"Swell," I thought to myself when I began reading in sundry publications that the Rainbow Lodge had gotten itself an interesting new chef. "Now I can go back." It had been at least a decade since I'd been there, but I harbored a residual soft spot for this quirky mock-hunting lodge in a secluded backwater along Buffalo Bayou, within hollering distance of Miss Ima Hogg's sainted Bayou Bend.
When the Rainbow opened back in l977, it was a pop hit: Houston had never seen anything quite like its rustic, Ralph-Lauren-before-Ralph-Lauren-was-cool look, replete with twisty purple-cedar banisters, taxidermy and cameo appearances by prowling raccoons. The food was never great, but it was good enough to support the Rainbow's reputation as a hot-date spot and private party venue. I remember Mike Andrews, then just a pretty young face with congressional ambitions, throwing a be-there-or-die fundraiser on the Rainbow's terrace, with its dramatic (if disquietingly muddy) bayou view.
Times changed. The Rainbow's food got worse. Gradually the trendoids dispersed into Houston's l980s restaurant boom, and the Rainbow lost its cachet. So it was canny of current owner Donnette Hansen to hire a chef raring to cook a chic, New American menu. Rusty Woodard's repertoire of game dishes and rotisserie items has spawned menu prose with all the right buzzwords. Sage- and peppercorn-rubbed duckling! Cabernet juniper-berry sauce! Peppered wild boar bacon bits! Fire-roasted pheasant! The reviews were good. Perhaps redemption was at hand.
Or perhaps not. Alas, the dishes that sound so enticing on the Rainbow's shrewdly worded menu turn out to be more marketing than substance -- too flat-tasting, or too salty, or too sweet. And way too expensive: dinner here can cost every bit as much as at Tony's or Cafe Annie, but you're paying for the rusticated atmosphere, not superior food. I suppose the Poconos-style bridal bulletin board that greets you under the Rainbow's entry pergola should have tipped me off; places that cater to wedding parties generally fall short of cuisine's cutting edge.
It's a dismal commentary on the kitchen's skills that the single best thing I encountered here was a flaky, substantial biscuit served at Sunday brunch. Out of four entrees, two appetizers and four desserts, there was only one item I'd care to eat again: the brand-conscious Orvis salmon on a bed of spinach, pan-seared so that its crust was crisp, its interior moist and curdy. Its embellishment of sweet peppers, capers, crabmeat, red onion and garlic was bright-tasting enough, if intellectually impoverished. (Why is it that restaurateurs insist on adorning every second fish with crabmeat, whether it's appropriate or not? Just asking.)
Even the salads, the Rainbow's most likable food category, suffered from a surfeit of sugar in some of the dressings. Lodge salad of pretty field greens, pungent onion sprouts, pine nuts and nicely grilled asparagus wore a warm Gorgonzola dressing in which sweet subjugated sour; its advertised wild boar bacon bits contributed little to the effect. Dressing on the spinach-and-goat-cheese salad had an intriguing bacony undertone that was thwarted, again, by sweetness. And even in the vinaigrette, which was the best of the lot, I'd swear I detected a sweet note.
The game which is at the heart of the Rainbow's latest incarnation is not, by and large, handled particularly well. I'm a venison buff, and I was appalled at the thin, dull cuts of loin grilled here: grayish and unappealing, they had a liver-y off-taste and smacked more of Bonanza than a $24-a-plate joint. At dinner, the venison was ensconced in an alleged "crispy potato pillow" that was actually a sodden, dispirited rag; the promised cabernet juniper-berry sauce had no discernible character (indeed, it was virtually invisible). Unseasoned stalks of al dente broccoli added nothing to the plate. At least there was a pleasant "ragout" of sauteed oyster mushrooms, but it was hardly enough to justify that $24 price tag.
The venison on a brunch-time mixed grill was no better -- and had the added disadvantage of inhabiting a plate flooded with sweet-hot, ketchupy grilling sauce. Wild boar sausage tasted almost solely of salt. And an accompanying dryish quail was perhaps the most alarming sight I have ever encountered on a restaurant plate: its pathetic little wings and legs splayed wide, it looked like the Spanish Inquisitioners had just taken it down from the rack. "What have I ever done to you?" the poor thing seemed to be asking me. Thank goodness there were two perfectly acceptable eggs over easy alongside, although they were as overwhelmed by the ketchupy sea as everything else.
And so it went. Duck pasta that sounded alluring (pecan-roasted bird tossed with red-pepper jalapeno noodles) proved bland and boring, its capers and tomatoes and pine nuts and baby corn notwithstanding. A "Hunter Quesadilla" appetizer of fire-roasted pheasant and duck had zero charisma -- and a $9 price tag. Shrimp crostini on garlic-bread croutons were ingratiating enough, but where was the zest that "sauteed in spicy sesame oil" seemed to promise? A wild-rice timbale tasted like something out of a box; dinner rolls with a nice flavor had an unfortunate, cottony texture.
Desserts were disappointing, too, from a blandly sweet pear sorbet that could have used a little edge, to a stiff turtle cheesecake gooped up with caramel and chocolate chips. The walnut-and-chocolate Caprice Torte was sweetly insipid. Only an attractively composed tart of sliced and chopped apples passed muster -- despite its thick, soggy crust.
I found myself wondering what my fellow diners thought of all this. On both my visits, the restaurant had a good crowd of folks who seemed to be out for a special occasion: couples dressed up for a romantic date; churchy-looking suburban foursomes; big celebratory groups. They appeared happy to be sitting in this cozy, soaring room, with its wooded bayou vistas and its idiosyncratic sportsmen's memorabilia -- fishing reels, trophy antlers, comic outboard motors dangling from the high rafters. At a snugly situated landing table, a handsome pair billed and cooed. A fire crackled in the open rotisserie, where ducks circled and circled again. Outside, patrons roamed the steeply pitched grounds, which seem to have been landscaped by sentimental hobbits.
All looked to be well in this odd little universe. But it wasn't. After we paid our $127-with-taxes-and-tip dinner bill, a friend and I wound our way out to the valet parking lot. We gazed up at the towering concrete cliff of the Bayou Bend condo that now impinges on the Rainbow's rustic idyll. We looked at each other, and, I am genuinely sorry to say, we chorused in unison the same two unrehearsed words: "Rip-off."
Rainbow Lodge, 1 Birdsall, 861-8666
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