Revamp in River Oaks

I approached Armando's sick with dread. Who hasn't heard the stories? Possessing all the warmth of a nest of tigers, it didn't suffer strangers, people told me; it was a Moloch that devoured newcomers as you or I would tapas; a thicket of symbols, all of which said Keep Your Distance. When the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse eat out, the rumor went, Armando's is at the top of their list.

The clientele left something to be desired as well. The women, I was told, twittered like canaries and spent small fortunes coloring their hair. And their partners were even worse: men with the flat expressions of recently landed fish, they put one in mind of those lizards that, before they can exert themselves, must wait for the sun to warm their blood. My instincts said, turn back. You lack the right credentials. You'll end up as so many others have: languishing in Zoroastrian darkness. But I had a job to do.

I sensed a trap the moment I entered the place. Instead of ordering us out, the hostess was charming, and insisted, since the day was cold, that we take a table by the fire. I know your game, I thought; you want me to relax, and when I do, you'll pounce. My suspicions were confirmed when our waiter introduced himself. He was charming, too. And then Magnus Hansson, Armando's new executive chef, dropped by to say hello. You've got to hand it to these people, I told my companion. They're fiendishly clever.

I was wrong, of course. Without my knowledge, the once chilly Armando's had undergone a startling transformation. Think of it as Perestroika and the Velvet Revolution rolled into one. Long trapped in a habit of ironic superiority, the restaurant embraces strangers now. The invisible Berlin Wall that, until recently, separated habitues from interlopers is gone. On my second visit to Armando's, I was treated like an old friend. The hostess provided complimentary appetizers, and we were seated by Armando himself. A signal honor, I was told later. I can't claim to know Armando, but I'd bet my last quesadilla that there's poetry in this man. Time and care have left marks upon his brow, making him look like one of Dostoyevsky's God-haunted seekers. Even the parking valet was nice to me -- by which I mean that my car was returned intact.

Some vestiges of Armando's old formality remain. We were asked, for example, not if we wanted a drink, but if we cared for a libation; and the waiters glide about in black, giving them the appearance of members of Mummenschanz. The oddly bifurcated dining room is a little unsettling, too. The central area has a fireplace and scattered rugs and a cluttered mantle that vaguely suggest a French inn. But to the right and left are two annexes -- one painted red, the other blue -- which, if they evoke anything at all, bring to mind Rodeo Drive.

A more successful merging of old and new is evident in the cuisine. Armando's describes its menu as "traditional Mexican with a contemporary twist," but this needs qualifying because, in the case of some dishes, the twist is hard to discern. The quesadillas con chili verde ($8.95), while very good, are hardly groundbreaking, and equally conservative is the chile con asadero ($6.95), a cheese dip served with tortilla chips. But the ceviche ($9.95) is cutting edge: fish -- sometimes sea bass, sometimes red snapper -- marinated in a lime-tequila vinaigrette and served with serrano chiles, onions, red, green and yellow peppers and cilantro. This is a gift from a provident God: the best ceviche I've ever tasted.

Another signature dish is the excellent pibil-style pork chop ($17.95). Mine was a tad overcooked, but it looked spectacular: Served in a deep bowl and resting on a creamy risotto, it looked for all the world like a boat in dry dock. The pork is marinated in orange juice and anchiote, the bright red seeds of the annatto tree, much prized by cooks in Yucatan. In Mexico, pibil means meat cooked in a pit. Not in Armando's, though. Here, the chop is lightly grilled before being finished in the oven.

Another standout is the pescado a la Veracruzana ($13.95): sea bass marinated in chipotle sauce and grilled in a banana leaf. So brutal and so invasive has cooking become that few fish dishes survive the process anymore. But this is one of them, for the reason that Hansson, unlike his more clamorous colleagues, knows when to leave well enough alone. It takes a robust ego to play second fiddle to a sea bass, but the self-denial pays off. This dish is exquisitely subtle. Fail to give it your full attention, and its effect will be lost on you.

Pechuga de pollo en mole poblano ($13.95) is terrific, too. An oven-roasted chicken breast, it's served on a bed of rice and topped with a chile-chocolate sauce. Much as I enjoy Mexican food, I've never warmed to mole poblano. Typically, ingredients include tomatoes, almonds, peanuts, peppercorns, cinnamon, aniseed, raisins, chocolate, garlic, cloves.... There's no end to it and, quite frankly, I've never thought the dark sludge that emerges from all of this worth the effort. It reminds me of the River Styx: dark and turgid. Hansson's version is different. Light and clean, it suggests a chausseur sauce with a chocolate accent.

Two minor disappointments: papas y chorizo ($7.95) -- an enchilada filled with potatoes and sausage -- was much too tame. Mexican chorizo should set the mouth ablaze. And hongos al ajillo ($8.50) -- grilled wild mushrooms -- were utterly bland, the promised ajillo (garlic) nowhere in evidence.

Hansson, former owner of Manna Bread Co., hails from Sweden and has worked in kitchens in many parts of the world. But as good as he is, he has his quirks. Fried cilantro is one. It crops up again and again. As do caramelized onions. And the desserts cry out for attention. The Key lime pie was leaden, and the creme brulee, a mottled affair, looked so dispirited, just looking at it made my heart sink.

My companion did claim to enjoy the Mexican chocolate mousse cake, but she hails from Holland, a country with no culinary tradition to speak of. Or hardly any. When put to it, she tells me, she can do some very clever things with tulip bulbs.

Armando's, 2300 Westheimer, 521-9757.

Eric Lawlor, the Houston Press's new restaurant critic, is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and has worked in the kitchen of New York's River Cafe. The author of three books, he's written about food for Saveur, Conde Nast Traveler, and The New York Times. In a former, less respectable life, he was the Press's Big City Beast.


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