Let's get this part over with right off the bat: Yes, Carl Lewis, the Olympic track and field star, is one of the owners of Cafe Noir. (And, from what I've heard, a fairly hands-on owner at that.) That said, let me add that the idea of celebrity restaurants generally leaves me both scared and cold. Scared that the food is going to be secondary, a mere afterthought. Cold because, frankly, even if Carl Lewis were running laps inside of the restaurant and using the tables for hurdles, I wouldn't be all that interested. What I care most about in a restaurant is its food. Period.
To my delight, Carl Lewis is not the star of this restaurant. Center stage belongs to executive chef Francis Walters, formerly of the Aquarium, the highly regarded Kemah restaurant. Though his kitchen here is still finding its legs, Cafe Noir is already excellent.
The elements are in place, including a lovely contemporary setting. Entering past a languid aquarium, you walk into a long room, with comfortable wood chairs and tables; on one side, the bar, then elevated banquettes on the other. At the far end is a chef's table walled in by glass. Brick is exposed; a relatively low, slatted wood ceiling absorbs sound, so you don't have to strain to hear the mellow blues and R&B emanating from the speakers. It's a room made for long meals and conversation -- a restaurant for adults.
The waitstaff describes the food as "new American." The menu describes it as "world-beat grille." I guess what it boils down to is that the world is America's "beat," leaving Chef Walters free to pick and choose his ideas globally, with a strong emphasis on Asia and the Caribbean.
Admittedly, taking that license can make for a terrifying menu. Some of the ideas sound contrived, like examples of fusion cuisine gone bad. (Wild-mushroom ravioli with dried-cherry sauce?) There's also a scary amount of fruit splashed around the entree list, a clear warning sign that the main courses might be (ugh) way too sweet. Outside of Scandinavia, I've never seen such extensive pairings of fruit and meat.
But Walters manages to bring off both his high concepts and his love of fruit. Walters knows you can't just plunk a hunk of meat into a peach puree; he has the good sense to balances the fruit's sweetness with tang, or heat, or spice. The combinations work beautifully.
Take his caramelized quail breasts ($8.25), for instance. Two gorgeously browned, still juicy little breasts rest in a puddle of a wild berry sauce. The mild sweetness of the sauce goes perfectly with the slight gaminess of the quail; the accompanying fried leeks and thin-sliced roasted peppers add more taste and textural contrast. Like all the food here, this appetizer is beautifully presented; it looks as good as it tastes.
Another fine starter is the smoked duck empanadas ($7.50). Two good-sized empanadas, brown and flaky, are stuffed with a generous amount of tasty smoked duck and wild mushrooms. The sauce, a sublime chipotle cream, has just enough bite.
A couple of the cold starters merit your attention as well. The Fire Roasted Vegetables ($6) are molded in a cylinder with fried rice sticks poking out of the top like so many antennae. The still crunchy veggies (corn, peppers, etc.) are served on a bed of field greens with a light basil vinaigrette -- a cool, comfortable start for the meal. Even better is the roasted corn gazpacho ($5.50). My waiter warned me that the soup was served cold and that some patrons dislike that. It's their loss: Rather than the usual tomato base, this dreamy soup starts with a rich chicken consomme, sparked with a generous amount of ancho chilies and loaded with fresh, crunchy vegetables. A nice spoonful of a rich chive cream sits in the middle of the bowl, ready to be swirled through the soup to your heart's content.
Cafe Noir is also one of the rare new restaurants whose entrees are as imaginative as the appetizers. The chef's Caribbean/Asian bent displays itself to good advantage with plantain-fried shrimp ($17): Six large shrimp are covered with ripe plantain, encrusted in Japanese panko bread crumbs and fried until golden and crisp. They're served on a bed of a slightly sweet arbol chile sauce; drizzled around them is an intense Chinese-style chili-garlic sauce; by dipping the shrimp in it, you're able to control the heat quotient of each bite. Accompanying the shrimp is intensely gingered spinach and a pyramid of peppered rice.
I also greatly enjoyed the grilled snapper ($18.75), served with a scotch bonnet chardonnay sauce. The sweet flesh of the perfectly grilled snapper melds gracefully with the heat of the wine sauce, resulting in one of the best fish dishes I've had outside New Orleans.
The blackberry pork tenderloin ($17.50) resembles sauerbrauten, but it's far better. The fork-tender pork is marinated with blackberries, tomato, molasses and balsamic vinegar -- a tangy combination that brings out the pork's natural sweetness. The accompanying pear chutney and sides of asparagus and roasted rosemary potatoes add to the hearty, generous festivities.
The wild-mushroom ravioli ($14) is, according to our waiter, a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I love it. The ravioli are stuffed with a finely minced filling of shiitake, cremini and portobello mushrooms, seasoned with sage and sauced with a dark, rich, luscious reduction of merlot, balsamic vinegar, demi-glace and dried cherries. A full week after eating the dish, I'm still assembling and reassembling the disparate flavors in my head. It is, I think, a dish of genius.
Pastry chef Philippe Valladores has a hard act to follow, but he more than holds up his end with desserts such as the Juanita ($8.95) -- a taste of the tropics, and breathtakingly good. A crumb crust supports a cylinder of passion-fruit curd, with caramelized bananas and Brasil nuts and around the edges, and rum creme anglaise on the bottom of the plate. Sticking out of the top is a jaunty palm tree with a cookie stem and thin chocolate fronds.
Chocolate lovers (and I am one) cannot go wrong with the Gáteau Noir ($8.95). Cut into the warm, tender chocolate torte, and molten chocolate oozes out into the homemade vanilla-bean ice cream. It's a chocoholic's fantasy.
Rice pudding ($7.95) gets a nice Asian twist: Flavored with ginger and chunks of lychee, then covered with lemongrass-flavored whipped cream, it's delicously rich. Equally rich, if not more so, is the sweet-potato cheesecake. Picture a sweet-potato pie crossed with cream cheese; the combination makes for a dessert so rich (and good!) that I was forced to bring half of it home with me -- an exceedingly rare event.
Not all is perfect at Cafe Noir. There are still a couple of rough spots in the service (entrees arriving before appetizers are finished, waitstaff not entirely conversant with the fine points of the menu). And I wish the herbed olive oil that comes with the bread at the beginning of the meal were served in a larger shallow dish, so that I didn't drizzle olive oil all over the tablecloth. And the Caesar salad ($6.25) didn't rise to the level of excellence of the rest of the dinner; it somehow lacked oomph (although I did love the giant Parmesan cheese wafer bisecting the salad).
But, really, these are quibbles. It's a pleasure finding a new restaurant as good as this one is. I can hardly wait to see how it matures.
Cafe Noir, 2606 Fannin, (713)659-5409.
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