Location Be Damned
The legend of 1512 West Alabama has developed like a spellbinding gothic novel, beginning with a few blessedly naive souls who refused to believe in the "curse" and progressing through a series of "grisly discoveries" that have forced the entire town to come to grips with the mysterious, ominous powers of the Montrose address. "I'll tell you what," a true believer will say in a quavery voice, shaking his cane in the general direction of any restaurant that dares to open at that location, "The place is haunted. It's a doomed location I tell you, dooooomed!"
While it's undeniably true that restaurants have opened and closed at the address with alarming rapidity -- the Museum Restaurant and Bar, Jenny's Hideaway and Rio de Janeiro South American Grill, among others (see Dish, "Waiting for the Fall," June 1) -- and while it's equally true that I have never lived in a city that didn't have at least one of these so-called cursed locations, I can't help but believe a quality restaurant can overcome any possible voodoo spell cast in its general direction. To put it another way, if the food is good, they will come.
And at Michaeline's on West Alabama, the food is good -- really good. Executive chef John A. Salazar, who honed his skills under Carl Walker at Brennan's Houston, has put together an enticing menu of New American cuisine, loaded with Southern, New Orleans, Asian and Southwestern influences.
Seafood is obviously Salazar's strong suit, as evidenced by the appetizers, all of which feature water-bound creatures of one kind or another. With the dog days of summer weighing heavily upon us, I can't recommend the avocado charred snapper more highly. When I first saw this on the menu, I was puzzled, imaging some sort of bizarre fish coated with avocado and burned. But that didn't make any sense. What was presented made perfect sense: Cool slices of avocado were molded to form a cup, which enclosed moist chunks of charred snapper bound with a horseradish mayonnaise, flavored with a fresh crunchy corn relish and garnished with large flavorful tiger shrimp. "Wonderful" did not begin to describe my feelings toward this plate.
The smoked salmon napoleon was equally adventurous and tasty. A creamy crabmeat filling was sandwiched between pretty pale slices of Norwegian salmon, which did an admirable job of replacing the napoleon's traditional pastry leaves. A ginger-basil dressing topped off the creation, along with crunchy roasted pecans, giving the French-named dish a little Southern charm.
I was less enchanted with the fried gulf oysters, despite their professed Southern pedigree. The beurre blanc sauce and red-pepper puree were lovely, as was the fried leek garnish, but the oysters were a bit too greasy, the crust a bit too soggy, to call the dish a success.
Chef Salazar redeemed himself -- and won my everlasting devotion -- with his soups. There are always three available: a smoked corn and charred snapper chowder, a turtle soup and a soup of the day (it was a roasted jalapeño potato soup on my visit). For the indecisive, Salazar does what I wish a lot of other chefs would do: He offers a soup sampler, a demitasse of each of the three soups for $5.25. As each of the soups made its way around the table, I struggled to select a favorite. I loved the smooth, dense flavors of the chowder, the spicy richness (splashed with just enough sherry) of the turtle soup, and the homey goodness of the jalapeño potato. How to decide? Rather than re-enacting the Judgment of Paris -- who needs an army knocking at his door at all hours? -- I'll just say they were all splendid specimens of the soup art and let it go at that.
As for the entrées, the West Texas pheasant, while perhaps not measuring up to the Olympian standards of Cafe Annie's pheasant, was pretty darn delicious in its own right. Beautifully rare and tender, this bird was served with a -- get this -- oven-dried tomato basil chardonnay lemon butter sauce. That the concoction didn't live up to its lofty description and tasted mainly like lemon butter was almost beside the point. The point here was the delightfully crunchy pheasant spring roll that stood out of the dish like a culinary version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Incidentally, we should note that Salazar seems fond of vertically inclined food; he's also a big fan of corn, tossing it about the plate the way other chefs use parsley.)
I also enjoyed the grilled mahimahi served with a luxuriously rich cream corn sauce and accompanied by a tower (of course) of thin, spicy onion rings. The pork scallopine crabmeat with its roasted garlic and caper sauce was good, if ordinary compared to the other treats available. But its accompanying chorizo potato hash was extraordinarily good -- so good, in fact, that it nearly overshadowed the pork.
There was nothing ordinary, however, about any of the desserts. Salazar's tenure at Brennan's apparently served him well. His bananas Foster -- a treat, incidentally, created at the Brennan's in New Orleans in the '50s -- ranked among the best I've sampled, highlighted by exceptionally firm fruit, and the bread pudding was graced with a sublimely rich whiskey sauce. My favorite, though, was the chocolate banana cake, a moist, tender creation with an ideal balance of the two flavors. The dessert was not particularly elegant or ostentatious, but that was okay by me; sometimes homey is just what I'm looking for in a dessert. (A cold glass of milk would have gone perfectly with it.)
Wonderful food, particularly when combined with considerate service (I was even asked if the music on the sound system was to my liking) and a comfortable atmosphere, should be sufficient to lift any location curse, no matter how powerful. If not, well, I know a good voodoo priestess in New Orleans.
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