Diner's Notebook

Lettuce (Etc.) Happens
Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble: Already, there has been a Major Unpleasantness at the excruciatingly hot new Cabo Mix/Mex Grill. Proprietor James Hillyer and menu consultant Arturo Boada, the well-known Houston chef who put the late La Mer on the map, had a falling out after a spate of articles -- including one in the Press -- credited Boada with Cabo's food. "This is my menu and my recipes," declares Hillyer heatedly, adding that he only hired Boada to "tweak my recipes." His investors and limited partners are mad, too, says Hillyer; in fact, they had their lawyer send Boada a "cease and desist" letter regarding any representations he might make about his Cabo role. Boada, unsurprisingly, takes a different view, noting that he hired and trained the kitchen crew and observing that even if Hillyer fiddles with the habanero sauce, "It's still mine." Boada may be keeping his distance these days, but he still owns a piece of the Cabo action. A very tiny piece, as Hillyer is quick to point out. "I sold him 1 percent for $4,000, so how much is that?" Hillyer asks, gesturing dismissively.

Oh, what a lovely business.
The Return of Camille: Been wondering who's tending those raised garden beds behind the old Oak Farms Dairy building on Westheimer near Shepherd? The ones that look like something out of a storybook? They're the brainchildren of the fabled Camille Waters, whose Natural Child was the mother of all Houston health-food restaurants back in the early '70s. Her latest incarnation is as Camille Waters, Heirloom Gardener, and in that capacity she's supplying produce both historical and exotic to local chefs. Last week, Camille, who always did throw a good party, staged a lettuce tasting at her urban truck farm. Wildflowers decorated the picnic tables; a couple of huge, vintage bowls that once held salads at the Natural Child stood ready to rinse garden grit from the gathered greens.

Friends, alternative gardeners and chefs from such restaurants as Brennan's and the Daily Review Cafe roamed the beds, picking piercingly fragrant, exhilaratingly bitter wild Italian arugula and marginally floral Shungiku -- a feathery Japanese chrysanthemum -- for their customized salads. There was peppery Upland Cress, a tiny-leafed watercress and fat little spades of sturdy Tat Soi. Apple-green whorls of Tom Thumb lettuce, which grew in Thomas Jefferson's gardens at Monticello, spread out as invitingly as Oriental cushions. A baby red romaine called Rosalita -- small, loose leafed and impossibly delicate compared to those grocery-store behemoths -- went into the mix, along with fragile tendrils of a racily sour, black-peppery plant called Misticanza. Baby radishes the size of a diminutive fingernail went on top, along with Camille's balsamic vinaigrette.

For palates numbed by the mixed baby lettuces from those big plastic sacks that half the restaurants in town seem to use nowadays, salad a la Camille is like making several full Nautilus circuits at the health club. Gardenless Houstonians who want to taste lettuce at its freshest and most elemental can find Waters' leaves at Boulevard Bistro and among the suppers served by Acute Catering at the Wortham Center. With any luck, more restaurants will follow.

-- Alison Cook

Camille Waters, Heirloom Gardener, 523-0650.


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