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Sometimes a reputation, even a good one, can be as much bane as boon. According to at least one close associate, that was on chef Mark Cox's mind when he set about opening his new Mark's American Cuisine, which two months ago moved into the onetime church that had previously housed the Italian restaurant Affresco.

Cox -- who has, among other things, been executive chef at Brennan's and a cooking instructor at the Art Institute -- has one of the most storied culinary resumes in town. But for many Houston foodies, his reputation is inexorably twined with that of Tony Vallone, for whom Cox worked for more than a decade, both as head chef at Tony's and corporate chef for the entire Vallone restaurant empire. It's not surprising, then, that Cox might have worried that some would expect his Mark's to be little more than a Tony's junior, with the same high-ticket Europeanized food that has made Tony's a Houston institution. At the same time, if he deviated from that formula, how would the Tony's faithful -- who were sure to follow him wherever he went -- react?

It must have been something of a dilemma. But in the end, Cox decided to toss the past and go for something new. True, he's followed the Vallone signature of attention to atmosphere and detail, but both in price -- not cheap, but not wallet-busting either -- and food -- a melting-pot cuisine that draws influences from French, Italian, Caribbean, Cajun, Northeastern, Southwestern and even Native American dishes -- he's come up with a restaurant that has a flair, and an identity, all its own.

Obviously, to Cox, the term "American" isn't at all limiting, but instead takes delight in the idea of an immigrant smorgasbord. Several menu entries provoke immediate double and triple takes: smoked salmon cheesecake? Roast duck with mango and champagne grape sauce? Eye-catching offerings aside, however, one element remains constant: outstandingly fresh ingredients that aren't smothered but are allowed to express themselves.

One notable example of this approach is the orcchiette pasta with shrimp and roasted cauliflower in lobster sauce. If dictionaries came with culinary illustrations, this dish would exemplify "al dente." Its springy pasta shells provide just enough resistance, remaining distinct without being oily. Mark's sense of timing extends to its shellfish and vegetables as well; fork-sized cauliflower buds were steamed decidedly past raw but retained a delightful firmness and flavor, while the flotilla of juicy, near-bursting shelled jumbo shrimp had one of my companions convinced that they must have been caught only minutes before. More impressive than that, though, was the attendant lobster sauce. I had expected a thick, bisque-like coating that would carry the rest of the entree, as in a linguine alla pescatora. Instead, the sauce was light, almost translucent, and gently seasoned with basil and a hint of oregano.

The roasted halibut with portobello mushrooms in ancho pepper sauce likewise holds to the light-sauce principle, although it packs a stronger punch. Encrusted on top with ground portobellos, its breading almost tastes beefy at first -- I had to check the menu to remind myself exactly what I'd ordered. The thin, creamy sauce smacks more of the tart ancho cheese than what few peppers it contains; it backs up the moist, flaky halibut without overpowering the fish's light flavor.

Several of Mark's other dishes also offer up a variety of peppers, especially one of the appetizers -- a chilled poblano soup with roasted peppers. Thinner than one might expect from a cream-based soup, this offering places its emphasis on the freshness of the poblanos rather than on the spicy turn that the dish could have taken. Instead, the soup was rich and reassuring -- call it nouveau comfort food -- without being too filling.

For that matter, none of Mark's appetizers suffer from the creeping entree-itis that's infected so many other restaurants' appetizers. Too rarely does a chef recognize that the purpose of an appetizer is to whet the appetite; fortunately, Cox doesn't succumb to this delusion. One particularly interesting foray into Mark's world of tiny appetizers is the L.A.'s smoked salmon cheesecake, a crab-cake-sized cream-and-orange-colored slice that's decorated with four long, slender leek-like leaves at right angles to one another. Initially, the combination seems bizarre, but the slightly smoky flavors blend together surprisingly well; it's like a bagel with cream cheese, lox and no bagel.

Unfortunately, the smoked yellowfin tuna with wasabi sauce didn't fare so well. Not all fishes smoke as nicely as salmon, and the minuscule fillet tasted overwhelmingly fishy. This time around, a stronger sauce -- which actually ended up being a hummus-like amalgam with strong wasabi overtones -- would have been welcome.

However, that was Mark's only seafood disappointment, and it's considerably overshadowed by one of the most outstanding dishes on the menu: the cumin and pumpkin seed-dusted red snapper. As with the portobellos on the roasted halibut, this dish engages in culinary camouflage. At first taste, the roasted pumpkin seeds do a perfect job of emulating the pecans that normally encrust this Cajun/Southern-inspired dish. Same thing for the second and third taste. It took yet another check of the menu to realize what had been ordered; only then was it evident that the cracked, smoky-tasting seeds were in fact pumpkin. Meanwhile, the grilled snapper had absorbed the flavor of the pumpkin seeds on the surface, while the rich meatiness of the fish -- much more substantial than the halibut -- welled up from within. The snapper is yet one more tribute to the kitchen's sense of timing: While the thick slab of fish was grilled straight through and snatched away just before dryness might have set in, not a single burnt seed marred the taste.

Timing was just as important -- and just as successful -- with one of the more surprising-sounding dishes, the roast duck with caramelized mango and cherry sauce. More of a duckling than a duck proper, this bird stood out for the simple reason that it escaped the Scylla and Charybdis of duck preparation, over-greasiness and over-toughness. Garnished with sweet Bing cherries, the fowl had a slightly orangeish cast from the tart mango sauce that graced it. Beneath, the meat was dark and rich and moist, accented by the (admittedly slightly schizophrenic) tang of the glaze. Counterpointing the cherry with mango seemed a little misguided, unfortunately; the mango syrup was both much lighter and a little more acidic than the cherry glaze, so the two flavors didn't jell quite as well as I might have hoped. (Cox may have had a similar reaction; last time I checked, the cherries had been replaced by champagne grapes.)

Despite this, though, the light-sauce principle held again, so the glaze wasn't too much of a distraction. Both lunch and dinner menus recommend ordering "made-to-order" desserts during the meal, and it's good advice -- if you can manage to save room for them, that is. Chocolate factors heavily into the dessert selection in the form of crackle fudge, as with the crackle fudge sundae. This variation on the ice cream parlor standard takes a whopping sundae glass, starts with a generous helping of fudge, then ladles on Mexican vanilla ice cream, swirls of caramel, crushed nuts and even more fudge. The ice cream hardens the bottom layer of fudge into a nigh-unto-solid cone of brittle chocolate, while the ribbons on top solidify into a lacy, blissfully sweet garnish.

It's a worthy end to a meal, but the true king of the dessert menu is the rich-beyond-the-dreams-of-avarice creme brulee. Sometimes served warm and sometimes chilled, the caramel-anchored custard is the richest and the top layer of burnt sugar the thickest that I have ever seen. On my first encounter with it, everyone at my table passed the deep round dish around and took a reverent bite, pausing for a moment to contemplate the infinite -- or at least as much of it as can be captured in a single dessert.

Although I've already explored much of what's on Mark's menu, I plan to keep coming back, and not just because of the dishes I've already fallen in love with. Mark's prides itself on the freshness of its ingredients (to that end, many of its suppliers are local), and in order to keep to that belief, Cox plans to alter his menu regularly as new items come into season.

Good idea. And as long as Mark's keeps the pot melting, I'll return to see what immigrates next.

Mark's American Cuisine, 1658 Westheimer, 523-3800.

Mark's American Cuisine:
chilled poblano soup, $4.25;
L.A.'s smoked salmon cheesecake, $6.50;
orcchiette pasta with shrimp and roasted cauliflower, $13.75;
cumin and pumpkin seed- dusted red snapper, $16;
roast duck with caramelized mango and champagne grape sauce, $16.25.

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Mark's American Cuisine

1658 Westheimer Road
Houston, TX 77006

713-523-3800

www.marks1658.com


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