I arrived at City Hall plaza on Halloween noon primed for some serious grazing. The sea of ink touting the Great Tastes of Houston Festival, relocated to Elyse World this year from its Summit-area vacant lot, had been quite specific: all week long there'd be booths from 33 restaurants offering everything from Vietnamese subs to Indian mango souffle. There would even be a so-called "15-layer lasagna" -- now that I had to see.
Too bad for me. On day one of the seven-day extravaganza there were eight lonely booths set up around the reflecting pool, with not a speck of curried goat or dim sum in sight. "They'll be here Friday," a festival apparatchik informed me blandly when I inquired (whiningly, I fear) where Imperial Palace, Abdallah's and all the other restaurants were. So I settled for the sublime baby food that was the new-and-improved Birraporetti's pollo Poretti, a soft crepe of roasted chicken and cream cheese with tomatillo sauce that fairly sparkled. Pappamia's dull, sturdy version of mushroom tortellini in Parmesan cream rang none of my bells, but their "famous salad and Italian bread" (coarse of texture and chewy of crust) improved matters.
"Everything has cheese in it," grumbled my companion. Indeed, cheese and chicken were two of the principle motifs, along with fajitas and a veritable kebaborama. The low-profile Rachel's Greek weighed in with good chicken gyros in fat, beautifully grilled round loaves; we only wished they'd thrown in some garlicky tzatziki for good measure.
We bypassed Ninfa's (been there). We skirted D'Angelo's unthrilling pita-sandwich booth (done that). We surveyed the mutant tempura fried up by Sakura -- a misshapen glob of distinctly un-ethereal batter laced with cut-up vegetables -- and decided to pass. We joined the lines at the reed-wrapped Kim Son booth, only to find that the promised Vietnamese subs were reserved "for the weekend." The spring rolls looked swell, but we've eaten a hundred of 'em.
In the end, we gravitated to the autumn-swagged booth of Charley's 517, where a chef grilled perfect chicken breasts over pecan wood, tucking them into superior rolls with marinated onions and a subtle honey mustard -- the day's hands-down winner. Charley's crab cakes may have been marginally gummy, but their skinny mini-shoestring fries mooshed up gratifyingly with the thin, tart cream of a sauce. And the restaurant's chocolate-nut brownie was almost frighteningly intense: deep, dark and very bittersweet. The weekend's restaurants-come-lately will have a hard time beating Charley's act.
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In the absence of dizzying culinary variety, we drank in the scene instead: the earnest artisans power-sawing an ice sculpture on a barge in the middle of the reflecting pool; the scary family dressed as Halloween pumpkins and toting a costumed blue parrot which they jostled and flourished unmercifully; the lanky, bucktoothed kid in the straw hat inscribed "Puro Zacatecas Home Boy." A young man juggled flaming torches. Elyse's roses bloomed redly. Her Fourth-of-July flags and puffballs swung gently from the live oaks. The umbrella-ed cafe tables she has decreed made for civilized places to eat; add a battalion of little white bistro chairs, and you could almost imagine, if you squinted really hard, that you were in Paris.
But then you'd lift your eyes to that steep vortex of skyscrapers that looms over City Hall plaza, and smell the pecan smoke and listen to the over-amped, achingly beautiful sax music emanating from the gratingly named "Proud Stage" and think, no, you're in Houston. And glad of it.
Great Tastes of Houston, City Hall plaza, daily through Sunday, November 6.
Great Tastes of Houston:
Birraporetti's chicken crepe, $3.50;
Charley's 517 grilled chicken sandwich, $3.50.