New and with an attitude can be a dangerous combination for a restaurant. But there's an underlying good nature to the Ohio Grange Cafe's experiments with down-home ingredients cooked with an uptown flair that makes the occasional miscalculations forgivable. Midwestern country cooking that's strapped on its guns and gone to town is pretty much what the Ohio Grange is about, and a county fair bake-off winner would be hard-pressed to match the surety of this new eatery from Empire Cafe founders Smoot Hull and Patrick Markey. Two months after opening, the waiters were boasting unabashedly of the Temple Emanu El Chicken Soup Cook-off trophy displayed by the door. It looks like they left quite a bit of room around that lonely little chicken statuette; maybe they're expecting company.
They could well get it. If I had any questions on that point, they were put to rest with my first whiff of the perfume heralding the arrival of a rosemary spit-fired half chicken. Here is welcome refutation of the buffalo-wing conceit that spicy chicken has to mean fiery hot; the Ohio Grange's down-to-the-bone rosemary bouquet is a spice infusion that embraces without intimidating -- although the size of the half-chicken serving, like the other entrees I sampled, might intimidate those not familiar with the eat-large country hospitality tradition at the center of this restaurant's concept. (Grange halls, in their day, were the rural equivalent of modern multiservice community centers, and a Saturday night at the grange meant neighbors for miles around would share a sumptuous potluck before hoedowning until the roosters crowed.)
In the best Sunday family-dinner style, the Ohio Grange's aggressive take on rotisserie chicken is served with vegetables and baked macaroni and cheese. Very few families, however, went to this much effort making side dishes for a Sunday meal. Macaroni and cheese isn't normally a dish the first bite of which inspires a groan of pleasure, or enthusiastic subsequent shoveling in, but here's proof, rich and fortified with buttermilk, that dismissing macaroni and cheese as toddler's fare is a serious error, one made at your own expense.
The spit-fired chicken also appears atop a substantial grilled chicken salad that's innocently described as "a bed of farm greens"; these are actually mixed, and frequently exotic, broadleaf lettuces grown by local organic gardeners. Here is a salad fit to be lunch for someone who'll be spending the afternoon grinding gears on the Deere while clearing the back 40; the creamy rosemary and garlic olive-oil dressing is as unapologetically robust as the deboned chicken it so enthusiastically complements, and the orange segments and pickled red onions arrayed around the edge of the plate make possible a multitude of combinations of flavors that entertain until you're staring at an empty plate and marveling at the audacity of a salad that's actually a filling meal.
The harvest vegetables that accompany most of the main dishes vary from day to day, but hold to a general concept that fresh vegetables lightly cooked -- and grilled whenever possible -- are rich enough in flavor to require little in the way of seasoning. A serving of squash, zucchini and asparagus spears with slices -- rather, chunks -- of red and yellow bell pepper required several bites to convince me that what had seemed to be a light, delightful honey glaze was in fact the sweet juice of the peppers themselves that had been brought to the surface while the vegetables were being quickly grilled; the effect of this sweet, natural coating on crisp, fresh, slightly smoky asparagus spears set the standard by which I will judge asparagus in the future.
This squash, asparagus and pepper melange proved a colorful counterpoint to a generously sliced meat loaf whose extravagant spicing somehow seemed Cajun one bite and Italian the next, a variety made all the more interesting by the addition of a small bowl of the Ohio Grange's defiantly retro chunky homemade ketchup. Attention to such minuscule details as resurrecting fresh, spicy ketchup underscores the seriousness behind the cheek of the restaurant's "50 Years Behind the Times" motto. The mashed potatoes that also accompanied the meat loaf displayed an equally archaic, and refreshing, defiance of current convention. Something was lost when instant mashed potatoes became acceptable in polite society and we embraced the notion that lumps are undesirable. Like the meat loaf it accompanies, the only concession these mashed potatoes make to modern sensibilities is exuberant use of fresh spices.
Presentation is a major element of the Ohio Grange's appeal; the tri-county chicken pot pie in particular is almost -- but not quite -- too pretty to eat. An elegant, restrained stew of chicken, vegetables and mushrooms lurks in a deep-walled stoneware bowl beneath a sage crust that's adorned with a pie crust cutout of a chicken. It seems a shame, at least for an instant, to stick a fork into such cuteness -- but then the aroma overwhelms the visual appeal, and the damage to the crust is quickly done. While the filling reflects more restraint in spicing than most of the Grange's entrees -- the traditional spice for chicken pot pie is, after all, black pepper applied by the diner, and chef Michael Frietsch has opted for tradition in this rare exception to his usual inventiveness -- the flaky sage crust is something you'd expect from a delightfully eccentric great-aunt who grew her own herbs. Indeed, there's little to fault with anything breadish baked in this kitchen. Sample the various offerings of the napkin-wrapped bread bowl and decide for yourself whether the biscuits or corn muffins best complement your chosen entree. If the biscuits make you yearn for sausage gravy and the addition of a breakfast shift at the Grange, you're obviously a product of the heartland heritage that inspired this menu.
The second hardest thing about dining at the Ohio Grange is saving room for dessert. But it's worth the effort. Fruit-pie fans have to try the dried cherry and apple; I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to discover that this cinnamon-reliant recipe crossed the Great Plains in a Conestoga wagon. It's a remarkably solid pastry whose tart cherries clash pleasantly with the apples, and it's served best -- as a good Texas fruit pie should be -- à la mode with Blue Bell vanilla. Dessert, I discovered, is one part of the meal at the Ohio Grange that it's a mistake to encourage a companion to taste. A friend tried a nibble of my cherry-apple pie while halfway through her ridiculously hedonistic chocolate cloud cake and announced that the fruity concoction tasted just like fudge. For a short while, my ridiculously hedonistic companion enjoyed the idea that perhaps henceforth everything she ate would taste like fudge, but a few days later she reported with regret that her taste buds had recovered from that fluffy excess of chocolate.
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The hardest thing about dining at the Ohio Grange has nothing to do with the kitchen and everything to do with the parking lot. The parking in back of the recently constructed mini-center at Westheimer and Hazard is, in a word, awful. If you haven't dinged the doors on your new Viper yet, you might consider making the valet parker's day instead of trying to wedge the beast into one of these narrow spaces. In a perfect world, the Ohio Grange would be off a two-lane country road in a place where the parking was under an expansive grove of pecan trees. In this less-than-perfect world, the Grange is on a bit of (fairly expensive) country near the heart of Montrose.
But parking aside, the restaurant has considerable appeal, something underlined by a couple of quotes that make the same point from completely different directions. Co-owner Smoot Hull, when asked to define the Ohio Grange's overall concept, thought for a moment and said he wanted to "take people back to a simpler, kinder, more humane approach to dining." Or, as my ridiculously hedonistic dining companion remarked somewhere between the spit-fired chicken and the cloud cake, "This place rocks, dude."
Ohio Grange Cafe, 1915 Westheimer, 529-9500.
Ohio Grange Cafe:
rosemary spit-fired half chicken, $10.95; tri-county chicken pot pie, $9.95; harvester's meat loaf, $10.95; grilled chicken salad, $8.95; dried cherry and apple pie, $4.75; chocolate cloud cake, $4.75.