Just as I took my first bite of the steaming salsa at Noche Cocina y Bar, my husband, Brad, said, "Is it the chips or the sauce that tastes like an ashtray?" His comment caused an involuntary gag reflex on my part. It was true -- the salsa had an extremely unpleasant taste, no doubt caused by oversmoking the chiles. It was equally true that the meal could only get better from here.
You might say the same thing about the entire restaurant. The new Noche has risen from the ashes of Cafe Noche, a Montrose institution that called it a night in December when a county judge ruled against majority owner-chef Alan Mallett and turned the operation over to minority owner Harry Bishop, a local oilman who didn't seem that interested in running a restaurant (see "Buenas Noche," by George Alexander, January 11). But what do you know: Bishop has seen the light of a new day with Noche Cocina. Unfortunately, it may not shine as brightly as the old Cafe Noche.
Chef Luna Elezar, formerly of The River Cafe (see "The River Wild," by George Alexander, June 7), has added more casual fare to the Noche menu, like burgers, salads and vegetarian plates. Otherwise, the new offerings largely echo Mallett's old ones -- Tex-Mex takes on specialties from the Mexican interior. It all seems to complement nicely the clientele, those inner-city denizens drawn to the place as much for the patio as for the food.
Noche Cocina y Bar
2409 Montrose Boulevard
713-529-8559. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.
Sunday brunch: $12.95
Pollo Acapulco: $15.95
Pork medallions: $9.95
Shrimp puff pastry: $6.95
Tortilla soup: $3.95
Visiting in the heat of the summer, Brad and I ran for air-conditioned cover both times, and we couldn't help but notice that no one else ventured outside either. But that's okay. The restaurant has been remodeled to provide an interior ambience that better matches its exterior one. I had always felt confined in the old dining room, its neutral tones and contemporary artwork making it seem more like a museum than a Mexican restaurant. But now, the wall between the bar and dining room has been knocked out, and the bar wraps around to both sides of the room. The area seems to breathe freely.
The dining area features terra-cotta trim on the windows and archways. Even the artwork is earthier and more Mexican in tone, with a few Diego Rivera-inspired pieces on the wall. The soundtrack is lively, seamlessly mixing the usual mariachi/salsa tunes with the occasional Southern folk ballad.
This all played into our nostalgic mood as we settled in to sample our favorite blasts from the Cafe Noche past. The pollo Acapulco, one of the restaurant's signature dishes, was everything I remembered. A chicken breast was flattened and rolled around shrimp, cheese and poblano peppers, then baked. Finally, the dish was sliced into roulades and placed artfully atop a creamy shrimp sauce. To me, it represented south-of-the-border comfort food, creamy but with enough of a bite to make your nose run.
The same sauce was used on a shrimp puff pastry appetizer. The crustaceans and cheese were stuffed inside two buttery, flaky pastry triangles and then placed on the sauce, which also supported a spicy corn relish in lime sauce. I could easily become addicted to those puffs. We also liked the pork medallions soaked in garlic and cilantro, though Brad thought its consistency was weird, "like veal." Compared to my refried black beans and so-so rice, Brad's side dishes made our eyes widen -- an expansive spread of grilled vegetables, including asparagus. But they, too, had that darned smoky flavor.
I concluded the problem lay in Noche's handmade grill, which uses mesquite wood exclusively to cook and to flavor its grilled food. For whatever reason, the smoke was overwhelming everything within its grasp. Perhaps the wood was wet? I could only imagine how the fajitas would go over, so I avoided them. I should have avoided the tortilla soup, too. Inspired by a charming legend that Cafe Noche founder Bill Sadler had a busboy take him into the far reaches of Mexico -- on foot, no less -- to get his grandmother's recipe, I ordered the soup, thinking it had to be something special. Well, lest I offend someone's poor grandma, let's just say something got lost in the translation. The soup was thick with chili powder (not to mention that smoky flavor) and had only one or two slivers of chicken -- and one piece turned out to be a soggy tortilla strip. And though it was accompanied with the plate of optional add-ins such as lime, cheese and cilantro, there was no avocado, a supreme disappointment.
Our spirits were lifted on our next visit, however, when we freely roamed Noche's popular Sunday brunch buffet, another remnant from the earlier incarnation. At $12.95 ($15.95 with bottomless mimosas), it was a bargain, particularly given the wealth of options, even a few healthy ones (well, at least some less cheesy items). Fresh fruit was also in abundance; we especially loved the complimentary watermelon juice.
After ordering a simple bean-and-cheese taco for our young son, my husband and I dived into the well- prepared, made-to-order omelets, to which we added some excellent salty refried black beans and basic rice. Though I already had a large egg dish, I couldn't resist the migas, my favorite Mexican breakfast. Though the concoction sat en casserole in the dreaded steam-table tray, it was as pure an example of the dish as I've ever tasted, its flavors melding together against the simple backdrop of eggs and corn tortilla.
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My husband made a trip to the waffle bar for a sweet ending. The huge Belgian waffle was already rich, thanks to its vanilla-tinged batter, but Brad had the cook add chopped pecans, which made for a sensational dessert. Artfully displayed in front of the waffle irons were bowls and bowls of fruit toppings, like apples, peaches and strawberries, as well as whipped cream.
Meanwhile, I went for a second course. I've always taken the word "brunch" literally -- breakfast followed by lunch. I sampled tender chicken breast pieces stewed in tomatoes, onions and peppers; chewy pork chunks bobbing in a tart tomatillo sauce; and basic ground beef seasoned with chopped jalapeños. All of these meats can be wrapped in flour tortillas -- well, they could if there were any tortillas on the buffet table that weren't hard and cold. I don't know why waiters don't just deliver warm tortillas to every table along with the chips.
Before dessert, I made an obligatory trip to the fruit bar for fresh pineapple, huge strawberries and watermelon, all of which I dipped into a sweet crème fraîche that accompanied them. By the time I tried the creamy rice pudding, wonderfully flavored with cinnamon and raisins, I had reached my breaking point. I could see a siesta in my future.
The only negative in an otherwise wonderful buffet experience came when the check arrived: Noche had charged us separately for the black beans, cheese and tortilla in my son's meal, combining for the world's first $5 kiddie taco. Next time, we hit the buffet without the kids -- and with mimosas.