Pub Grub? No Flub

It is gratifying to report that in the battle of the brewpubs now raging along Richmond Avenue's party strip, the home-team entry shows signs of being a winner. The Houston Brewery may not possess the deep corporate pockets of the Rock Bottom Brewery -- its sprawling, Denver-based, publicly traded rival just down the street -- but what it can boast is a handsome new brick building upon which bucks have been lavished, one hell of a bitter and some wonderfully satisfying food that makes a certain harmonic sense with the house-made brews. It's even -- dare I say it on an avenue where the desired ambiance combines Mardi Gras with Guernica? -- civilized enough for grownups.

You could love the Houston Brewery for its speckled pink-and-black marble bar alone; a massive, sensuous sweep of cool stone, it practically begs you to prop your elbows upon it. This is an inviting place to perch on a weekend afternoon, sipping from a thick tumbler of brewmaster Tim Case's wildly hoppy special bitter, neither too frothy nor too cool -- an amber-hued ticket straight to the rural England of your imagination. But one bite of consulting chef Kathy Ruiz's graceful, buttermilk-battered zucchini chips plants you squarely in contemporary Texas, where, thank God, the fine Southern art of frying still lives in isolated pockets.

Anyone who remembers Ruiz's zucchini sticks from her late, lamented Kathy's restaurant will recognize these particular fried objects: light, softly crunchy, vibrant with lemon pepper and sharp Parmesan, impossible to stop eating. They're testimony to how smart owner Matt McKinley and his colleagues from the funky, nearby Richmond Arms were to recruit Ruiz as menu guru for their brave new project; already, the food that chef Joel St. John turns out on the Ruiz program seems good enough to attract a following of its own. You could sell a lot of beer on the basis of those zucchini chips -- or the skinny little onion strings presented in a high mountain that tends to be whittled down to ground level at alarming speed.

These are precisely the kinds of dishes you want from a spot devoted to casual beer-drinking as well as serious, sit-down dining. And there's more: the whole-wheat quesadillas, layered with rotisserie chicken and an airy blend of cheeses, can hold their own in a town where the competition is fierce (think Q Cafe, Mesa, et al.); an ingratiating mango pico de gallo, the menu must-have of the moment, doesn't hurt a bit. Roasted poblano peppers stuffed with a luxuriant mix of cream cheese, sausage, raisins and pecans are worth the guilt.

Okay, so the bland Gulf Coast shrimp dip can't hold a candle to the sublime Jamail's version of yore; experiment instead with the vastly more interesting (and vastly more weird) Cajun crawfish egg roll. A friendly guy parked at the bar offered me a bite of his; I'm still trying to figure out what I thought of it. I know I coveted his towering salad of pecan-smoked salmon and fancy greens, though; it was more beautiful than a salad has any right to be.

It behooves a self-respecting brewpub to serve a bang-up pizza, and the Houston brewery does. The deceptively ordinary-sounding vegetarian version jumps with fresh, lively flavors on a crisp, thinnish crust; its judiciously applied tomato-basil pesto strikes just the right balance with a garden of multicolored peppers, onions, mushrooms and artichoke hearts. Rotisserie duck pizza, anyone? Or calamari, crawfish tails, feta and oven-dried tomatoes? In most places I'd be leery; here, I'd take the gamble.

All of these dishes are the sort that can be grazed upon at the bar or dawdled over in the soaring dining room -- a space that seems rather chill and glary by day, but softens and warms at night, when the WPA-style mural that fills one wall takes on a glamorous glow. The carpeting may be unlovely, and less chic than the bar's industrial-age flooring, but it means that you can have a dinner-table conversation without shouting. I could grow to love that rug.

What to dine on in such heroic surroundings? This is one place where you can order a robust sausage platter without fear of terminal boredom. Bruce Aidells' boutique sausages (particularly the exhilarating Thai-chicken version laced with cilantro) taste subtly of the beer they're simmered in before grilling, and Ruiz's interestingly composed mustards, shot through with herbs or oranges and pecans, give them a good, swift kick. A sweet pineapple-onion relish that comes with the sausages is better -- and less precious -- than it sounds. Add some red cabbage, a simple salad of potatoes vinaigrette and the odd grilled vegetable or two, and you have a deeply pleasurable plate of food that's just right for the season.

The other must-order on this menu is chili-rubbed salmon: quickly grilled, marginally carbonaceous, its chile heat set vividly against a bright, tart vinaigrette made with passion fruit and peppercorns. (My trendometer started screaming when I saw the phrase "warm passion-fruit vinaigrette" on the menu; happily, it was a false alarm.) Ruiz has been fooling around with tropical fruits lately, since her new husband, the former La Mer chef Arturo Boada, imports them from South and Central America; if this salmon is any indication, she's onto something.

For those who want comfort food, the rotisserie chicken with sturdy garlic mashed potatoes is simple and good; its golden India Pale Ale sauce is a noble try at linking food and brew together, but it seems too laid back for its own good. Nice, yes. But I wanted it to be ... arresting.

Same goes for Ruiz's signature torn-chicken pasta, which tasted oddly flat despite all its appealing ingredients: roasted peppers, corn, scallions, jack cheese and springy, corn-flavored noodles somehow added up to less than the sum of their parts. A little goosing (lime? a hint of chile?) could transform this dish. I'm less optimistic about one night's special of slightly too-cooked flounder stuffed with spicy, bready crab meat; it was hardly a disaster, but it was no competition for that chili-rubbed salmon.

I regret to say that the plates here are decorated with those annoying vegetable and herb confettis that make me want to say "take this back to the kitchen and wipe it clean!" And that somebody keeps forgetting to send the advertised sourdough bread out of the kitchen (it would come in mighty handy with those sausages). And that the desserts, alas, display the moribund look endemic to dessert trays throughout the land; why restaurants continue to regard these sugary wax museums as marketing tools is beyond me. Ruiz's banana shortcake and innocent, chocolate-sauce brownie confections surely deserve better. Let me read about them on the menu rather than look upon their poor, dead corpses.

Better yet, just give me some of those fried zucchini chips for dessert. And a tiny glass of stout.

The Houston Brewery, 6224 Richmond Avenue, 953-0101.


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