Hogg Heaven?

Because downtown Houston at night has been a culinary wasteland since sometime early in the Nixon administration, the advent of an ambitious new bistro at the edge of the theater district is an event well worth noting. Patrons of TUTS, the Alley, ballet, opera and symphony all have spent decades either dining elsewhere and speeding to a performance, or trying to chose from the tiny archipelago of conveniently located restaurants, most of which are either too burger-ish (Longhorn), too expensive (Charley's 517) or perpetually booked up (the Lancaster). But now, with the arrival of the Palace Cafe, they have another worthwhile dining option -- and, as lagniappe, a conversation piece.

The Palace is a spare, tres L.A.-style space located on the ground floor of the beautifully restored half-century-old office building that loft impresario Randall Davis, in a burst of misguided grandiloquence, dubbed the Hogg Palace. (Yes, I'm familiar with the history of the Hoggs and all the nice things done for the city by Miss Ima, but still the name has unfortunate ancillary suggestions.) The building now houses lavish living spaces, and is in the vanguard of the back-to-downtown housing movement. Because Davis wanted to offer a cafe on the premises as a tenant amenity, he was put in contact both with Armando Palacios, founder of the highly successful River Oaks favorite Armando's, and Cinda Ward, a young architect who became his general contractor.

Guess which one ended up proprietor of the Palace Cafe?
If you thought restaurant-savvy Palacios, think again. Still, even though Ward, late of CRSS Architects, had no restaurant experience whatsoever, she did have the good sense to solicit advice from people more knowledgeable of the food trade. The result is what the owners appropriately call an urban bistro. It's small and architecturally sophisticated, but sports an unpretentious attitude, modified deli fare, interesting wines and fabulous desserts.

Beginning at the end is easy. For after-theater dessert and coffee, the Palace is a hands-down winner. The espresso, almost obsidian without lapsing into bitterness, the foamy, cinnamon-dusted cappuccino, milky-smooth lattes and rich, chocolatey mochas (which can also be served iced) are just as they should be in both the regular and the decaf versions. There are black and herbal teas served hot, and the house special mango iced tea is served with a spring of fresh spearmint.

Desserts are the creation of Culinary Institute of America-trained pastry chef Anabel Trudeau, and they are Croesus-rich. The key lime pie is a neat balance of tart and sweet, and others such as the Italianate, cocoa-dusted ladyfinger version of tiramisu are fine. But the creme brulee, in which the satiny coolness of a deeply vanilla custard is topped with the still-warm crunch of perfectly caramelized brown sugar and garnished with several plump, ripe blueberries, is as fine a version as exists on this planet.

The main menu, on the other hand, is still in spring training. Though it has flashes of brilliance, it's often uneven. The list of offerings is simple, consisting almost entirely of salads and specialty sandwiches. It was the creation of consultant Mischa Connor -- and this pedigree is both the menu's strength and its weakness. Connor, who was once executive chef at the Museum Restaurant and therefore understands the dining penchants of arts supporters, made her culinary bones working with Monica Pope at the Quilted Toque. There she seems to have picked up Pope's obsession with bread. At the Palace, bread is everywhere, from the basket of baguettes on the prep counter to the great slabs of focaccia served with everything from grilled vegetables to cold pasta.

That's not to say that the bread itself is a problem. Quite the contrary. The Palace's focaccia is substantial without being heavy and wonderfully pungent with aromatic fresh rosemary -- although at times it would be nicer if it were served warm. All things considered, it makes a fine, if somewhat overabundant, accompaniment to the elegantly complex Palace salad, which itself is a standout. More than just a simple toss of greens, this house specialty is complex with the cool, almost creamy smoothness of artichoke hearts, the rich, unexpected crunch of pine nuts and the tartness/sweetness of generous amounts of a homemade sun-dried-tomato vinaigrette.

Unfortunately, the same rosemary focaccia that works so well with the house salad all but overwhelms an otherwise satisfying turkey sandwich. The extra-lean meat, which is sliced deli thin, has plenty of interest added via a dressing of feta crumbles, Bermuda onion and cucumber well moistened with sun-dried-tomato pesto. But it's almost lost between two absolutely humongous slabs of the bread.

Other items fare better in the bread department, although, like the turkey sandwich, they're large enough to easily serve two people. The appetizer version of homemade hummus, just garlicky enough to provide a foil for the subtle taste of the ground chickpeas, is served with numerous triangles of thick, warm pita, and the combination is perfection. The ham and brie sandwich, which is served on crusty sourdough, offers an interesting clash of tastes and textures. The vaguely salty thin-sliced ham is made more interesting by just a hint of honey, and the creamy-bland richness of the melting brie is brought to life by the sharp pungence of field greens and the pleasantly acid bite of fresh-tomato vinaigrette. Served as a kind of quasi-side dish is a tiny helping of one or the other of the Palace's cold pasta salads; though the pasta did nothing to subtract from the sandwich, it didn't do much to add to it, either. If the Palace Cafe would only substitute a mini-version of the fruit plate for the pasta, this offering could be put into a bonus situation.

That Palace fruit plate, which seems to be constantly available even though it doesn't appear on some versions of the menu, is a hands-down winner. It's easily a meal in itself, and as an after-theater collation, is the perfect accompaniment for many offerings on the small but well-chosen wine list. Artistically arranged on a platter are dozens of thin, crisply sweet apple slices perfect for scooping up the nicely runny brie -- which is served in a more than generous wedge. Green and red grapes, fresh strawberries, surprising blueberries and even a whole medium-sized banana, split lengthwise, round the plate out. For a subtle treat, try a finger's length of banana with brie. The creamy textures meld perfectly, and the subtle contrast of flavors really comes through.

Unfortunately, the flavors of the entree-sized cold pastas don't -- and this is troubling. If a dish is wrongheaded in its concept, or hopelessly ill prepared, it's easy to write off. The Palace's pasta entrees cannot be written off. They're too good for that. In fact, they're just good enough to be truly aggravating. With the courage of their recipes' convictions, both the penne, served tossed in goat cheese crumbles and sherry wine vinaigrette, and the fettuccine in sun-dried-tomato pesto with slivers of black olive could be world class. But on several recent visits, they were so timidly dressed as to be virtually tasteless, and on one occasion, the feta was all but vestigial.

The same conceptual problem applies to a potentially terrific tortilla soup. Sadly, in its current incarnation, the soup accomplishes the seemingly impossible: it is simultaneously jalapeno-hot and virtually tasteless. That's a puzzlement, because the ingredients for greatness are there. The broth has hints of real chicken, the shoestrings of white Mexican cheese are properly runny, the tortillas are added late enough in the process to maintain a bit of crunch and there are even degree of difficulty points for the fresh slivers of avocado. But the hot-pepper taste is allowed to overwhelm whatever seasonings might have been used, and the cooling crispness of last-minute cilantro is missing.

Unfortunately, as the food is only prepped at the Palace -- it's actually made in the kitchens of Armando's restaurant because Armando Palacios is a "semi-silent" partner contributing in-kind services, among other things -- diners at the Palace don't have the option of requesting a side dish of cilantro or more courageously sauced pasta.

As revolutions are made by those with rising expectations, one can only hope that fans of these almost-fine dishes will soon stage a Palace coup, demanding that the kitchen live up to its potential. No guts, no glory, Palace cooks. We eagerly await the outcome.

Palace Cafe, 401 Louisiana, 222-8900.

Palace Cafe:
Palace salad, $6.25;
pasta salad (specials), $6;
turkey sandwich, $5.50;
ham and brie sandwich, $6;
cappuccino, $2.25;
desserts, $4.50.

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