Claire Smith: Change of Venue

Serious Houston diners have gotten used to restaurants appearing and disappearing with the speed of an Italian government. This sometimes induces powerful feelings of stress in patrons who align themselves with these culinary disappearing acts. As an ex-policeman once explained to us in Florida, "You never mess with a man's family or his food." (We suspect that observation holds equally true for women.) Thus, the press release announcing that executive chef Claire Smith had sold her interest in the Daily Review Cafe [3412 West Lamar, (713)520-9217] to the restaurant's general manager, Janice Beeson, caused ominous (gastric) rumblings throughout a certain subset of the local dining community.

For many, the DRC's location is part of the attraction. Situated on the corner of Dunlavy and a little amputated section of West Lamar that's just north of West Gray, overshadowed in recent times by Randall Davis's Addams Family Period Revival monument, The Metropolis, the spot exudes an air of understated exclusivity based on sensibility rather than raw cash.

Smith opened the chic little cafe in 1994 in a classically simple 1950s building that had formerly housed the offices of the Daily Court Review, a publication serving Houston's army-division-size community of bar card carriers. The transfer of ownership officially took place this July 3. Beeson is now formally in charge. Smith is now in Chicago.

Reached by telephone at the DRC, a cheerful Beeson answered some FAQs about the transfer, assuaging our tremors of anxiety. First off, Smith is in Chicago, a large city that we understand to be in the northern end of the Middle West, of her own free will, "making plans for her future," Beeson says. "Her special relationship is there." There is no plan to open a DRC offshoot in Chi-town at present, and Smith will just "take it easy and explore some possibilities." The change was not precipitous, either. "It didn't happen overnight. We had been working on it." The DRC will not be altered in appearance except for "cosmetic improvements -- some landscaping and lighting changes." Other than Smith, the staff will remain the same, Beeson says, stating that "All the same people are in the kitchen, a large number of whom are culinary school graduates. Our main chef has been here three years. I've been here three years."

Smith herself clarified Beeson's deliciously vague "special relationship" phrase when reached via the magic of electronic mail: "I guess you hit the nail on the head with your theory that I have experienced some sort of magnetic pull to Chicago -- namely in the form of my fiancé and the opportunity to pursue other interests." Smith said other nice things about the staff, the public, Beeson and the newly elected president of Mexico (okay, just kidding about the last one), but in the interest of sparing our readers the Oscar-worthy speeches, we will leave it at that.

The final question we saved for Beeson. It was, of course, about the fennel bulb-flavored chicken potpie, which for many regulars is the main motivation for plotting a course to the DRC. Beeson's reply was as soothing as the dish itself: "The same people are still making the potpie."

Chicken-Fried Mu Shu Pork?

Hong Kong native John Chang opened his first Miyako Japanese restaurant [6345 Westheimer, (713)781-6300] 20 years ago this past December. Since then, the popular sushi bar and restaurant formula has been repeated three more times in Houston, followed by two Little Miyako operations. On Tuesday, July 11, Chang unveiled his latest venture, a Chinese-themed fusion restaurant named Rickshaw [2810 Westheimer, (713)942-7272). As befits the freewheeling eclecticism of fusion cuisine, the name is an English contraction of a Japanese word, "jinrikisha" (meaning "man-powered carriage"), for a mode of transportation strongly identified with Hong Kong in the earlier part of the 20th century. Inside, one wall of the 4,200-square-foot spot features three enormous black-and-white enlargements of Hong Kong street scenes with rickshaws.

While the menu was a no-show at the unveiling, the decor and the senior staff were present. The interior, by Kathy Heard of Kathy Heard Design, is an elegant, contemporary mix of dark oxblood-colored woodwork, neon accent lighting, gauzy geometric-pattern curtains and a vast three-sided black granite bar set at a 50-degree angle to the walls of the rectangular dining room. As a stylish backdrop for evening tomcatting or daytime luncheon meetings on the edge of River Oaks, it should have no equal visually. When complimented on the look of the room, a laughing Chang declared, "Hopefully, the food will be as good."

The highlight of the opening was the appearance of chef Titskek Wang, one of the troika responsible for developing and perfecting the dishes on the menu. Wang, a large man with a modest demeanor, walked out to the bar, took up a cantaloupe-size ball of wheat flour dough and began to pull, twist and slap it against his work surface. In a few minutes, he had created 128 strands of equally sized noodles that he deposited in a huge stockpot of boiling water in the open kitchen area of the bar. The noodles were then mixed with seafood and scallions and passed around for the cheering audience to sample. This, according to spokeswoman Connie Wong, is a performance that will be repeated every 30 minutes during the lunch and dinner periods at Rickshaw. In fact, the business cards for the restaurant carry the mutter line, below the name, of "Gourmet Oriental Noodle."

Working with Wang in the kitchen will be two young University of Houston School of Restaurant and Hotel Management graduates, Lance Warren and Mike Potowski. As befits the fusion theme, chef Potowski has a Polish last name, a Latvian father and a Japanese mother. He grew up in Japan, coming to the United States at the age of 18. Warren explained that fusion items will include a rack of lamb with a sweet-sour poblano pepper and fresh mint glaze, fried calamari with a wasabi-cream sauce on the side, and various steamed dumplings. The samples passed out at the opening were novel and flavorful, suggesting a sort of P.F. Chang's-like operation -- but with better food.


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