When I travel, I never eat in the hotel: It's an unfortunately reliable rule of thumb that memorable meals are rarely found at a place with a captive audience.

DeVille, at Houston's Four Seasons Hotel, is the exception that proves the rule. Marooned in a patch of downtown near little but the Convention Center and the Park Mall, the Four Seasons is a bit troublesome for a Houstonian to visit. But new executive chef Tim Keating makes it worth your while to venture to the restaurant -- even if you're not staying at the hotel. (It helps a bit, too, that valet parking is complimentary for diners.)

Keating -- formerly of Houston's Omni and Ritz-Carlton hotels -- has crafted a menu that is both modern and French. Gone are the heavy, cream-based sauces of yore, replaced by well-brewed stocks. He leans toward big, unprocessed flavors, enhanced, perhaps, by a subtle sauce. The results are breathtaking.

That's not to say that DeVille has no charms other than Keating. The expansive dining room radiates class, managing to exude elegance and sophistication without stuffiness. Comfortable tables and chairs are spaced widely apart, allowing diners their privacy. And unlike too many other restaurants, this one is blessedly quiet.

Service is impeccable. The first time I visited DeViIle, I asked the waiter about an ingredient. The all-observant maitre d'h™tel quickly and quietly approached the table, assessed the situation in milliseconds, and then asked me, by name (well, by the pseudonym I'd used to make the reservation), if there was anything he could do. He returned moments later with the answer to my question. Some weeks later, the same maitre d' took my reservation. When I gave the same pseudonym, he said he was glad to know that we'd enjoyed our previous meal enough to return. Now, that's attention to detail.

Tucked behind glass doors, toward the back of the restaurant, slightly elevated from the main dining area, is a small, private dining room -- a perfect power room in which to cut deals, and full of the "suits" who frequent DeVille.

But the best table of all isn't in the dining room. After all, Keating is DeVille's main attraction -- and if you want to get close to the chef, you eat in the kitchen. Tucked in a corner at the chef's table, you can see clearly how six-foot-five Keating towers over everything and everyone -- and how the imposing effect is softened by a gentle, boyish smile.

As you watch, Keating will prepare a meal especially for you, based on your likes and dislikes and what ingredients are freshest that particular day. Freshness is one of Keating's obsessions; he prides himself on his contacts with farmers and fishermen.

At the chef's table, I enjoyed the seasonal "Grande Menu," a five-course extravaganza that can be purchased with or without the five suggested wines. The appetizer was a wonderful Maine lobster salad, a generous claw and tail dressed with thin mango slices, sitting on curly endive doused with sweet mango dressing. This was followed by a warm cassoulet, the classic, comforting French mixture of slow-cooked white beans and sausage. The next course proved far more startling: The risotto was colored bright purple by the addition of baby beetroot; thin strips of celeriac added texture. The main course was a lamb shank and lamb chop confit, its meaty flavor enhanced by lots of garlic and a cognac reduction, and by a side dish of vegetable ragout. The final flourish was peach Bavarian, a thick peach custard atop a simple sponge cake, next to some smooth peach ice cream. Needless to say, I went home satisfied.

But one needn't dine in the kitchen to score memorable food. At lunch one day, in the main dining room, I tried an off-the-menu foie gras special. Served with a walnut-and-pear salad, the goose liver was silky smooth and tender, perfectly pink and extraordinarily rich. And grilled salmon showed signs of expert preparation: Moist in the middle but browned on the exterior, it was accompanied by delectable, batter-fried onion shavings -- and by pearl pasta dotted with crawfish.

My only complaint is that the menu's descriptions are convoluted to the point that an intelligent diner can't be sure what he's ordering. What the heck is a "Napoleon of Texas Rabbit Rillette with juniper chive lavosh, vintage port syrup and cassis compote"? (FYI: Think pate. And trust me, it's marvelous.) Of course, the waiters, always ready to lend a helping hand, will be glad to explain in detail. At DeVille, they want you to be happy.

DeVille in the Four Seasons Hotel, 1300 Lamar, 650-1300.

Seasonal grande menu, $65; with wine, $85;
foie gras, $7.50;
napoleon of Texas rabbit rillette, $8;
grilled salmon, $15.75.


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