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Sweet Sorrow

I have some regrets from my recent dining experiences at Cafe Perrier.
I regret that ordering the combination rack of lamb and lamb tender with fresh mint and port sauce meant that I could not simultaneously order the gratin of lobster with wild mushrooms and braised endives.

I was heartily sorry that choosing the crispy seared fillet of snapper between thin potato crusts ruled out the steamed striped bass entree, served with paella-style risotto (studded with cockle clams, mussels, calamari and shrimp, mind you). And, of course, no ordinary mortal or even a hardened food professional could possibly consume two of pastry chef Steven Krizman's elaborate dessert concoctions at one sitting, no matter how tempting they are. Oh, they are tempting; but one must choose.

So much delightful food, so little time. During my visits to chef Frederic Perrier's new Provence-style restaurant on Mid Lane, I did my level best to sample as much of the menu as I could, earning glances of mingled admiration and horror from my several waiters. In the inimitable Gallic style, the place is swarming with waitstaff, at least two servers speaking native French and all well trained and constantly busy. Those not immediately engaged in taking orders or lighting patrons' cigarettes were industriously polishing the faintest water spots from the racked and waiting wine glasses. "The French members of our staff came to us from Disney, from the cruise ships," explains Perrier. "And you know how selective Disney is in personnel matters."

Strangely, though, the dining rooms that used to house the overdesigned Al Geranium's now seem quite casual, with their bare wood floors, undraped windows and simply adorned pale walls. The mood ranges from soothingly quiet in the back reaches of the restaurant to boisterous and clattery at the front, where the pianist perched in the entryway bravely tries to drown out the piped-in Muzak.

On my first visit, I fell in love with the vibrant lobster bisque (a soup of the day selection, $4.50). This was an enormous dish of deep terra cotta-colored soup, richly resonant with lobster and spiked with Pernod, topped with the tiniest imaginable croutons and delicate shavings of fresh, coal-black summer truffles. Add to my list of regrets that this soup is served only by the bowl, not available for sampling by the cup -- of course I was compelled to rattle my spoon all the way down to bare china anyway -- and that there were no seconds on the marvelously fresh, crusty little baguettes we gobbled up with the soup.

I'd heard that after Perrier's much-discussed breakup with Bruce Molzan at Ruggles Grille 5115 at Saks Fifth Avenue last December, Perrier swore he would cook only those dishes that pleased him. "That's true," he admits. "But I also want to please my customers." I'll bet that the Salmon Celebration appetizer plate ($10) will prove to be just such a crowd pleaser. It's like a sophisticated Continental riff on standard sushi-bar selections. An impossibly crisp, delicate egg roll skin is wrapped round a finger's breadth core of smoked salmon cradled in a deep green spinach leaf; beside the spring roll is a casual pile of paper-thin slices of more smoked salmon, shaped into a visual pun on shaved ginger; and tucked beneath some pretty greens -- I almost missed it! -- a seemingly demure mound of spiced, marinated salmon tartare. The beauty of the plate, though, lies in the three-dimensional resonance of the sauces. At a sushi bar, what can you do but add more, or less, wasabi to your soy sauce? Here, the spring roll was graced with a soy glaze enhanced with balsamic vinegar and honey; the smoked salmon slices drizzled with a garlic-pungent mixture of Dijon mustard and olive oil; and the salmon tartare, moistened with a light, tart vinaigrette, was festive with bits of red onion, black olives and capers. I was transported into the cool waters of salmon heaven.

In such dire straits I will often forgo a salad completely, thinking that I can get greens anywhere. Had I stuck to my usual program, I would have missed Cafe Perrier's country salad ($7.50m), a terrible sin of omission. Imagine a picturesque haystack of delicate, multicolored leaves, topped with thin julienned slivers of crunchy Granny Smith apples and punctuated with crisp bits of bacon, rich nuggets of walnuts and cubes of Swiss cheese, all sprinkled with a creamy vinaigrette fragrant with tarragon. "I like to add a bit of whipped cream to that dressing at the last moment," says Perrier, "so that it clings nicely to the leaves." I sent another picked-clean plate back to the kitchen.

Which brings me to the lamb for which I forsook the lobster, and gladly, as it turned out. Perrier combines an abbreviated rack of lamb, perhaps six chops, with a lamb tender ($23.50), grilled to order. Anyone who has ever attempted to isolate the tender from the rack knows that you wind up with what seems only a smidgen of meat, but the most meltingly supple smidgen imaginable. Here, the tender is lovingly sliced and fanned across the plate, adrift in a port wine sauce freshened and lively with mint. The rack is encrusted with a bright green paste of fines herbes and lots of roasted garlic. My strategy was to start with the delicate tender, which could never be as heavenly reheated, and bag the rack for my next day's lunch. The lamb comes with an "upside-down" ratatouille atop a circlet of pastry and goat cheese, so named because it is cooked with the thin pastry crust on top, then upended onto the plate. The ratatouille is dominated by eggplant, of course, which unfortunately I loathe, but I was happy to pick out the curving strips of red peppers, the softly sauteed onions and slices of zucchini.

We were also enchanted with the crispy seared fillet of snapper ($19.50), the fish perfectly cooked and flaky, poised between two layers of flash-fried potato slices, thin as snack chips, and balanced atop a different sort of vegetable medley. This combination was brightly seductive with basil and balsamic vinegar -- "I use the white balsamic to preserve the color I want in the vegetables," Perrier notes -- artichoke hearts and briny black olives. "Ohmigod, these are the best vegetables I've ever had," enthused my friend. "Good lord, these veggies are great!" said a woman at the table next to us.

The dessert menu that Perrier and Krizman brainstormed deserves careful consideration. After a great deal of thought, I can narrow my recommendations to two: one that will immediately catch the eye of any chocoholic, and one that might be otherwise overlooked. The Pyramid of Chocolate is dramatic in Mesoamerican fashion; a central Chichen Itza-like structure made from triple chocolate rises from the center of a square, greenish glass serving plate, flanked by outlying balls of orange-scented chocolate on the compass points. "If you like chocolate, that's about as much chocolate as you can get on one plate," says Perrier with a laugh. The eyes of my dining pal fairly rolled back in his head in bliss. "I think this is the definitive version of 'melts in your mouth,' " he said with a sigh. My favorite, though, would have to be the sour-cherry macaroons that bookend a filling of pistachio ice cream, drizzled with a sweetened reduction sauce of Beaujolais and cherry juice. "You see, I wanted to have something fun like an American ice cream sandwich," explains the French-born Perrier. "The macaroons I love from my childhood, but when Steven combined them with the pistachio ice cream, that was purely American."

My regrets are based solely on greed, you see; none has anything to do with location or cost. Yes, the area seems traffic-clogged round the clock, and valet parking is pretty much mandatory (although I've found the attendants as prompt and polite as the staff inside). And, yes, Cafe Perrier is priced in the upper reaches of Houston restaurant tabs, but I do not begrudge a penny for this food, so thoughtfully prepared and served. I wouldn't mind living on corn dogs for a week or two to save up for a Cafe Perrier meal.

My real worry is both selfish and snobbish: What if Frederic Perrier's new neighbors, those who can most easily afford to dine at his cafe, don't readily appreciate the bill of fare? This paranoid fear began the evening I was seated across the room from a loud-voiced pair of middle-aged couples, dressed in the excruciatingly expensive casual togs and accessories I associate with the greens and bridge tables of the River Oaks Country Club. In ringing tones, one of the gentlemen demanded a salt shaker -- there are none on the tables at Cafe Perrier -- and I felt the first twinge of anxiety. Could he possibly have tasted the dish first? I wondered. Meanwhile, the ladies shrilly debated, then denounced the folly of attempting to make macaroni without authentic Velveeta cheese; the baked noodles in question accompanied the handsome horseradish-encrusted carre of pork. When later the other man at the table requested ketchup, I wanted to cry. It was shades of Big Night, the one movie I can't bear to watch; I couldn't bring myself to look to see what he wanted to slather it on. After politely ensuring that he'd heard the gentleman correctly, though, the waiter silently brought him a dish of Heinz's finest.

Cafe Perrier, 4304 Westheimer, (713)355-4455.


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