Haute Spot

It's a pleasant -- and all too rare -- surprise when a restaurant you'd written off acquires a new lease on life. Yet that is exactly what has come to pass at downtown's Lancaster Hotel, where talented young chef Louis Cressy is busy turning out provocative neo-Gulf Coast cuisine that seems destined to cause a buzz.

It's about time. The Lancaster's street-level cafe has always had a lot going for it: a ground-zero arts district location convenient steps from the Alley, Jones Hall and the Wortham; an uncommonly snug and pretty dining room; the handsome hotel's not inconsiderable cachet. But the kitchen never measured up: the well-turned-out folks who'd duck in for a pre-theater or post-concert supper paid high prices for forgettable (and occasionally dreary) food.

No more. Prices remain steep at the renamed Bistro Lancaster (first courses around eight bucks, entrees around twenty), but given Cressy's ambitions and skills, plus the tony real estate, they're not out of line. The impossibly young-looking Cressy -- who is actually 28 --apprenticed with the Ella Brennan clan at their Mr. B's and Bacco in New Orleans, and his schooling shows. His take on modernized Gulf Coast cooking is a witty blend of Creole and Cajun, Southern and south-of-the-border; among his long suits are a Louisiana boy's feel for earthy flavors, a knack for vegetables and salads and an engaging affinity for ginger, which sharpens several of his most interesting dishes.

Cressy grabbed my respectful attention with his updated version of oysters Rockefeller, in which cilantro energizes the traditional spinach topping and tasso, the smoky Cajun ham, provides a dusky punctuation. But it was his perfect salad of arugula, bacon and egg that turned me into an unabashed fan: its greens glossy and appealingly bitter, marginally wilted in the presence of crisp bacon and barely scrambled egg, its sherry-mustard vinaigrette a model of tact. A week later, I'm still thinking about it.

Cressy's house salad is worth ordering too, its blue-chip lettuces tossed with a buoyant vinaigrette that's underpinned with Texas red grapefruit segments, a surprisingly subtle touch. A lemony shallot vinaigrette brings just as much life to an ingenious green salad featuring tiny, nicely grilled quail and a matchsticked tumble of jicama, mango and red peppers. It's my idea of a downtown lunch worth eating -- especially in quarters like these. Lancaster management has wisely left intact the room's rich hunter-green walls and charming Pierre Deux linens, airily windowpaned in red and white. (With its cozy, graceful proportions, this may be the only local dining room that makes a case for low ceilings.) But in honor of Cressy's regional sensibility, the Anglophilic hounds-and-horsey art -- so excruciatingly, snobbily '80s -- has been banished in favor of quirky prints that speak to the tropical South: assorted palms, grave Indian guides, esoteric birds in esoteric banana trees. Good move; now the place looks real instead of phony-baloney.

Cressy's regionalism has a sly, jokey side to it: witness his muffuletta quesadillas -- the ones that Clive Berkman, proprietor of Charley's 517 next door, can't get enough of. Or the smoked salmon tortilla roll-ups that are his gloss on the cocktail-party fad food that swept Texas some years back. He'd rather serve you crawfish beignets than plain old fried tails, but these small, puffy clouds live up to their marketing. Their pillowy batter refuses to obscure the sweet crawfish meat, and their pale-pink remoulade (while hardly the "classic" treatment claimed by the menu) makes a gentle, lovely counterpoint. Cressy's regional rehab of the ubiquitous gravlax plate involves ginger-cured redfish with a dense, satiny texture and a deliciously smoky chutney mayonnaise; it's a great idea marred only by an overenthusiastic hand with salt. Interested? You'll have to lobby the chef to bring it back as a special; he's already yanked it from the menu.

Cressy thinks about fish in interesting ways; no knee-jerk toppings of crab and artichoke hearts and mushrooms here. Instead, at lunchtime he'll pose a generous slab of impeccably grilled, farm-raised redfish atop a musky stew of lentils and browned-to-a-crisp "tobacco onions" (a culinary nod to Dallas chef Dean Fearing of The Mansion on Turtle Creek). Or he'll perch a slightly-too-pan-seared salmon fillet on a stunning raw salad of julienned sweet potato, cucumber and jicama, the whole brought together by a laid-back roasted-garlic butter sauce.

Like the salmon, the Bistro's venison arrived slightly overcooked and correspondingly mealy (a common shortcoming that has put a damper on my passion for deer meat of late). Still, the requisites for a memorable dish were there: a nutty coating of crushed pecans and black pepper; a mellow venison-and-apple reduction laced with vinegar and juniper berries. Adding jalapeno to spaetzle -- those noodly German dumplings -- sounded too cute for words, but the result was resilient, tender, insidiously spicy, altogether spectacular. And the fresh spinach alongside practically leapt off the plate. For $23.75, I want a little more perfection, but I'll settle for lively ideas.

Cressy has plenty of those. I want to go back for his onion soup goosed with Shiner bock beer, seared redfish with braised fennel and vanilla, and rabbit-sauce piquante. Louisiana will out! Even an old chestnut like fruit crisp acquires elan a la Cressy: its seasonal compote of pears stained berry-red, its whipped cream galvanized by fresh, edgy ginger. In its oversized bowl, it could easily feed two -- the portions here are in scale with the prices. Indeed, when I couldn't finish my epic grilled redfish, the chef appeared at our table with an anxious expression, inquiring if it had failed to please. Since neither he nor the staff knows me from Adam, the fact that he noticed (and cared) seemed to bode well for his restaurant's future.

As long as Cressy remains undiscovered, the service at the minimally staffed Bistro will be able to hold its own. But if I were the Lancaster's powers that be, I'd start staffing up: this guy's going to make a name for himself.

Bistro Lancaster, Lancaster Hotel, 701 Texas Avenue, 228-9500.


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