Diner's Notebook

Trouble in paradise? Though still a hot dining ticket -- literally, with its air conditioning strained past endurance during the recent heat wave -- there are signs the kitchen at The Daily Review has cooled off. As in far-from-dewy (and far-from-interesting) crab and three pepper salad one Saturday night, plus a spate of overcooking that afflicted everything from the sainted pork chops (now thin and toughish) to the grilled tuna on an otherwise lovely salad with orange segments, goat cheese and a blackberry-ginger vinaigrette.

With the dining room packed and trendmongers stacked three tables deep on the patio, aesthetics may have been the last thing on the kitchen crew's mind. The formerly gorgeous chicken pot pie looked sloppy and overbrowned. The elegance of the potato-and-leek gratin had fled; now it was a messy pile tumbled across the plate. At least the salmon cake with black bean corn salsa and cilantro pesto aioli exhibited the visual appeal and ingenuity that made me (and everybody else) a fan of Claire Smith's cooking in the first place. It's hard to cope with the kind of success this small but ambitious restaurant has experienced. Here's hoping they can handle it.

Transition Plans: Over at that other nexus of restaurant hotness, Monica Pope's Boulevard Bistrot, chef Mark Oster is out (he's gone to Austin to open a new-wave diner) and Jill Johnston-Lewis is in. Pope had to scramble when Oster unexpectedly gave notice, and there were a couple of bumpy weeks as Johnston-Lewis, whose last posting was Australia, settled in. No doubt that's why the amusing egg foo young frittata was leathery and in grave need of more of the advertised ginger on an evening not long ago, and why the veal chop au jus flavored with vanilla bean seemed little more than a very nice piece of meat, expertly cooked. That daring vanilla bean factor? Just a faint, who-cares undertow.

Such bobbles aside, the old Boulevard snap still applied to a substance known as "Beyond Hummus" (chick-pea dip deepened and intensified with red-pepper puree) and riveting small crab cakes in a tart buerre blanc flavored with kaffir lime leaves -- a distinctive, perfumey taste familiar to fans of Thai cooking. Dewberry-and-yogurt soup swirled with peppered peach puree was a cool antidote to the encroaching summer. And the desserts have improved tremendously over the year the Bistrot has been in business: twin creme brulees (one berried, one not) had softness and a fragile crackle going for them, and an apple crisp with fresh dewberries baked in was mom-food squared. Bottom line: transitional-phase jitters may obtain for awhile; cross your fingers.

Department of Good News: At Dimassi's on Richmond, that self-service bazaar of sprightly Middle Eastern food, the dismal fluorescent lights have been replaced by astonishing rococo chandeliers that must be seen to be appreciated. Hallelujah. Now if only the rest of Houston's ill-lit ethnic eateries would take the cue....

And at L'aventure Cafe, the rewarding French bistro that recently opened in the old Armando's site, Parisian owner Daniel Drumlewicz has sensibly lowered the prices on some of chef Olivier Ciesielski's lunch and dinner dishes. Among other items, that very dear goat cheese salad has gone down a buck, to $7.95; the elegantly turned out escargots are down a buck, too; and there's a whole new "cafe fare" lunch section for under ten dollars, including a pasta du jour that, given Ciesielski's talents, ought to be worth sampling. Stay tuned for a completely restructured dinner menu.

-- Alison Cook


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