Gawkers' Palace

"Mr. Tanenbaum spent $3 million redoing this place," chirped the perky young waitress, gesturing expansively around the neo-Creole palace called Lagniappe.

I believed her. My jaw had swung loose on its hinges as I passed beneath the lowered faux-alabaster ceilings of the bar, where outsize murals of Ingres' Odalisque and a storm-tossed Napoleon Bonaparte loom, campy and sly. I had gawked shamelessly at the stylized, gingerbread-laden columns that stake out the huge dining room. I had goggled at the checked French sailors' caps that turn the kitchen crew into Gilbert and Sullivan characters. This was New Orleans by way of Disneyland and Vegas; and it was a long, long way from Don's, the down-to-earth Louisiana seafood spot that held forth here for l7 years.

Lagniappe's eye-poppingness is attributable to Randall Walker -- the Kirksey-Myers architect whose work, including the zoomy new Mesa, seems to be everywhere of late -- and to Richard and Glenna Tanenbaum, the ever-more-theatrical Houston restaurateurs. The Tanenbaums began climbing the local dining totem pole at La Porte's Monument Inn, then launched the Atchafalaya restaurants and sold them to Ninfa Laurenzo. Next they engineered some large-scale flops at the old Junior League (Bobaloo, Ricardo's Bobaloo, Bubba and Luigi's) before striking pay dirt again with their urban-kicker dancehall, the Post Oak Ranch. Now they're free to indulge in the kind of prestige project that one suspects they've wanted to do all along.

To that end, they've spent a small fortune on voluptuous flooring of pale, antique pine; on a sea of marble tables and curvaceous bentwood chairs; on a high-profile chef whose last posting was at a French restaurant in Seattle. One look at Angus McIntosh's menu sent my jaw off its hinges again: this document, billed as "contemporary Creole," makes the trend-happy Mesa menu that I marveled over recently look positively restrained. To read the McIntosh bill of fare is to take a breathless jog through the wilder realms of the New American culinary landscape.

"Strawberry shrimp piquante!" I squeaked disbelievingly to the Lafayette Aesthete. "Raspberry beet sauce!" "Creole mustard soy creme frache!"

"Frizzled leeks, indeed," he snorted in reply. "And look," he said, pointing out the Fenneled Duck Salad, "they've made fennel into a verb." We ordered it for laughs, but the salad turned out to be an engaging metaphor for the restaurant: lively, fun to eat, amusingly oversold. Yeah, the advertised grilled figs and charred fennel were largely undetectable in the raspberry vinaigrette, but the dressing itself -- fearlessly tart, rich with fruit -- lent bounce to curly endive, rare strips of duck breast, spiced nuts, fresh pear and the goat cheese of which Monsieur McIntosh is so demonstrably fond.

Like many of Lag-niappe's ferociously contrived dishes, it tasted more serious than it read -- under that giddily faddish surface lurks surprising substance.

Given these wonderfully exaggerated surroundings, it is fitting that the nuttier-sounding dishes come off better than the relatively normal ones. Creole mustard soy creme frache actually gives a disciplined, martial-arts kick to shrimp-and-crawfish dumplings, plump and gingery inside their crimped wrappers of translucent rice paper. But a warm shrimp remoulade that tasted like zilch made my Lafayette friend screw up his face in disgust; where he comes from, bland remoulade is a punishable offense. And the potent musky/smoky flavors of Lagniappe's duck-and-andouille gumbo fought a losing battle against its goopy, cornstarch-thick texture. Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Unleash this kitchen on sweet-potato crusted snapper with one of McIntosh's offbeat vinaigrettes, though, and stand back: the dish is a clever riff on Veracruzana-style fish, its gently sauteed snapper and browned tracery of sweet-potato shreds set off by a brisk dressing of pickled okra and fresh tomato. Redfish Baton Rouge is even more exciting, lightly floured, perfectly sauteed, and moored in an unorthodox pool of the tart and mellow red-wine butter sauce called beurre rouge. A strip of cayenne-spiked cream snakes down the center for the sheer, excessive hell of it. For years I've mourned the salmon in Beaujolais butter that Bruce Auden once did at Charley's 517, back before we lost him to San Antonio; now I don't have to miss it anymore.

Angus McIntosh, an Army brat who actually has done time in Louisiana despite his spectacularly un-Louisianan name, has a very New Orleans taste for pernod, the anise-flavored liqueur. It shows up to great effect in the curious "oyster pastries" that prove to be more of an assemblage than a dish: crisp triangles of puff pastry here; briefly sauteed oysters in a quiet red-onion beurre blanc over there; a small heap of greens to one side, anise-scented and pleasantly bitter. The whole does not exceed the sum of its parts, but those parts are awfully good.

Pernod also lends a haunting note to McIntosh's Creole noisettes of lamb, rosy medalions fitted out with a garlic-and-basil-spiked dice of fresh tomato; even one night's grease-sodden wild rice cakes, meant to serve as a platform, couldn't keep this from being one of the

more winning lamb dishes in town. (At $23.95, it's among the most expensive dishes on the menu; most entrees hover in the $12 to $16 range, while first courses go for $6 to $9.)

I take it as a good sign that Lagniappe's grilled shrimp on the obligatory polenta is way too frisky to sink into modern cliche-dom. Firm, charcoaly shrimp help; a spicy mishmash of fresh tomato, winy calamata olives and gorgonzola cheese puts it over the top.

Gorgonzola happens to be the least esoteric cheese on this esoteric-or-bust menu: McIntosh's dishes are infested with asiago, manchego, the chevre that gives the waiters such pronunciation fits, and something called mizithera cheese. Ever heard of it? I thought so. How about cambonzola swirls? Such overheated flourishes could seem irritatingly affected if McIntosh's food weren't capable of startling you into saying, "Hey, this really works." As it is, I'll spot him his mascarpone drizzles, his tarragon-bourbon sabayon glaze, his mint couscous and his smoked duck ravioli -- get this -- "mounted with raspberry butter." And if I'm not quite ready for tempura shrimp on a strawberry-tomato horseradish sauce, I say bring on the turnip cakes and the grits croutons.

I even went so far as to order the nectarine and poblano pepper pie. ("It's really good!" enthused a waiter. "You can't even taste the chiles!") And you couldn't. Unfortunately you could taste the pasty, stodgy crust and experience the refrigerator chill. An appealing sweet-potato and pecan pie suffered from the same chilly syndrome. Room temperature, please.

Desserts may not be Lagniappe's strong point (witness also a lemon-and-berry "summer pudding" that resembled a namby-pamby jellyroll), but -- like virtually everything in this showy restaurant -- they are the occasion for bigtime presentation. At the rear of the dining room stands a miniature dessert temple that functions as a stage for a chef in one of those funny checked sailor caps; theatrically lit, he pipes on pastry cream and arranges garnishes in grave, solitary splendor.

Up front in the dramatic bar, another mini-stage is presided over by a chef who seems to have been selected for his facial bone structure; he makes a glamorous picture for the fast young Galleria types who sip from sculptural pilsener glasses, basking in the muchness of it all. Lagniappe's official translation of its hallowed Cajun name -- meaning "a little bit extra" -- takes on an unintentional irony; "a whole lot extra" would be closer to the truth. How else to describe the Dancing Waters effect on that alabaster ceiling -- reflections cast from the outdoor fountain and pool, a Caesar's Palace-style nod to Transco's waterwall across the street.

Whether the Tanenbaums can fill their big, flossy room with enough diners to support a way-out menu -- historically a tough sell in Houston -- is certainly debatable. But if wit and chutzpah and surprisingly good food count, perhaps they (and McIntosh) can pull it off. The tableful of shirtsleeved oil guys from the Offshore Technology convention one night may have been a lucky omen: at first these gentlemen peered about in bemusement, squinting at the menu as if it were written in Swahili. By evening's end, however, they were chowing down with loud, oilmanly gusto.

Lagniappe, 3009 Post Oak Blvd., 621-5900.


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