From Start to Finish

I was certain that someone in the kitchen had made a horrible mistake. I'd ordered dessert; what was placed in front of me looked more like breakfast. Two dark triangular wedges rested against each other, their outside obviously fried crisp. French toast, without question.

"Excuse me," I started, "I wanted the ..."
"The pound cake," my waitress said. "I know. This is the pound cake." Then she launched into an explanation that she'd obviously given more than once before: The chef had started out making basic pound cake with a standard seven-minute icing, but the kitchen was too humid and the icing turned to sugar. The cake just wouldn't keep. So he had to figure out some other method of preparation. Finally, he decided to take the cake, saute it in butter and then grill it.

"You'll like it," the waitress insisted. "It's a little different, but it's really good."

She was right. It was different -- the crunch of the exterior gave an extra dimension to the softness of the interior, and the sweetness that can sometimes make pound cake cloying was muted -- and it was good. Really good. In many ways, that pound cake is a reflection of all that's right about the Fox Diner, the restaurant that, last November, moved into the former location of Mom's Cookin' on Taft. It's comfort food given a twist, one that often has you moving a piece of your meal around on your tongue, searching to identify an elusive extra ingredient -- and one that, conversely, sometimes isn't twisted enough.

For the people who went into mourning when Mom's closed last year -- and their number is legion -- the opening of the Fox Diner may come as something of a surprise. Mom's locked its doors, or so the story at the time went, because all the street repairs on West Gray and surrounding areas had made it hard for customers to make their way in. But if that was indeed the case, the problem has now been solved. If you come from the West Gray side, getting to the Fox Diner can still be a bit of a pain, but if you enter Taft from the Allen Parkway side, it's a straight, uninhibited shot to the diner's front door.

When Tom Williams (who owns the Fox Diner with partner Carlos Berlin) chose to refurbish the shuttered Mom's -- tearing out its drop ceiling to open up the small space, placing a half-wall where the self-serve counter had been, drizzling paint on the bare floor to give it a modern, artsy look and in general brightening what had been a dark, if comfortable, pair of rooms -- the ten-year veteran of hotel catering assumed that the people taking that straight shot would mainly do it during lunch, when the offices along the parkway emptied out. He discovered he was only half right: The lunch crowd did take to the place, appreciative perhaps that the highest priced entree was under $10, but a growing evening crowd showed up as well. The result is that this week the Fox Diner will expand its weekday hours, closing at 10 p.m. rather than 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and at 11 p.m. on Friday, and move into the weekend by opening from 5:30 to 11 p.m. on Saturday as well.

It's a good change, because to truly appreciate what the Fox Diner has to offer, you need to eat dinner there. Lunch tends to be fast, and limited to a main course, while dinner can be leisurely and expand to include an appetizer and dessert, and it is in these latter areas that the restaurant shines most brightly.

The desserts, in particular, are noteworthy. So much so, that I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Fox became an apres-movie/apres-theater hangout (if, that is, it moves its hours even deeper into the evening). The pound cake ($2.95), in both a sour cream and an interestingly gritty corn meal version, is the most inventive of the sweets, and the creme Berlin ($2.25) and the lemon bars ($1.95) are worth writing home about, but my choice for best of show are the gourmet double fudge brownies ($3). It's not simply that they're moist almost to the point of melting, though they are, and it's also not just that the chocolate manages to be thick and intense without being overpowering, though it is. What kicks it over the top is the just-right-amount inclusion of nuts and raisins, which pop up as occasional surprises while you're shoveling it in.

Subtle is a peculiar word to use for such excess, but subtle it is: As rich and full-flavored as the desserts tend to be, what distinguishes them is that they all carry suggestive undercurrents of ... well, to be honest, I'm not really sure what some of the extra tastes creeping into the chocolate (a little touch of raspberry?) or the lemon bars (orange peel?) were, but I could tell they were there, piquing my interest. That seems to be the method of chef Paul Rodrigues, who most recently ran the kitchen at the Wentletrap in Galveston. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Rodrigues has an affinity for taking basic recipes and giving them a slight turn. When he was hired by Williams, the basics of the Fox's menu had already been put in place; it was Rodrigues's job to add the filigree to the down-home dishes that Williams had decided to focus on.

Where, aside from the deserts, that filigree works best is at the beginning of the meal. When the Fox first opened, Williams says, he thought of using an outside supplier for his bread; sheets of too-sweet corn bread disabused him of that notion, and he turned the bread production, like everything else, over to Rodrigues. Good choice: The Fox's bread basket ranks among the best in the city, which says something; Houston is no slouch when it comes to good bread. While in the great corn bread debate I come down on the side of that made from white cornmeal -- even though such corn bread is, alas, almost impossible to find around here -- Rodrigues comes close to converting me to the ranks of the yellow cornmeal fanciers with his jalapeno Cheddar cheese version. Unsweetened, but with a sweet tang thanks to the use of fresh-off-the-cob corn that's scraped into the mix, the bread is light on both the jalapeno and the cheese and is the better for it, since an excess of either could overpower the flavor of the bread itself.

Almost as good are the mile-high biscuits, which are flecked with fresh herbs -- rosemary, cilantro, parsley -- from Rodrigues's herb garden, and the dill-spotted yeast rolls (which are made elsewhere to Rodrigues's specifications). In each case, the added flavors are mild. You know they're there, you appreciate them, but they don't overwhelm.

Unfortunately, there's a thin line that separates the subtle from the dull, and on occasion the Fox Diner crosses that line. Rodrigues is particularly proud of his soups -- since the Fox opened, he says, he's made a different soup every day, the only exception being last week, when Williams asked him to repeat a particular favorite -- but on the four occasions I tried the soup of the day ($2.25 a cup/ $3.50 a bowl), that pride was justified only twice. Not that any of the soups were abject failures. It's just that they too often approached the bland. Both a corn chowder and a faux-crab ("It's krab with a K," the waiter noted) bisque could have used a jolt of something to bring their flavors alive. As it was, they went down smoothly, but inconsequentially. However, a tortilla soup made with a thick tomato puree and an onion soup that was a melding of cream, various types of onions and garlic both soared; the tortilla soup in particular had a tanginess that would have been appreciated in other evenings' offerings. (It was the onion soup, though, that created the closest thing I've seen to a death from ecstasy in a long time. A diner at an adjoining table would dip his spoon into his cup, swallow some soup and then shudder in almost palpable delight. This, he announced to everyone within hearing distance more than once, was just like eating essence of escargot. I did my own tasting and couldn't figure out what in the world he meant -- okay, there's the garlic, there's the butter, only where's the snail? -- but I can testify that for him, at least, the soup was a source of true bliss.)

That same flip-flop between the delicate and the boring was found in the entrees. I'll give them the King Ranch casserole ($6.95); after all, bland is its birthright. But despite the accompaniment of some good mustards, a special of sausage and sauerkraut ($6.95) was unforgivably mild, especially when good, flavorful sausage is so easily available around here. Similarly, the Frito pie ($5.95), though served authentically in the bag, could have used a shot of chili powder, some chili paste or even sharper onions. As it was, it just sort of lay there in its wrapping, easily edible but hardly memorable.

More successful was the smoked pork chop ($8.95) and the grilled New York steak ($9.50). In each case the meat was much better than the price would lead one to expect, and both the smoking and the expert grilling of the pork chop gave it extra life. Similarly, the pesto and goat cheese that topped the New York steak, while at times threatening to smother its flavor, more often added up to something worth a repeat bite. Unfortunately, in each case the side dishes -- green beans and new potatoes -- looked better than they tasted. Again, there was nothing particularly unpleasant about them; it's just that there wasn't much pleasant either.

That complaint, though, can't be laid on the mashed potatoes and gravy that come with the Thursday night special of Southern fried chicken ($6.95). This is one dish that's done best when done basic, and basic is how it's handled, lumps and all. That would be the only appropriate way to serve potatoes with what is among the best fried chicken I've had lately. Here, the Fox Diner's theme of keeping it simple works like a charm: The chicken is purchased fresh, soaked in buttermilk, dredged in flour seasoned with sage, salt and some garlic and then skillet-fried. For those whose image of fried chicken has to do with 16 herbs and spices and thick crusts, this is a revelation; it's a reminder that the purpose of fried chicken is to highlight the bird the batter covers. It's a true marvel. If the rest of the Fox Diner's entrees catch up to this one, the desserts may find themselves falling to only the second best reason to eat there.

Fox Diner, 905 Taft, 523-5369.


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