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Zula: While your mouth hangs open in awe at the torchère lamps, you might as well stuff some of chef Lance Fegen's fine food in it.
Troy Fields

Even if the menu offered nothing of substance, it would be worth a visit to Zula just to look at the place. When it opened in the historic St. Germain building last October, the two-story dining room and loft impressed diners with its art deco/retro design that accentuated the details of the early-20th-century department store. Its sleek palette of silver and gray, complemented with mirrors, served as a sophisticated backdrop to contemporary furnishings upholstered in shimmery chartreuse, plum, gold and claret red. It was a fitting scene for the throngs of beautiful people packing the place at night, but it lacked an anchor design element.

But now Zula has unveiled its long-awaited 30-foot torchère lamps that line the long dining room, throwing off flashes of neon from their bases. The whimsical geometric lamps, which one diner compared to the fixtures at New York's Le Cirque and another to hat pins, demand the attention that might otherwise be focused on your dinner companion or your food. While your mouth is hanging open in awe, however, you might as well stuff it with some of the menu's equally dazzling offerings.

At lunch or dinner, small plates are worthy previews of the coming attractions. Some mussel aficionados call Zula's Portuguese-style version the best in town. I don't know that I would go that far, but they're damn good, punched up with linguiça sausage, garlic and tomatoes, and roasted in white wine that makes a tantalizing dipping broth. The "Packed with Crab" cakes are also good -- no, make that great -- with such bulking chunks of crabmeat that you would swear they were pieces of thick white fish. Without an abundance of breading, the cakes are delicately seasoned for a lighter approach to the Latin-inspired samples on the market these days. A garlicky horseradish dressing makes up for it and leaves you wanting more. Which brings to mind a small gripe: The menu says "cakes," plural, but what arrives is one three-inch round cake. No amount of Asian slaw can make up the difference between expectation and reality.

Of course, you could place two orders or you could move on to more filling noshes like the portobello risotto with peas, truffle butter and thyme, or the lobster tostada, a tasty saladlike offering surrounded by tiny bits of deep-fried crustacean.

Fried foods are just one of the surprises at Zula, which is not afraid to call itself New American, that free-form cuisine that draws inspiration and ingredients from vastly different cultures. Chef Lance Fegen's far-ranging menu juxtaposes rare finds such as a tender tuna filet mignon with whimsical lunch specials such as sloppy Joes. Though it may seem odd to wrestle with a loose-meat sandwich at such a place, this modern alternative to what your mom served in the '60s is a top-notch concoction -- pulled pork tenderloin in a sweet sauce piled high on a buttery hoagie roll.

Fegen hopes the downtown professionals appreciate such cheap eats as well as his other daily specials, like rosemary roast beef on rye and a Cuban torta. "I want office workers to peer over the cubicle and say, 'Hey, it's lobster club day at Zula -- let's go!' " said Fegen when the restaurant first opened last fall. Judging from the sparse noontime crowd one recent day -- not to mention the price range of the regular lunch items ($10 to $16) -- I would say Zula serves a business clientele (read: expense account) much better than the average working stiff.

Which is not to say Zula doesn't have its place in the downtown dining scene. When the sun goes down and the torchère lights go up, the restaurant pulsates with an effective disco-dining experience. Even though Zula lacks a dance floor, it's difficult to sit still in your seat on a Saturday night when the music ranges from soul to swing -- and everything in between. Still, such atmospherics only serve as an opening act to the captivating entrées that Fegen's staff rolls out, not to mention the stellar service lined up by co-owners David Edwards and Steve Fronterhouse.

In both design and concept, Edwards has brought the same attention to detail to Zula that has made his Mercury Room one of Playboy magazine's top clubs in America. Little wonder: Edwards cut his hospitality teeth in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Fronterhouse, former general manager of that other local spectacle, Américas, guided it to such heights that owner Michael Cordúa bought an ad in the Houston Chronicle wishing Fronterhouse well in his new venture. I suspect that we have him to thank for the simple pleasures like elbow room between tables, each of which is a four-top, without an awkward two-seater in the house. These specially designed tables also fold out to seat up to ten. Anyone who has strained to hear folks at the other end of a long table, awkwardly created by pushing two square ones together, will want to let Zula host their next dinner party.

Then there's Fegen, who has put his Southern stamp on Zula's sophisticated creations. He pairs a grilled pork tenderloin with a scrumptious corn pudding and baked-bean casserole, while his sautéed chicken breast, which retains its skin for maximum caramelization, is coupled with red potato-asparagus hash and mustard pan gravy.

Trend mongers needn't worry, though. There's plenty of couscous, polenta and risotto, served with dishes such as Seattle salmon, quail cacciatore and wild striped bass, respectively. The latter, in particular, is a thick and fluffy bite of heaven (despite its exposed skin), thanks to the risotto, a creamy concoction of white truffle butter and tomato shallot confit.

Most in our group, however, go for the heartier dishes. A clear favorite is the Colorado lamb, a full rack brushed with grain mustard, seared and then slow-roasted before being cut into chops. These tender morsels top a zippy scallion potato cake, and the whole plate is drowned in a smoky roasted-shallot pan gravy. Another meat lover's special is the superb grilled beef tenderloin, which sounds simple but tastes anything but, with the addition of fried oysters, sautéed spinach and a tomato hollandaise sauce. For a different spin on the dish, add seared foie gras for just $6 more.

You would think it would be difficult to follow such a star-studded lineup, but Zula's desserts make for a rousing final act. Sweet scene-stealers include a chocolate whiskey lava cake oozing with fudge sauce, a sundae with caramelized bananas and orange and coconut ice cream, and a surprisingly inventive passion-fruit cheesecake on a nut-torte crust. The only lackluster effort is an apple walnut cake, which seems to be suffering from stage fright compared to the bravado of its co-stars.

But such minor stumbles won't bring the curtain down on Zula. Between the multifaceted menu, the daredevil decor and the parade of implanted ingenues -- looking to hog the spotlight as much as anything else here -- the stage has been set for a long run downtown.

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