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Split Personality

Saba Blue Water Cafe: Where the waters run hot or cold, depending on the time of day.
Troy Fields

The booth with a view of the aquarium looks like a better bet than the table by the window at Saba Blue Water Cafe. On a Tuesday night in January, the tropical fish are a lot livelier than the downtown sidewalks. Posh bars and upscale restaurants continue to open at a record clip in the area around the three-digit blocks of Main Street. And on early evenings in winter, huge crowds of Houstonians continue to stay away.

In New York, you have to beg and plead for a table at a new "in" spot. At Saba, one of Houston's best new restaurants, the hostess stand is vacant at 7 p.m. I get so tired of waiting for somebody to notice me, I start doing jumping jacks. That gets the manager's attention, and he apologetically ushers me and my date to the booth in front of the fish. Of course, we could have picked almost any table we wanted; the place is three quarters empty.

The stark, minimalist lines inside Saba are pleasantly punctuated by splashes of intense color. Paintings of naked couples swimming in tropical seascapes mimic the oceanic scenery inside the curved-glass saltwater aquarium that separates the bar from the dining room. In the rear of the place, an enormous artwork of illuminated cobalt-blue glass reflects coolly off the restaurant's polished concrete surfaces.

The first time I visited Saba, a couple of weeks ago, I sat at a table right under the hypnotic blue wall. The place was much busier at lunch. I had succulent lobster pot stickers with fermented black beans and chinoise sauce, a lemongrass margarita (see "Stirred and Shaken," January 4) and recado shrimp tacos with green papaya slaw. The shrimp were big and juicy, the green papaya slaw crunchy and tangy, but the tacos came wrapped in leathery tortillas, which made each bite a tug-of-war. My lunch companion had an Asian noodle salad, a healthy mix of greens and egg pasta. It wasn't what she was expecting -- she was thinking cold noodles -- but the spicy sesame-orange-soy dressing convinced her to eat it anyway.

If you eat both lunch and dinner at Saba, you become painfully aware of the restaurant's split personality. Under the menu heading "Small Plates," the kitchen offers a list of stunningly original dishes such as lobster pot stickers, crawfish cakes with daikon salad and coriander calamari with tomato aïoli.

I tried the playful beef sashimi on that menu. It turned out to be a clever fusion version of carpaccio, in which the raw, thinly sliced beef is laid on the plate, Italian-style, then dressed with a bold Asian blend of soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil, and finally decorated with mizuma, sprouts and arugula. It's an inspired combination, fusion food at its finest.

Also from the Small Plates menu, I ordered masa-fried oyster tostadas, in which the fried mollusks were served on yucca chips and topped with salsa. Saba's version was every bit as good as the original, invented by chef David Garrido of Jeffrey's in Austin. (Garrido reportedly served the appetizer at an inauguration dinner last week in D.C.)

But the best thing on the Small Plates menu was an original creation of Saba's head chef, Larry Perdido, and sous-chef Dylan Murray. On one half of the plate, three lightly charred scallops sat in a pool of ginger-infused butternut squash puree, while a salad of watercress with sectioned lemon chunks occupied the other half. The delicate scallops and the comfortingly bland squash sauce soothe you like a lullaby. But then you take a bite of salad, and all of a sudden a cymbal crash of bitter watercress and the brassy notes of raw lemon join in the mix, and the whole thing starts to dance.

The dish makes you think grandly: Perhaps this is a restaurant that has figured out how to handle the fusion challenge. The chefs start with a single focus -- seafood -- and then explore what various cultures do with it. They mix, they match, they combine seasonings and sensibilities and come up with original twists. You are all ready to bestow the mantle of kitchen prodigies to the young chefs at Saba. And then you arrive in the afternoon and see a completely different side of the restaurant's personality.

The lunch menu is a Hollywood Strings version of fusion cooking -- a dullard's countdown of noontime's greatest hits with little ethnic touches. There's the aforementioned leathery shrimp tacos, a $7 ham sandwich (Cuban-pressed version), an $8 burger (with poblanos), grilled chicken (with a Latino name), seafood linguine, catfish (sesame) and grilled vegetables (with a French name). You can still order from the Small Plates menu and skip this boring lunch bunch, but you have to wonder what they're thinking here. How does a restaurant develop this kind of Jekyll and Hyde disorder?

Blame the schizophrenia on downtown Houston itself. Saba Blue Water Cafe is owned by chef Perdido and Chuck Smith, who opened their first Saba in Austin's booming warehouse district. The two men are veterans of the Z Tejas restaurant group in Austin, an organization known more for marketing savvy than haute cuisine. It would seem that Perdido and Smith have learned their lessons well. What these astute judges see in downtown Houston are two completely different sets of tastes, two completely different target audiences.

Late at night, the Saba management observed, downtown Houston is awash in lights, with live music pouring out of basement bars -- a nonstop fashion show of men in black and women in too-high heels and drop-dead dresses. For this crowd, only the wildest, most electrifying dining experience would do. So Perdido has put together the Small Plates menu and has created dinner items like sesame tuna, a medium-rare sushi-grade tuna topped with soy paste, wasabi and sesame seeds on a bed of slick udon noodles and tender wilted greens tossed in a ginger-shallot vinaigrette. Just the kind of thing you want to eat when you're out at 1:30 a.m. in your best threads.

But on a weekday at noon, Perdido and Smith see a completely different audience: the skyscraper people, purposeful men and women wearing gray suits and serious expressions. So the owners have hedged their bets with an entirely different daytime menu, one designed for those stressed-out high-risers who have no interest in broadening their culinary horizons.

Saba Blue Water Cafe offers some of the most exciting dining in the city -- and some really boring lunch items. But maybe this multiple personality is the sanest approach to survival in downtown Houston. So if you find burgers, tacos and Cuban sandwiches on the menu when you are expecting fusion seafood, take it in stride. Just like you would if, late at night on a NoDo dance floor, you ran into one of those gray-suited drones from the office, dressed in drag with a jewel shimmering from his pierced tongue.

Wine Notes: Miner, Viognier, 1999, $40

The honeysuckle aroma and voluptuous peach and apricot fruit of this California Viognier are way over the top. And yet when your mouth is full of wasabi, chile pepper, ginger and the other blaring flavors of Asian and Latin fusion cuisine, too much perfume and a loud personality are just what you're looking for in a wine.

Viognier (pronounced "vee-oh-NYAY") is the white Rhône varietal used to make Condrieu, a classic Rhône white. It was first planted in California in 1985 and is quickly developing a loyal following. It's a very accessible wine with clean fruit flavors and a dry finish. The French versions are generally much more restrained.


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