Cool, Calm and Culinary

Stepping into benjy's after a few visits to our town's many mural-laden restaurant interiors is like entering a Japanese temple following a weekend at Versailles: the spare surroundings are a tonic to nerves burnt out from too much visual stimulation. In his black raiment, benjy's unflappable proprietor exudes a gentle, monkish authority over his impressively hip young waitstaff. A single white tulip in a cylindrical steel vase lends a Zen-like grace to each table's ensemble of galvanized steel surface and Eames-ian molded plywood chairs. The accent walls are in a shade of eggplant that somehow manages to be both coolly industrial and warmly welcoming.

This sophisticated setting is the result of a blending of influences from both East and West -- coasts, that is. The sleek look is very L.A., while the fact that the restaurant's home is in a venerable old building -- formerly a bank -- speaks of New York sensibilities. Owners Benjamin and Erica Levit reserve their restaurant's exuberance and drama for the food, which is presented with stagy, architectural flair. The baby beet salad, for example, is sheltered by a saddle of charred, crisped Parmesan cheese that's been constructed into a finely meshed latticework. Underneath, the asymmetrically cut beets, grilled fennel wheels and haricots verts -- whose delicate size belies their crunchy heartiness -- are surrounded by a flurry of raspberry vinaigrette. And in an interesting twist on Tex-Mex, the portobello mushroom tamales, served pillar-style standing on their ends, are about three inches in diameter and -- surprise! -- come out ensconced in a pale lime-green shell: instead of the usual masa wrapping, benjy's uses a spinach crepe. Shades of the Southwest come through strongly in the tamales' Tampico sauce and in the spoonful of roasted corn-cumin salsa. An Oriental seaweed salad, hot with chile and nutty with sesame oil and sesame seeds, is a mangle of jade seaweed slivers, amber seaweed curls and orange carrot shreds all piled onto a rectangular sushi plate.

The Levits are native Houstonians who lived on both coasts after college but always nursed a dream of moving back home and starting a restaurant. The recent opening of a few overtly cosmopolitan shops and cafes in the Village convinced them the area was ready for a place whose cuisine and ambiance were a bit closer to the cutting edge. Judging by the urbane look of most of benjy's patrons -- a far cry from the preppie, River Oaks Jr. look of many Village-types in years past -- they judged right.

The Levits also judged right in their hiring of Dennis Boitnott, late of the Houstonian and the Ritz-Carlton, as benjy's executive chef. This is a man who does wonderful things with seafood. Two thick fillets of caramelized redfish (a substitute for the advertised baby snapper), bathed in a thin sauce that was a spiffy shade of black-brown, were astringent and sweetly glazed at the same time. The feisty sauce didn't overpower the delicately cooked bed of vegetables; the licorice bite of fresh basil brought everything together. A retrogradely titled Catch of the Day special yielded a sauteed soft-shell crab in a stirring tomato tarragon puree. The crab itself, sprawled across the plate, all claws and spidery legs, made for a dramatic display. I always feel a bit adventurous when I eat a whole crab, shell and all, and this one, membraney and salty, infused with the essence of tomatoes, was an adventure to remember.

The high levels of expectation inspired by those seafood dishes set me up for a disappointment with the lunchtime tuna burger. A pinkish patty that reminded me more of the salmon timbales of my childhood than of the promised "seared sushi tuna burger," it was served open-faced on a soft, herbed focaccia. When the accompanying crudites were piled on top, it was impossible to eat as a sandwich. A jiggerful of mango ketchup tasted more like a run-of-the-mill honey mustard dressing. The most exciting thing about the plateful of food was the mound of couscous on the side, vegetal and earthy and tasting of pesto. I must admit that I ate every bite of the meal, including the paper-thin, grassy zucchini chips and sour green apple chips, but it wasn't with the same feeling of pleasure that had washed over me when diving into the fish dinners.

A lunchtime entree that did measure up was the vegetable plate of the day. Its centerpiece was a poblano pepper stuffed with a wonderfully comforting mush of goat cheese and black beans; the whole was dusted with cornmeal batter and lightly fried. A host of other vegetables artfully graced the plate: grilled squashes and a portobello mushroom patty, steamed asparagus, sauteed bell peppers in all possible hues. A couple of grainy polenta patties added a satisfyingly starchy element to the combination, and exclamation marks painted in a red pepper puree snapped everything to full attention.

Another winner on the lunch menu is the warm arugula salad. Even ordered split between two people, it's still a generously portioned excelsior of soft, mellow, emerald-colored greens in which about a million browned mushroom slivers are nested. A pile of couscous -- colorful with bits of tomato and green onions -- presides in the middle, while herb-sweatered fingers of goat cheese provide a little extra oomph. As a bonus, there are amusing little lacy, crisped potatoes on the side.

I also liked benjy's pizzas and pastas, even though they didn't inspire the raves that some of the other dishes did. There's a spinach pizza with small rounds of sunchoke, sharp kalamata olives and feta cheese, all assembled prettily on the best kind of crust: sooty, crackly and wafer thin. The kids in my group, in the midst of all this very grown-up, fancy food, ate every bite of their plain cheese pizza (not on the menu, but available for the asking) except for the crusty edges. What was sooty to me was burnt to them. The fusilli pasta with vegetable ratatouille was like a home-style vegetable stew jazzed up and gone moderne: a thin, herby tomato sauce housed a mash of colorful, confetti-like vegetables upon which rested three golden, lightly fried goat cheese fritters.

The tasteful restraint found in benjy's decor carries over to its one-page wine list (which includes one of the best deals in town for a decent bottle of restaurant wine: $16 for the Chilean Underraga Cabernet) and to their small selection of desserts. One dessert in particular, the chocolate seduction (try explaining that name to a nine-year-old), had me wishing for the stamina to endure seconds. It's a fudgy, cylindrical cake tumped next to a scoop of Mexican vanilla ice cream, all doused in a warm, fragrant fudge sauce. This decadent concoction was final proof that, austere decor aside, when it comes to food, benjy's is a restaurant that knows how to indulge in tasty excess.

benjy's, 2424 Dunstan No. 125, 522-7602.

benjy's: Oriental seaweed salad, $5; portobello mushroom tamales, $6; caramelized baby snapper, $17.


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