Damming Up Sabine

The first rumble of trouble concerning Sabine [1915 Westheimer, (713)529-7190] reached my ears last month, when I heard that the neo-Southern restaurant's general manager, Keith Thompson, had jumped ship to owner/chef Frederic Perrier's self-named cafe [Café Perrier, 4304 Westheimer, (713)355-4455].

Not such a big deal, in and of itself; such shifts are too common to be considered seismic. But tremors continued for the rest of that week when the delightfully well mannered Southern gentleman Bill Johnson, who owns Sabine with wife Alisa and brother Tom, failed to return phone calls -- four of them, in fact. A real Southerner, let alone a media-savvy restaurateur, who ignores phone calls is either on his deathbed or in bankruptcy court. I hated to think which it might be.

Now Thompson's move looks less like serendipity and more like precognition, since an all-too-familiar sign was posted on Sabine's front door on November 10. "Temporarily closed," the sign reads, "due to non-payment of rent." Ouch.

Johnson, once again, could not be reached for comment.

Thompson has some thoughts, though. "I left Sabine because of the restaurant's finances," Thompson frankly admits. Business got slower and slower, he explains, as the Johnsons struggled to reorganize their debt. "It finally got to the point where it just didn't make sense for them to keep me on the payroll," he says regretfully. Although Thompson is happy now at Café Perrier -- "Frederic's food is outstanding, he's one of the very best chefs in town," he says admiringly -- he was sorry to leave Sabine. Thompson and Johnson have been friends for years, since they were both Vallone team members at Anthony's Cafe [4315 Montrose, (713)529-8000].

Thompson believes Houston's intensely competitive restaurant market is ultimately responsible for the death of Sabine. "There are just so many new restaurants opening all the time, and really good new places, too, that it's hard to hang onto your customers," he says. "The competition is so extreme, so fierce, that sometimes I curse the day I ever started in this business. I guess it's a love-hate sort of thing."

Perhaps it didn't take a crystal ball to see the closing coming. Following a successful start at Sabine's original location in West University around 1996, Johnson and executive Aaron Guest moved into more ambitious and much prettier quarters on Westheimer, taking over the spot that formerly housed Smoot Hull's Grange. They had good reason to believe they could expand their vision. It was Guest, after all, who earned "Up and Coming Chef" nods, recognized locally by My Table magazine and nationally by John Mariani in Esquire.

But opinions differed as to what happened next. Some say Sabine was as good as ever, post-expansion; others perceived a downhill slide in kitchen control. Some applauded the cleverness of cranberry-style jelly made from boiled corncobs, for example, while others complained of bush-league errors, such as overpriced, overcooked pork chops.

Less than a year after the move, Guest beat a retreat from the Sabine stove. (Last word we heard, Guest was cooking his way across the continent.) By all reports, former sous chef Clay Wilson, who last June replaced Guest as Sabine's executive chef, was holding his own, but how long could he deal with his second-string status? It was Guest, after all, who had garnered all the kudos.

"Well, we've always wanted to keep evolving," Johnson told me at the time of Guest's departure. "This town is too competitive for us ever to stand still." -- Margaret L. Briggs


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