Class of '98

I hate all the year-in-review columns that crop up every January, reminiscing on everything from music videos to auto manufacturing and straining to impose meaning and order within the arbitrary confines of the Julian calendar. These retrospectives are like holiday fruitcakes: dreaded, inevitable and dull. So it is with apologies that I'm giving in to tradition and peer pressure, producing my own chart of the highs and lows of the '98 Houston restaurant scene. Forgive me for circulating this fruitcake in February.

I'll bet a new restaurant sprouted every day of 1998 in Houston, and according to the dictates of small business statistics, less than half of the freshman class survived to see the New Year. Of those that lived, several made my heart sing; space allows me to share my three favorites of '98.

Thanks to Fusion Cafe [3722 Main Street, (713)874-1116] for restoring my faith in the urban experience and cranking out dead-solid-perfect interpretations of Southern, Creole and Caribbean classics: stellar fried chicken, incendiary jerk chicken and authentic sweet potato pie. Bonus points for serving into the wee hours on weekends, at budget prices.

It was love at my first sight of Miss Saigon's charming Village tearoom [Miss Saigon Cafe, 5503 Kelvin, (713)942-0108] with its elegiac mural of a Saigon street. Flawlessly crisp fried egg rolls gift-wrapped in lettuce and mint, enormous bowls of vermicelli topped with marinated and grilled meats or shrimp, and creamy high-octane iced coffee won my enduring affection.

On the double-digit end of the scale, I cling to chef Greg Webb's eponymous Gregory's [4074 Westheimer, (713)355-9400] despite recurring service gaffes. Yes, a place this pricey should perform better, but I'll forgive almost anything for a plate of his shellfish Gulf Coast pan roast; his "Wise Guy" flaming berries with balsamico vinegar could have won a pardon for John Gotti.

Auld Lang Syne Awards
Food writers are forced to focus on what's new, at the cost of forgetting old acquaintances. A tried-and-true award should go to those restaurants that manage to consistently serve great food, year in, year out. So let's not forget The Daily Review Cafe [3412 West Lamar, (713)520-9217] and benjy's [2424 Dunstan, (713)522-7602], two of our earliest outposts of urban cool, not so crowded now and still serving seriously good food. Likewise Churrascos [1320 W. Bay Area Blvd., (281)461-4100; 9705 Westheimer, (713)952-1988; 2055 Westheimer, Suite 180, (713)527-8300], the first place I take out-of-towners I want to impress, and Luigi's class act on the Strand [2328 Strand, Galveston, (409)763-6500], where he dishes up outstanding Italian in a beautiful, soothing room.

Dang Those Disappointments
I had high hopes for the Blue Agave's dream team of Charlie Watkins (Sierra Grill) and Bill Sadler (River Cafe, Cafe Noche). Potential is a terrible thing to waste: Watkins can cook and Sadler can host, but, alas, the Blue Agave [1340 W. Gray, (713)520-9696] is an underachiever.

Repeated visits to downtown revitalization hot spots Solero [910 Prairie, (713)227-2665] and the Hogg Grill [711 Prairie, (713)227-4644] encountered more scene than cuisine, I'm sorry to say. Better to sit at the bar in either space -- if there's room -- and admire all those chic little dresses. Ditto-duh for Mo Mong [1201-B Westheimer, (713)524-5664] in Montrose: I just don't get it. Houston harbors dozens of Vietnamese restaurants offering better food at better prices, but perhaps none so atmospheric.

With great regret I'm adding Sabine [1915 Westheimer, (713)529-7190] to my list of 1998's bummers. Executive chef Aaron Guest has some imaginative notions, such as creamed oyster tarts and black-eyed pea hummus, but poor kitchen execution at daunting prices -- my most recent experience included an inedibly overcooked $20 pork chop -- is back-burnering this neo-Southern cafe.

Adios, Amigos
Who could blame sisters Wendy and April Cohen for giving up their Heart and Soul Cafe last September to get their lives back? They pulled the plug on their young but beloved Heights eatery at the height of its popularity, having the sense to leave a good-looking corpse.

As Joni Mitchell said, sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone. I feel a twinge of guilt every time I drive past the wreckage of the Mediterranean Restaurant's brick home on Holcombe. I hadn't been there in years, but still I'll miss that funky, creaky house with the clutch of tables in the former living room, to say nothing of the admirable pitchers of tart sangria and garlicky Madrid-style paella.

And yet another homey bit of Houston's heritage disappeared with the closing of the Hobbit Hole, a denizen of 1715 South Shepherd for more than a quarter century. Measured in Houston restaurant years, like dog years, that's forever. Bilbo's home was paved for a parking lot -- thanks again, Joni -- but there's still hope for the Hobbits: Owners and brothers Raymond and Forrest Edmonds promise new digs for '99, just off Richmond.

-- Margaret L. Briggs


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