Meat the Moose

My advice to anyone thinking of visiting the Moose Cafe is simple: go when you're feeling carnivorous. And if you decide to try one of the vegetable entrees, don't say you weren't warned. While the Moose obviously knows meat, it has some things to learn when it comes to items that grow out of the ground. Indeed, it's hard to believe that all the dishes I sampled at this restaurant issued forth from the same kitchen. How, I wonder, can such satisfying beef, pork, chicken and fish selections be prepared by the same hands that produce such consistently bland, or even downright inedible, non-meat offerings?

The answer might be as simple as the fact that the Moose Cafe's admitted raison d'etre is to emphasize the slow-smoking techniques of the Pacific Northwest. Owner Bill Sadler, who also owns Cafe Noche, opened the Moose Cafe because he wanted to introduce Texans to the Pacific Northwest's equivalent of barbecue. The main difference, he explains, is in the meat: in his beloved Pacific Northwest (Sadler's from Texas, but spends time every summer in the wilds of Washington state and British Columbia), the smoke-pit crews start with a better cut of it. Where we Texans routinely slow cook a piece of shoe leather for eight hours so that it becomes an exquisite slab of barbecued brisket, those Washingtonians and Canadians need smoke their prime Angus steak or tender salmon fillet for only about 90 minutes. For his new restaurant, Sadler fleshed out this Seattle-style barbecue menu with some Gulf Coast basics, some nouveau health food selections, a few trend-conscious salads and pasta combos and a couple of Tex-Mex elements. The concept -- that of introducing Houston to another region's methods with meat while mixing in the best of our own territorial influences -- no doubt sounded like a good one. But the result of such a broad menu is, in a number of cases, dicey execution. Perhaps it would have been better had Sadler simply stuck with the smoking, and not worried about being all things to all people.

The first time I walked into the Moose Cafe, I had high hopes for what I'd find. Sadler, who eschewed hiring an architect for the building, has done right by his vision of a rural diner that's been a bit citified. The single large dining area, the bare cement floor washed in a soothing hue of green and the wooden tables and chairs all result in a surprisingly quiet dining experience. In the next room there's a smoking section cum bar, from which seeps a pleasantly raucous party atmosphere. Pick your ambiance; either area provides a relaxed atmosphere in which you can chill at lunch after a morning of grappling over the bottom line, you'll be comfortable for an early supper, or you and your barhopping buddies can fit in before an evening of carousing. If, that is, you order judiciously. Otherwise, you're likely to find yourself picking listlessly at what's on your plate, trying to fill up on bites of the complimentary, can't-keep-your-hands-off-of-it sourdough bread. (Sadler says the same sourdough starter has been in his family for an astonishing 130 years.)

The best way to get your meal off on the right foot is by starting with the quail roulades appetizer. These lusciously oily little pinwheels of game meat are wrapped in bacon and served with adobo sauce, the taste of which is best described as Tex-Mex barbecue sauce. Another sure thing is the seafood gumbo, which reveals its Gulf Coast origins through and through. Plenty of shrimp and vegetables swim in the broth, whose heady bouquet you can capture by dunking a bite of sourdough bread into it. The brawny gumbo flavor will hit your palate before the soup even reaches your tongue. If a good gumbo should be bracing and slightly unpolished -- and it should -- then this is righteous perfection. The Seattle soup, on the other hand, was merely a wimpy sibling of the gumbo. While it's supposed to be made from a clear vegetable stock, what I sampled was brown and heavy and smacked of gumbo file. The croutons sprinkled on top tasted stale, and other than some chewy mushrooms, the vegetables didn't interest me enough to bother identifying them.

The Seattle soup was my first clue that the Moose can get badly lost when it strays from the meaty path. Not that all its vegetable offerings fail; I did find two noteworthy meatless appetizers: the pecan smoked tomato and spinach dip and the spinach quesadillas. The dip was creamy, sweet and smoky. My whole table commented favorably on the unusually thick brown triangles of unsalted corn tortilla chips that accompanied the properly stringy stuff. The quesadilla filling, while lacking the insistent smokiness of the spinach dip, nonetheless found distinction in its purer spinach flavor.

The smoked trout pasta salad, however, was an odd coalition. The persistent garlic afterburn of the pasta with pine nuts and kalamata olives had found its groove, but what were those strips of tough, salty smoked trout doing sitting on top, looking as out of place as any wallflower and tasting even more alien? The broccoli and garlic pasta was even less successful, being dry and boring (a companion described it as "a bowl of starch"). It became only slightly more interesting once the nubbins of fresh garlic at the very bottom of the bowl were finally unearthed.

Moose Cafe offers two sampler platters -- a mixed seafood grill and a mixed grill of meats -- that showcase the best of the restaurant's offerings, while at the same time confirming that, after playing with various woods, Sadler and his staff have found the optimum source of smoke for each cut of meat. Apple wood flavors the pork dishes; pecan adds to the chicken; hickory infuses beef and game; and mild alderwood, more common in the Pacific Northwest than in Texas, cooks the fish.

The meat platter, in addition to a few rounds of the exquisite quail roulades, served up saucy baby back ribs whose meat, instead of the all-too-typical tough fate of pork-rib meat, was falling off its bones; a venison medallion which, other than being too salty, was juicy and musky; and a mouthwatering portion of prime Angus filet, cooked perfectly medium rare. The seafood mix presented a delightful rosemary skewerful of barbecued shrimp, a brightly white-wined salmon cake, a handful of assertively smoked crab fingers and a fish of the day -- in my case, a buttery, citrusy grilled snapper with baby shrimp.

These mixed plates, while an intriguing introduction, are also frustrating in a way. Just when your mouth is set for more of something, it's gone. This jack-of-all-trades smattering of a promising few ounces of this and a tempting few bites of that left me with mere impressions of what I'd been eating. Fortunately, I had a chance to try the grilled snapper with baby shrimp as a full-sized entree: its browned sauce was piquant with citrus, and the meat of both the snapper and the shellfish was perfectly fresh and yielding. In this case, less was not more; more was more.

A warning: if you're in a hurry, warn your server when you first sit down. Service here can be slow. And speaking of service that needs a jump-start, I wondered why my waiter didn't inquire as to why I had taken only two bites from my helping of the weird-sounding, and worse-tasting, green chili sandwich. The promised tomatoes were missing from my sandwich, though I don't know if their presence could have made up for the incompatibility of the cheese, dressing (was it mayo?) and sauteed green chiles. What a diabolical combo to inflict on that innocently virtuous sourdough bread.

Another warning: even if you are in a hurry, don't skip dessert. The presentation of most of the selections is fun without being precious: the cafe mousse, a frozen hazelnut goody, comes topped with its own set of antlers, while the carrot cake's requisite cream cheese frosting comes in a white chocolate wheelbarrow alongside the triangle of cake. Biting into the springy (in texture) and spring-like (in taste) confection, I was reminded of a fresh produce market -- an odd association, given I was eating dessert, but also an agreeable one. And where the chocolate creme brule, served in a coffee mug, disappointed in its lack of a crust of burnt sugar, the heavily liquored bread pudding made up for the loss with its warm, rich gooeyness.

Because of its location in the chic-and-becoming-more-chic corridor between River Oaks and Montrose, because of its friendly feel and, most of all, because of its ambitious goal of introducing a new culinary influence into Houston's restaurant landscape, I'm rooting for the Moose Cafe. I trust Sadler will find a way to deal with his vegetable woes, either by getting the selections right or getting them gone. Regardless, next time back, I plan to stick with the meat. There are items from those sampler plates I still crave enlarged portions of.

The Moose Cafe, 1340 West Gray, 520-9696.

The Moose Cafe: quail roulades, $5.95; mixed seafood grill, $16.95; mixed [meat] grill, $16.95; broccoli and garlic pasta, $7.95.

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