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Four-Star Fun

When was the last time you had fun at a four-star restaurant? I don't mean genteel enjoyment, in a pursed-lip, stiffly overdressed sort of way. I'm talking about upbeat, witty entertainment -- you know, fun. Tony Ruppe, formerly executive chef at serious bastions of haute cuisine such as the Four Seasons Hotel's De Ville, has at long last opened his own place on Montrose. Under the encyclopedic name Tony Ruppe's Fine American Food and Wine, he's dishing up creative "New American" cuisine with grace and good humor.

I credit a lot of the spirit of fun to Ruppe (pronounced "roop"), a puckish, twinkly-eyed fellow who makes time to visit each and every table in his new restaurant. "Thanks for being a part of our marketing research team," he greeted a group of absolute strangers, garnering a big laugh in return. "Let me show you our 'DefCon 4' wine cellar," he urged another newfound friend. Due to space constraints, the wine cellar is tucked vertically beside the stairs of the two-story dining space. "It's like something you'd find on a submarine, isn't it?" he asked with an impish grin.

Ruppe's humor illuminates the carefully thought-out lunch and dinner menus. Take, for example, the lunchtime butter lettuce and tomato salad with "999 Island dressing," so called because it's made with calorie-cutting yogurt instead of full-o-fat mayonnaise. Or what about avocado fries with habanero ketchup? Try ordering those for dinner without cracking a smile.

"We're just a mom-and-pop restaurant," says Ruppe. It sounds disingenuous, but it's true: Ruppe's first restaurant is clearly a family affair. His family's staunch support buoyed his spirits as the arduous build-out stretched to almost nine months. His wife, Kathi, took over the decorating from a hopelessly uptight architect who wanted everything black, gray and silver ("Can you imagine?" she asks incredulously). Now she greets guests as generously as her husband, presiding over a space as warmly personalized as a living room. Soothing pale gold fills the soaring room, grounded by a light, leafy green, flecked with muted plum: an outdoorsy, vineyard palette. The impression of vines is subtly underscored by the sinuous iron railing that rims the second floor. Sons Shawn and Nick are here almost every night, too, practicing serious grown-up handshakes on the guests. Shawn, 13, haunts the kitchen, impatient to be old enough to wait tables, and Nick, 19, helps out behind the bar, in the kitchen or wherever else he's needed.

I agree with Kathi, who believes the best tables in the house are on the rail of the second-floor loft. Here you can sit, often in solitary splendor, to giggle and whisper to your heart's content, eat with your fingers or spy on fellow diners below. (It's a real bonus for beleaguered smokers, too, elsewhere ghettoized in danker quarters.) The bird's-eye view of Ruppe's plates is fascinating, too, the assemblages' bright colors and cunning shapes more striking at a distance than when directly under your nose.

All of which is not to say there isn't serious food and wine going on amid the camaraderie, because there certainly is -- and at serious prices, it's fair to add. For starters, try the silky-smooth American foie gras ($8.50), lightly seared and served with a spicy, clove-scented pear chutney, sweet-tart pomegranate molasses and feathery yellow-green frisee (a kissing cousin of chicory). Or, if you're feeling frisky, try those avocado fries ($5.75). No kidding: Ripe, rich wedges of avocado are dusted lightly with bread crumbs and flash-fried, reminding me of the playful Japanese paradox of fried ice cream. The habanero ketchup, despite its ominous sound, has just the necessary prickle of heat to offset the slightly sweet creaminess of the avocado.

On the dinner menu my current favorite is the gorgeous pan-seared veal chop ($27), crusted with black olives and spices. The outer surface with its thin, crispy rim of fat is spicy and salty, while inside the thick chop is pale, shell-pink perfection; it's served with a "melting" onion polenta, leather-brown and rich. And while I really like the roasted rack of lamb ($26), I'm absolutely wild about its wild mushroom and walnut "bread pudding" stuffing, a dark, rich and woodsy concoction. Until now, I'd never met a side that measured up to perfectly prepared lamb.

One of the beauties of Ruppe's menu is that you don't have to suffer from substitution anxiety when the side dish you lust after isn't paired with the entree you order. Side dishes are available à la carte, sparing the usual protracted negotiations. Stellar choices include toothsome creamy vegetable risotto ($4.50) -- eat it quickly before it cools! -- and crisp, nutty grilled asparagus spears ($4.50) doused with a light, tangy red-pepper vinaigrette.

Another intriguing feature of the dinner menu is the cheese course, which includes a Texas goat cheese baked in "paper" bread ($8) accompanied by almonds, grilled apples and shallots, and an aged Cabrales with a chili salad ($8.50). I could make a strong case for gourmet grazing at Ruppe's: Match a salad or soup to a side and round it out with one of the cheeses -- like a midnight raid on the refrigerator of your dreams.

Lunchtime choices are lighter and range the world beat, from Indian-spiced chicken breast with cucumber-yogurt relish and crisp, wafer-thin fans of pappadam ($13.50) to a poblano chile stuffed with shrimp, crab and Texas goat cheese on smoky tomato sauce ($16.25). The chicken is a sprightly study in contrasts, simultaneously spicy and sweet, hot and cool. By comparison, the chile relleno is a disappointment, just too darned bland, the mountain of monochromatic stuffing overpowering the thin-walled pepper and admirably light batter coating. It's the only dish I didn't like; perhaps, like the intentional knot woven into each Persian rug, it proves that only God is perfect.

We mercilessly teased the waiter who brought us cabbage tamales ($9.75) instead of a chicken-avocado club sandwich -- the only serving gaffe in all my visits -- then forgave him completely when we fell in love with the accidental entree. Surprisingly tender green leaves of cabbage wrap around smoky barbecued duck, nutty tidbits of toasted pumpkin seeds and creamy queso fresco, swimming in a deep red, smoky chipotle dressing.

Ruppe's colorful salad combinations sound mischievous, even unlikely, but once tasted seem inspired. I love the grilled fennel and green apple salad ($4) where, miraculously, fennel manages to play well with others. Lightly grilled, the fennel is sweet and tender, with only the faintest suggestion of anise; in counterpoint, the green apples are crisp and tart. Lunchtime's combination of red onions, sweet peppers and juicy orange segments sparkles on the tongue ($3.75); at dinner, the "romaine, rocket and radicchio" salad ($6.50) rules. It's as much fun to pronounce as it is to eat, punctuated with chunks of marinated goat cheese and sprinkled with a sweet-sour vinaigrette of caramelized shallots and green apples.

Desserts are not currently listed on the menu, and change frequently, so save room on faith to try them. I heartily recommend splitting the huge, speckled wedge of creamy pumpkin cheesecake ($5) with a friend; ditto for the fig upside-down cake ($5), featuring fresh figs buried in a moist spice cake. Keep the beggar's purses ($6) to yourself if you can. The delicate pockets of phyllo pastry stuffed with chocolate and fresh raspberries are heavenly, afloat in cream sauce laced with bourbon.

Ruppe's wine list may induce sticker shock, but it's an eclectic selection of "boutique" bottles and blends for the adventurous, with helpful pairing suggestions for the neophyte. The pairings may be a bit too precise for haughty oenophiles ("White Wines for Grilled Light Meats and Fish with Richer Sauces" for example), but less-serious souls will appreciate the tongue-in-cheeky suggestions ("Big Reds That Like Peppery Hot, Smoky Foods and Rich BBQ"). In the admittedly arbitrary under-$40 category, I particularly like Sonoma Cutrer's Russian River Chardonnay or La Crema's Pinot Noir at $36 each, and Benziger's 1996 Merlot at $34 is appealing. A short list of wines by the glass starts at $6.50 but rapidly ramps up to $12.50 per stem; try the Murphy Goode Reserve Fume Blanc for $10 or the Gundlach Bunschu Cabernet/Merlot/Zinfandel blend for $8.

It's not surprising that Tony Ruppe has earned the respect of Houston's culinary community; what's more unusual is that he seems universally well liked by his fellow chefs, who hope his new place succeeds. "He's not one of those holier-than-thou chefs," explains a friend in the business. "It couldn't happen to a nicer guy," another was overhead to say. Others admire his managerial style. "Tony has always acted like an owner," says one observer. "He and John Puente [at Urbana] are Houston's two most conscientious owner/chefs. They both understand that visibility on the floor is crucial." Despite the long and awful struggle to open the doors, Ruppe has built a restaurant worth the wait.

Tony Ruppe's Fine American Food and Wine, 3939 Montrose, (713)852-0852.


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