Hot Plate

Prix Fixe-er Upper
Ah, the magic of August. When restaurants that could scarcely deign to book you a table back in the spring are eager for your business. When fashion-plate hostesses and gimlet-eyed matre d's suddenly seem less inclined to look down their noses at your scuffed shoes. When the voice on the phone at Cafe Annie exclaims "Yes!" before you've finished asking if a table can be had for lunch two hours hence.

No wonder they want you: at 12:30 on a Friday, the high-and-mighty dining room of what is arguably the best restaurant in town lies hushed and three-quarters empty. The air conditioning system pours gloriously cold air into the void. You could get used to this. Under the soft lights, amid the burnished woods and white linens, Cafe Annie feels like your own private preserve, a cool, dim and luxurious cave in which to hibernate for the rest of the summer.

The menu arrives -- eventually. Just because all the posh regulars are off in Aspen or the south of France or some place equally annoying, don't think the service will revolve around you and only you. But what's this? Damned if these prices don't look almost....well, reasonable. And this three-course prix fixe lunch for 16 bucks, a summer promotion that allows you to choose among attractive options off the regular menu, qualifies as a deal.

Uh-oh. These first courses from the prix fixe list aren't so hot: the seafood gumbo, wearing a corn-muffin hat, is stocked with very fishy fish, and the best thing it has going for it is an odd garnish of pico de gallo; the Lazzari salad, which sounds so appealing with its farmer's cheese and capers, fails to exceed the sum of its parts.

But then the entrees appear, and they are so spectacular that all is forgiven. Rainbow trout is perfectly cooked, perfectly moist, its train of roasted tomato and woodsy mushrooms infused with a lovely smokiness. Twin slices of rare beef tenderloin on a bed of opulently creamy grits is a brilliant idea, thanks to a suave pasilla chile sauce and tendrils of crisped onion. The beef is as tender as butter. Why have I stayed away so long?

I ask myself that question all the way through the house-made coffee ice cream, with its bottom layer of bittersweet, sublimely sticky chocolate and its subtle cinnamon sauce. Yes, the cinnamon sopapilla twists resemble cardboard. No, I don't care. I like the gentle, golden watermelon sorbet, too, and the soulful cookies -- one deep chocolate, one essence of almond -- that come with it. It's pushing three o'clock by now, and diners are still straggling in: a stylish young Euro-couple, an octet dressed as if they've come from a society funeral. No one is in a hurry. It's Friday. It's 97 degrees outside. If I'd thought to bring my laptop along, I'd stay right through to dinner.

-- Alison Cook

Cafe Annie, 1728 Post Oak Blvd., 840-1111


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