. The soup came with a lot of croutons, most of which I dumped on the salad -- it seemed more in need of help.

The coffee drinks are good, and the patio is peaceful, so I'm not complaining. I certainly wouldn't be comfortable sitting around for hours with The New York Times while people were waiting for tables at Empire or La Strada. So Café Compliqé is admirably serving its purpose. If you stick with the pizzas or the chicken curry sandwich, you'll even like the food here.

The oddest thing about the place, really, is that no particular crowd hangs out here. It's a cafe in search of a society. But there's an advantage to Compliqé's identity crisis. Unlike many Montrose hangouts, which cater to a particular age group, gender or proclivity, everybody is welcome here. And everybody feels oddly at home.

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