Dharma and John

Dharma Cafe excels at atmosphere if not at baking.
Deron Neblett

The guy with the not-so-recently shaved head, the little round designer glasses and the blue oxford shirt must have surveyed the patio of Dharma Cafe from his luxury sedan and decided to leave his tie and suit coat in the car. Now, sitting alone at a table on the porch reading the Financial Times of London, the investment banker could easily be mistaken for a curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum.

That's the beauty of this little joint in the refurbished Erie City Iron Works Building. You don't have to try to look cool to hang out here; eating here means you already are cool. The only other restaurant in the arty Warehouse District north of NoDo is the Last Concert Café, an underground Tex-Mex hangout that doesn't have a sign. If you don't know which door to knock on, you don't get any enchiladas.

Dharma Cafe is populist by comparison. It has a sign, a front door, even outdoor seating. Still, the crowd runs the gamut from hip to hipper. Today, there's a table of blue-haired ladies (arts patrons, no doubt), a big table of office workers in vintage clothing (must be from DiverseWorks) and a couple that moves from the inside to the outside once a table opens up. The guy has a beard (probably a poet). The girl is wearing blue jean shorts and a canvas hat with the front brim turned up. With her dark hair in pigtails, she looks as lovably goofy as Mary Ann in Gilligan's hat. (Surely she's a performance artist.)

My lunch date, former Press colleague Lisa Gray, pulls up a chair on the patio. In the reflected glow of arty eccentricity, the talented writer and editor has never seemed wittier, prettier or more perspicacious. For starters, Lisa gets a Dharma salad, which is a simple tossing of greens with a couple of tomato slices, and I try a pleasantly creamy fresh tomato and basil soup. I follow with a Mega Tasty Wrap from the sandwich menu, a huge bundle of chicken, bacon, blue cheese, red onion, spinach and tomatoes in an oversize sun-dried tomato tortilla. (Central Market would be my bet.) It is indeed mega-tasty -- then again, it's pretty hard to go wrong with chicken, bacon and blue cheese.

I admire the view of I-10 from the wooden deck. Meanwhile, Lisa, who's now the editor of Cite, Rice's architectural quarterly, remarks on the adaptive reuse land rush going on in this neighborhood of old brick buildings. "This is great; you get to watch the neighborhood being renovated while you eat," she says, pointing her pizza slice at a pair of laborers on a nearby rooftop. Dharma's Mediterranean-style pizza is nicely topped with feta, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and olives. Unfortunately, the crust is as floppy as a tortilla and the toppings quickly soak in to render it a soggy mess.

My first visit to Dharma Cafe was at dinnertime. The interior brought a déjà vu smile to my face; I couldn't quite place it, but the restaurant reminded me of somewhere else. It's an old space with lots of brick and a high ceiling with exposed ducts and pipes. It's also tiny: seven tables, 28 chairs and no bar. The bookshelves are filled with such works as The Art of Zen and volumes of Ezra Pound's poetry. It was the City Lights bookstore poster of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac with their arms around each other that finally rang the bell: North Beach, San Francisco.

Dharma Cafe's chef, John Gurney, lived in Northern California for 20 years before he moved to Houston less than a year ago. And his menu mirrors his lingering Northern Californian sensibilities. There are walnuts and blueberries where Texans might expect pecans and dewberries; and the crab cakes claim to be from Maryland instead of the Gulf. There are also lots of wraps, and Italian and Chinese dishes, but few Vietnamese, Hispanic or African influences. Little Zen koans are tucked in among the entrée and appetizer listings: "Now that my house has burned down I have a much better view of the sky," reads one.

The most innovative item on the dinner menu is the cellophane shrimp, a dish in which jumbo shrimp are combined with crab, scallops and vegetables, covered with rice noodle sheets and steamed in a bamboo basket until the packages resemble large dumplings. The shrimp mixture would be inedibly bland if not accompanied by a chutney-stuffed orange in a pool of chile oil and soy sauce. By dumping the mango chutney (actually more of a salsa, since it's uncooked) onto the shrimp dumplings and then dipping each bite into the chile oil, you can manage a pretty pleasant flavor combination. By why didn't the chef just season the shrimp to begin with? Blame the delicate Northern Californian palate.

My date and I were the only patrons at Dharma on a recent Tuesday evening, so we got a chance to watch the white-haired chef in action. Gurney is obviously new to the chef business, which works both for him and against him.

The bad news is that Gurney is in over his head in a few areas, especially baking. The pizza crust isn't even close, and the soft and spongy bread needs help, too. The crustless focaccia is not helped by its presentation: There are oversize grapes on the side and grated Parmesan and chopped parsley sprinkled over the top. That's all pleasant enough, but the dark stain in the middle where the focaccia has been doused with balsamic vinaigrette is a problem. It's nice when a restaurant gives you something to dip your bread in. We all love a little audience participation. Olive oil is fine; olive oil infused with garlic and rosemary is okay, too. Personally, I don't go for balsamic vinaigrette as a bread dip. (Neither does Italian cooking authority Marcella Hazan; in fact, she thinks the American overuse of cheap, artificially flavored balsamic vinegars is ridiculous.) But as long as the vinegar is served on the side, who cares? When a restaurant douses the bread with this stuff, though, it's inflicting its questionable tastes on me.

The good news about Gurney's inexperience is that the chef doesn't use all the usual preprepared Sysco ingredients, so the straight-ahead dishes taste like home cooking. Roasted Cornish game hen with an apricot-flavored stuffing was a blackboard entrée the night we stopped by. The simply cooked bird was juicy, and the stuffing was moist and slightly sweet. Lightly sautéed spinach and roasted carrots decorated the plate. It reminded me of a Sunday dinner I might cook for myself.

I called Gurney on the phone and asked him about the idea behind Dharma Cafe. "My girlfriend and I started planning this restaurant over a year ago," he said. Their goal was a restaurant with good food that was accessible, and that's why nothing on the menu is over $20. I also asked him about the esoteric collection of books.

"The original idea was to sell the books," Gurney chuckled. "But nobody wanted them, so we just left them there for people to look at while they drink coffee."

"Wouldn't you expect a restaurant named Dharma Cafe to be vegetarian?" I asked.

"The Buddha never said you couldn't eat meat," responded Gurney, before pointing out that he and his girlfriend aren't practicing Buddhists, but rather students of Buddhism, like the characters in Kerouac's Dharma Bums.

"What does the word dharma mean, anyway?"

"Dharma is what we do to return to our center, it is our life's work," Gurney said. "The dharma of a dog is to lay around and scratch. My dharma is to cook."

In North Beach, there are lots of wonderful Italian restaurants: Café Sport, the Gold Spike and Little Joe's, to name a few. But my favorite hangout has always been Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store. It's a tiny triangular-shaped bar on Washington Square. I like to drink espresso there in the morning or Punt e Mes (Italian sweet vermouth) over ice in the afternoon. The food -- frozen pizzas and grilled sandwiches -- is atrocious. But you don't go to Mario's for the pizza. You go for the unbearable hipness of being there, or something like that.

And so it is with Dharma Cafe -- although most of the menu here is actually pretty good. You don't go for the food. You go because it is your dharma to hang out in the coolest places.

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Dharma Cafe - Closed

1718 Houston Ave.
Houston, TX 77002


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