Capital Improvement

The scene from the iron-roofed sidewalk tables of the Travis Cafe is bona fide urban Houston. On the south side of the cafe, scaffolding cocoons yet another turn-of-the-century building morphing into condos. The next doorway to the north opens into the freshly facelifted Hermann Lofts, with busloads of well-heeled Memorialites schlepping through every 15 minutes, whisked along by sharp-faced realtors. Ronnie Marks's long-awaited Travis Cafe has finally opened in the midst of the Market Square maelstrom, an urban petri dish bulging with strange and wonderful developments.

Step inside, though, and it's a world away. Pinch me, darlin', are we in Austin? It's not just that Willie's gently wailin' in the background, alternating appropriately with the Grateful Dead. It's more than the honeyed tones of the wide-boarded wood floor and sandpapery limestone walls, all bound and bolted with rustic iron. Perhaps it's the way the floor-to-ceiling windows frame a strangely mid-rise slice of Houston's skyline that suggests a locale just west of Congress Avenue -- instead of Congress Street -- leading me to look for a glowing dome in the distance. Or maybe it's the combination of casual counter service with waiflike waitstaffers, sweetly helpful but a bit daffy. Marks and partner Mike Sylvester have plenty of prior experience in Houston trend spotting, with the mixed success you might expect of such risky undertakings. Marks cut his teeth on the brawling Richmond Strip scene in the mid-'80s, then a decade later launched his first assault inside the Loop with the Q Cafe that shuttered last fall. Under Sylvester's management, on the other hand, the Empire Cafe sprouted into a Montrose destination that still bustles at all hours with a theatrically black-garbed crowd.

So I'll be frank: I was inclined to be wary of the Travis Cafe. Charming as our state capital may be, Austin ain't my idea of a food mecca, at least not for employed adults. And I'm suspicious of a restaurant pedigree that started with the Galaxy Diner, which Marks himself describes as "a trendy IHOP," and went on hiatus with the Q Cafe. Now Marks and Sylvester have got a glam downtown location, sure. But what disarmed me utterly is that they've also got genuinely appealing food at pleasing prices and -- drumroll, please -- convenient and reasonably priced parking in the garage directly across the street. Friendly, accommodating and open just about all hours, the Travis Cafe is a real, live grown-up contender in the downtown restaurant-a-thon.

Despite the closely clustered four-top tables inside and out, the Travis Cafe is most comfortable for twosomes with a single course in mind, just dessert, say, or a thick sandwich or generous bowl of pasta. "I wanted to offer convenient but still really good food," says Marks. A full three courses can be engineered, however, with determination and repeated trips back to the counter. Just hand over a credit card and go for it, but keep a sharp eye out for the waitstaffer whose job it is to swoop on unattended plates and snatch them away the moment you turn your back. "We're thinking about going to full table service in the evenings," Marks muses. "It might be easier on our nighttime customers."

On our first visit, we started with the Fire Roasted Onion and Bacon Dip ($5.50), a fanciful name that I feared might be fronting for icky supermarket-style onion dip. Was I ever wrong: The rich, salty flavor of apple-smoked bacon saturates the silky blend of sour cream and cream cheese, studded with pungent chunks of sweet roasted onion. We slathered the stuff on the soft, herbed flat bread that accompanied it on our first visit; when that ran out, we licked it from our fingers and forks. We even smeared it onto the Hill Country Quesadillas ($6.25), which, although plentifully filled with a jumble of roasted peppers and corn, black beans and bits of tomato and onion, still need a bit more personality. My only complaint with the dip is a texture issue: It needs the crunchy contrast of a crisp bread or chip, although I don't think the "herbed pizza crisps" mentioned on the menu are the answer, either.

The Texas Pot Stickers ($5.95) are equally lovely, little noodle dumplings colorfully stuffed with smoked trout and glossy dots of black beans and golden roasted corn, freshened with cilantro and a whiff of mild poblano chilies. The ravioli-size pockets are slightly chewy, which I like, and dressed with tangy sauce a little heavy on the mustard, which I didn't like quite as much. The red cabbage slaw on the side, though, is stunning, a sprightly match best dumped on top of the dumplings to be eaten together, bite by bite.

Our table of experts judged the prime rib sandwich ($6.95) to be one of the best sandwiches we'd ever eaten, bar none. Part of the appeal is its chewy, crusty fresh bread, and certainly another part is the silky, thin-sliced prime beef, roasted red rare. Add cool slices of red, ripe Roma tomatoes, bright green lettuce and a slender layer of Swiss cheese, and it's almost there -- then just the right spark of horseradish -- and voilà! The perfect sandwich.

I don't really believe that one person could (or should) finish one of Travis Cafe's pizzas. Two, though, can polish one off handily. The gorgeous crust is thin and crisp, just the way I like it, and the six different versions share similar combinations of ultrafresh, picture-perfect vegetables. (Someone at the cafe really knows what he's doing when it comes to picking produce.) I tried the flagship of the line, the Downtown Works ($8.50), which is the equivalent of choosing "all of the above" on a multiple-choice quiz: Red and yellow Roma tomatoes and caramelized onions are piled high with shreds of roasted chicken and pepperoni and both fresh mozzarella and pepper Jack cheese, studded with slices of pickled jalapeno. Blinded by lust for more beautiful veggies, I temporarily forgot that I'm not a fan of the kitchen-sink approach to pizza making. The concatenation became cacophony: The pepper cheese fought with the pepperoni, and the evilly strong, tinny-tasting jalapenos didn't play well with any of the other fresh ingredients. The less-encyclopedic pizzas are both more sane and more successful, such as the Urban Treat ($8.25) -- pesto-basted roast chicken, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, spinach and mushrooms -- or the unpretentious Mary Jo ($6.95) -- mild, crumbly, fresh feta cheese, spinach and tomatoes dressed with olive oil and mellow roasted garlic.

In the pasta division, our hands-down favorite was the El Diablo ($8.95), a suave devil built on a glorious terra cotta-colored ancho penne pasta. Its sauce sports a lightly sauteed garlicky blend of tomatoes, roasted corn and black beans, tossed with shreds of grilled chicken and the pasta, and finished off with a buttery drizzle of tequila and lime. Whew: Get a spoon to scoop every nibble from the bottom of the deep bowl. The pasta dishes are accompanied by a surprisingly seductive house salad. No grudging afterthought, this, but a tasteful mix of field greens, including a dramatic ruby-ribbed lettuce variant tossed in a light, sparkling tequila-lime vinaigrette.

We weren't quite as thrilled with the pasta Florentine ($7.50), but that was partly our own fault. The basic Florentine recipe is irreproachable, a simple jumble of plain penne pasta, softly sauteed spinach and both red and yellow tomatoes, sprinkled with olive oil and a little garlic. Where we went wrong was in adding the grilled shrimp, as the menu suggests. The shrimp, as it can sometimes do, overwhelmed the classically understated dish. Perhaps the other add-on, grilled chicken, would have worked better; personally, I'd love to see chewy circlets of Italian sausage as an option.

Desserts are temptingly displayed in a twirl-around glass case on the countertop, so you can't help but ogle them all through the meal. With so many choices and so little time -- chocolate truffle cake? chocolate mousse? -- our foursome finally came to a difficult consensus: one piece of double-chocolate cake, a baroque masterpiece I remember fondly from the Q Cafe. It's actually a quadruple threat to the beltline, as the moist, mountainous slice of chocolate cake is iced with fudgy chocolate, dusted with chocolate sprinkles then drizzled with chocolate sauce. Even with four forks we couldn't finish it off.

There are all sorts of more moderate and perhaps less embarrassing dessert options in the form of spiked coffees or dainty little liqueurs from the full-service bar. I strongly recommend the chocolate martini that bartender Jason made for my husband: a chilly, seductive slip of a drink blending dark and light Godiva chocolate liqueurs and Stoli vodka.

Silly me, I said I didn't want one; I don't like martinis. "You'd better get her one," Jason sagely advised. "If you don't, she's just going to drink all of yours." And indeed I did.

Travis Cafe, 208 Travis, (713) 223-4073.


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