Nowhere is the old real estate adage about "location, location, location" more important than in the world of restaurants. Pick the wrong site for your bistro, and you could well be doomed, no matter how good your food may be.
So when Regine's opened last November in a building on Woodway that had swallowed a series of cafes -- Woodway Grill, Jack's, Bono's ... the list stretches all the way back to Chez's in the early '80s -- one had to ponder whether it could withstand the strong pull of this Bermuda Triangle of eateries. So far, Regine's appears to be resisting, aided by a few considerable pluses. First, there's the decor: The interior design, inspired by the legendary Regine's in Paris, has captured the golden age of Art Deco. The restaurant itself takes up only a small portion of the space; filling out the rest is a cigar bar, in which happy-hour hors d'oeuvres such as smoked salmon, smoked venison and duck are served, and a ballroom/disco. Mercifully, the dance floor -- which comes alive only late in the evening -- is safely tucked behind glass doors, so it's possible to enjoy a subdued dinner without having to compete with an 18-piece orchestra playing big band tunes (the apparent audience being both the sixtysomethings who remember this music when it was fresh and the younger fans of the lounge revival). The dining room has a very intimate feel. A royal blue ceiling with gold stars dominates; vintage posters and Matisse-inspired carpets and fabrics soften the look considerably. Fourteen round, cherry-wood tables -- a little too close to each other for private conversation, but great for eavesdropping -- are bare save for white napkins rolled and tied together with a tasseled gold ribbon and a lone flower that sits in an elegant vase. A banquette curves gracefully against one wall, though it's a little low for the tables, unless you happen to be a professional basketball player.
Add to this visual the food, which, under the leadership of Chef Hays Buttry, a recent graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who was whisked away from La Colombe D'Or, is uncompromising in its quality. The service, however, is definitely a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's elegant and not pushy; napkins are quietly refolded every time you leave your table, cutlery refreshed after each course; fine wine is carefully decanted and expertly poured. On the other hand, no waiter worth his salt should ever have to ask, "Who had the fillet?" or worse yet, serve a completely wrong dish (on one occasion, my hot alpine salmon entree was brought to the table as the cold salmon appetizer). Another time, a companion who ordered a Coke complained because the syrup/soda mixture was off; it was quickly replaced with another, which unfortunately was equally bad. Another faux pas occurred during a lunch, when a waiter brought the dessert tray to the table because I'd finished my main course, even though the other person I was with hadn't. Such minutiae may seem insignificant in some cases, but when you're aspiring to the elegant, such things matter. One problem may be the horde of servers. While six or seven tuxedoed waiters all lined up against one wall waiting to prance yields an excellent waiter/guest ratio, it can also make for a comedy of errors if not perfectly orchestrated. Having to explain to a series of waiters in succession what you want doesn't add to the ambiance.
Fortunately, the food more than makes up for these shortcomings. Many of the dishes are spectacularly sensual, and the wine list, like the menu, is short but effective. It's too bad that the least expensive wine costs $25 a bottle, but then again, Regine's is the kind of place where if you have to ask the price, you probably don't belong. This is not a restaurant for the light of funds. But if you're in the mood to splurge, then this is the spot. You could start out with the $375 magnum of Dom Perignon to wash down your $52 beluga caviar, have a $150 bottle of 1994 Batard-Montrachet wine with your entree, then round off the meal with a sip from a $110 snifter of 1953 Hine cognac and a puff on a $150 1958 Romeo & Julieto cigar. If this doesn't get the old mating instincts stirring, nothing will.
Admittedly, not everything in Regine's is quite so pricey, and also admittedly, the owners just lowered the menu prices to attract a broader crowd. But nobody's going to mistake Regine's for a budget eatery, which is just as well, since the offerings are easily as rich as the best-heeled of the clientele.
Available only at lunch is the luscious garlic-roasted portobello mushroom, a large, warm fungus carefully sliced and fanned out on top of a tomato eggplant caponata. This is drizzled with a garlic sauce that takes the dish well over the gustatory top. Similarly memorable is the taco shimi, which is a shining example of the fusion cooking that pervades Regine's menu. The taco shimi combines a Mexican taco, an American/Japanese preparation of tuna and Chinese red cabbage. A small tuna steak, encrusted with black peppercorns, is quickly seared over the grill (American) and remains pinkly raw inside (Japanese sashimi). It's served in two crisp won ton tacos and topped with a small mound of sweet and tart Chinese red cabbage and a delicious, creamy mushroom sauce. The rainbow of colors -- purple, white, green, pink and gray -- is ably matched by the rainbow of tastes.
Another great tuna dish is the grilled tuna sandwich. No dieter's special or canned pink stuff here. Instead, you get a thick tuna steak, this time gently seared but cooked all the way through, on an extraordinary black sesame/poppy seed bun and served with lettuce, tomato and onion on the side for a quick do-it-yourself fix. The soft, airy bun is easily five inches in diameter and almost as tall. Instead of ketchup and mayo, a mildly spicy wasabi/mayo that complements the tuna well serves as the spread. Another lunch standout is the linguini ogliolo (and if you want it, you'll have to get it at lunch, since that's the only time pasta dishes are served). It arrives in a large, wide-rimmed bowl in which a thin breast of grilled chicken, cut into small chunks, fresh, diced tomatoes and a liberal amount of garlic are mixed with the linguini. The garlic is perhaps too much for anyone on a business power lunch, but if you don't have to breathe on anyone afterward, it's worth it.
Lunch is done with flair, but the true elegance is saved for dinner. When the main courses are served at the evening meal, each plate appears covered by a silver, domed lid that's ceremoniously removed at precisely the right time, giving the diners plenty of opportunity to ooh and aah appropriately. The baby field green salad is refreshing in its simplicity, yet like Regine's other dishes is expertly executed. Instead of just appearing on a plate, the multicolored mound of greens is molded into shape, each leaf perfectly coated with a sweet balsamic vinegar dressing. A long ribbon of carrot decorates the top. The snapper Regine en croute is indeed a signature dish. A six- by four-inch flaky puff pastry pocket is filled with a generous fillet of red snapper that's covered with lump crab meat, artichokes and wild mushrooms. A lemon-butter sauce keeps everything wonderfully moist. Another delectable fish dish is the alpine salmon, a two-inch slice of salmon topped with avocado and a sweet onion-tomato relish. A creamy ginger-seasoned butter gives just a hint of Oriental flavoring. Won ton potatoes, so called because they're mashed, then rolled up and fried to look like a taquito, are excellent on the side. It is apparent in every dish sampled that not only the freshest ingredients are used, but the best quality as well.
The desserts are all handcrafted on the premises, but for such an establishment they are surprisingly unimaginative. There are some spectacular desserts, but there are also some mediocre ones such as the pecan pie, which instead of being gooey and syrupy inside, as a pecan pie should be, is solid, thick and uninspiring. A pair of desserts worth trying are the cheesecake and the apple pie. The cheesecake, drizzled with a delectably sweet raspberry sauce, is particularly light and airy rather than being the thick, dense sort that sticks unpleasantly to the roof of your mouth. A generous triangular portion of the apple pie, easily four inches tall, is served a la mode. Layer upon layer of thin apple slices with a gentle cinnamon flavor are completely encrusted in a thin pastry shell. The pastry shell is a little dry, but it does a good job of carrying the filling.
These are the sorts of dishes that can make you forget little irritants such as a menu that could use an international version of Spellcheck (I counted eight glaring spelling errors on the lunch menu and six on the dinner menu) or the attentiveness that sometimes causes more irritation than pleasure. One case in point is the valet parking, which is nice to have, but not nice to be forced into. Though at lunch you're not obliged to valet park, at night Regine's effectively blocks off all other entrances, forcing you into the valet lane. When I inquired where I could find the self-parking, I was coolly directed to the parking lot of a bank a good block away. I was also given the one-eye-up-and-down treatment, a look that quietly questioned whether I was in the right place. A friend who joined me for lunch was asked whether he would like his car washed. Fortunately, he replied that he liked it dirty.
Obviously, Regine's is trying hard to be the best in its class. And with a little more attention to detail, the service may eventually catch up to the cuisine.
Regine's, 5055 Woodway, 840-1115.
Regine's: garlic- roasted portobello mushroom, $6; taco shimi, $7 lunch, $10 dinner; grilled tuna sandwich, $7; linguini ogliolo, $9; baby field green salad, $5; snapper Regine en croute, $19; alpine salmon, $17; cheesecake, $5; apple pie, $5.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.