Conversion Experience

I'm not a Cafe Express person -- haven't been for years. The more celebrity chef Robert del Grande dumbed down the menu at his upscale fast-food spots, the less I found to interest me. "People want quiche," he once told me regretfully when I asked what had become of the red-chile mayo, the modish pizzas, the oddly wonderful smoked salmon, cream cheese and raspberry jam on sourdough.

For awhile I fastened on the pasta with tomato-lime salsa, a brightly Southwesternized take on Italian uncooked tomato sauce, shot through with cilantro and red onion. But it wasn't enough to make a regular of me, and eventually I slipped away. (Guess they didn't miss me, since they're on the brink of a major regional expansion.)

Lately I'm back. Everybody's gotta have a roasted chicken these days, but the ones Cafe Express now serves after 5 p.m. go beyond the call of duty. Their skin is nicely browned, even crisp; they are seasoned with judicious amounts of salt and rosemary; and when the planets are right, they can be perfectly, moistly cooked. The bird I procured at the Pavilion location a few weeks back was about as good as a commercial roasted chicken gets. Even a drier, slightly overcooked chicken from the River Oaks location was pretty damn good, especially after applications of the potent, garlicky sauce that comes on the side.

Thanks to the chicken, I also discovered that Cafe Express makes the best pesto sauce in town -- so intense and luxuriously herbal that it transcends clichedom. For $7.50, you can get it on fettuccine, with a rather ordinary green salad and half a roasted chicken. Excessive. Worth it.

So, for that matter, are the retrograde Dream Bars, a layering of graham-cracker crumbs, coconut, nuts and chocolate chips -- American childhood in a highly concentrated form. I love them in spite of myself. I no longer love the pasta with salsa fresca, however. Funny how substituting fat, chewy little shells for long, skinny noodles changes everything. What once was a buoyant, summery dish now has succumbed to gravity, and to grated cheese. Make mine the chicken.

-- Alison Cook

Cafe Express, 1800 Post Oak, 963-9222; 3200 Kirby, 522-3994; 1422 West Gray, 522-3100.

Cafe Express:
One-half roasted chicken, with salad and pesto fettuccine, $7.50;

Dream Bar $1.50.


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