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East Meets Best

Amy Spangler

The tale of chef Scott Chen's two restaurants is an interesting lesson in Houston's restaurant geopolitics.

Even though Chen's first restaurant has garnered recognition from all over the United States, it remains relatively unknown in its hometown. Granted, the Empress of China was completely unknown when Chen purchased it in 1985. Since then, though, Chen's string of awards ranging from the populist Zagat Survey to the lofty James Beard Foundation to television appearances on the Great Chefs, Great Cities series should have guaranteed local stardom to match his national reputation.

It hasn't, outside a small and fiercely loyal clientele. Strike one? Location, location, location. The Empress of China is tucked in a nondescript shopping strip in the wilds of FM 1960 West. "Of course our faithful Empress customers would drive out to us," Chen says. "But I worried about them, especially since I have so many nice wines. How can they enjoy the meal and the wines when they're worried about such a long drive home?"

Strike two: A restaurant stuck with the "Chinese" label will never get the serious recognition it deserves. For too many diners the thought of Chinese food unfortunately conjures an image of cheap fried rice carried away in wire-handled paper cartons. "Oh, don't get me wrong, Chinese cooking is a great culinary tradition," Chen explains. "But everybody in Houston thinks only of Hunan-type stuff. I was quite happy to be Houston's No. 1 Chinese restaurant, but it tied me up, you know?" A few years ago, Chen quietly clipped "China" from the Empress's name, but he couldn't free himself from his original menu. "At the Empress, I could never take a dish off the menu," he says ruefully. "If I did, oh, there would be so much trouble."

Six months ago Chen opened his second restaurant. He has learned his geography lessons well. The new place is simply called Scott Chen's, and it's positioned like a buckle in the middle of the Memorial money belt. Here, the silverware (Christofle) gleams and the crystal (Riedel) sparkles against heavy white linen, and firelight (faux) flickers in the bar's handsome fireplace.

Good thing the new restaurant offers more cellar space for Chen's legendary wine collection, which has already passed the 25,000-bottle mark and is still growing. He estimates he has bought 15,000 bottles for Scott Chen's in addition to the maybe 10,000 or so already at Empress. "I just buy wines like crazy," he says. "I can't help myself." Like a proud parent's baby pictures, the dark glossy wine bottles dominate every room of his new home: the bar, the main dining room and of course the glass-doored wine rooms upstairs and down. Neatly racked in geometric rows of mahogany cubbyholes stretching from floor to ceiling, the bottle ends catch the light like shiny black ceramic tiles. Even the thermostat isset to a château-chilly temperature, kind to wines but frigid for ladies in sleeveless dresses.

The restaurant also represents a new culinary freedom for Chen. "It's a new location and a new menu, a fresh start for me," he explains. "They can call my food 'fusion cuisine' or 'East meets West' or 'Franco-Asian' or whatever they like, but I am free to do what I want."

What Chen does defies all convenient labels. Take, for example, his flambéed quail appetizer ($12.50) served with sautéed eggplant and dramatically ignited at the table. Call that Asian? Surprise: The eggplant is richly flavored with plum sauce, judiciously offset by lemon juice and braced with garlic. But then the pretty pink-rimmed slices of tea-smoked duck ($12.50), tenderly marinated in rice vinegar and sparked with scallions, can hardly be described as European. Nor the triple sashimi tatta, a tiny exotic tower of red, black and green caviar plated with green exclamation marks of wasabi cream sauce (although its price, $20.50, is quite Continental). The grilled salmon cake ($18) is served with a mellow, mustard-yellow "Thai" curry sauce, spiked with toothsome bits of sautéed garlic and slightly fruity with -- get this! -- a splash of Heinz apple-cider vinegar. Is that really a Thai curry? "Well, no, not exactly," admits Chen. "I agree, perhaps it's more like an Indian curry. Maybe I should call it American curry!"

For the sake of argument, let's distinguish between the terms "expensive" and "overpriced." Overpriced is a $10 cheeseburger at the airport. Scott Chen's is expensive, no question, with dinner entrées ranging from $16 to $28. (Prices are more modest at lunch, between $9.50 and $16.50.) What Chen is selling, though, is nothing short of perfection. Each dish at Chen's is flawless: in presentation, in freshness, in exquisite balance of flavor. Chen's attention to ingredient detail is obsessive; he imports his yellowfin tuna, for example, only from Peru. "Peruvian tuna is more expensive, of course," says Chen. "But the difference in texture and flavor is immense. People are astonished by it; they think they know tuna until they try this."

We were astonished by many things at Chen's, dishes that sound simple on the menu but translate to surprisingly complex flavors. A delicately steamed salmon steak, flaky and pink and tinged with fresh ginger and balsamic vinegar ($22). Softly seared oysters ($12.50) topped with fat chunks of fresh crabmeat and sprinkled with scallions, served with "old vintage" oyster sauce. (Oyster sauces mellow and improve with age, Chen explains, just like fine wines.) Even the butter served with the basket of fresh breads is more than it appears; it's not just butter, but a lighter, sweeter blend of butter and cream cheese whipped with just a touch of honey or perhaps a bit of fresh fruit, like pineapple.

Chen has not completely banned the Empress's beloved dishes from the new menu. Several favorites reappear here, most notably the crispy shrimp with walnuts in caviar cream sauce ($20). "Okay, so I couldn't bear to get rid of the crispy shrimp," he admits with a laugh. "It was the most popular dish ever at the Empress." The shrimp are flash-fried in the lightest imaginable egg wash and draped across a glossy ivory pool of sauce -- cream lightened with a dab of mayonnaise and dappled with salty caviar -- then topped with crisp, honey-coated walnut halves. The effect is rich, but not heavy, a hallmark of Chen's cooking. "I don't use heavy cream or a lot of butter, ever," says Chen. "For richness, I try to concentrate the flavors instead."

Dessert seems almost superfluous after a meal at Scott Chen's, but many of the $6.95 selections are tempting. His fresh fruit sorbets are light but intensely flavored, best savored alone, perhaps, but often served flanking richer concoctions such as the variations on crème brûlée: one soft and creamy, accompanied by impeccably fresh, firm curves of mango; another crackly-crusted and richly infused with Grand Marnier. "Dragon's Eyes," the only menu entry our waiter was at a loss to explain, turned out to be an astonishing arrangement of pale, juicy litchi nuts stuffed with strawberry cream cheese, fancifully stacked to resemble a bunch of grapes, awash in a ruby-red sauce of pureed strawberries.

Chen's is clearly catching on with the expense-account crowd, but, perhaps not surprisingly, serious foodies were the first to appear on his new doorstep. The restaurant had barely been open two months when a new customer requested eight appetizers, ten entrées and six desserts for a single sitting. "I had no idea who he was," admits Chen. The voracious mystery diner turned out to be John Mariani, the nationally known food writer for Esquire and Wine Spectator magazines. Mariani was reportedly impressed; word on the street is that Scott Chen's is now a top contender for Mariani's annual listing of "Best New Restaurants in America." Local restaurateurs put in early appearances, too. "Robert del Grande [of Cafe Annie fame] came by for dinner and told me that summertime is always slow in Houston," says Chen. "Maybe I picked a hard time to open, but I'm satisfied with how we're doing here. This city is growing and every day becomes more sophisticated and international, and that's good for restaurants like mine. Except for the fact that everybody eats so early!" he adds, irritably. "I thought it would be different here inside the Loop, but they're as bad as my customers out at FM 1960. By ten o'clock they're home in bed! Nobody in a real city does that."

Chen is not one to go early to bed, I'll bet, nor is he late to rise. He's probably wide-awake all the time, busy planning new conquests. So, bolstered by one proven success and reasonably sure of another in the works, what's next for Scott Chen? He'll admit that he is intrigued by the notion of framing Asian cuisine in an upscale bistro format. "Look how well P.F. Chang's is doing with that," he marvels. "Their decor is very beautiful, but their food isn't any good at all, and they're still doing great business. I'd like to try doing that with the Empress, but do it right."

Scott Chen's, 6540 San Felipe, (713)789-4484.

E-mail Margaret Briggs


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