The Sunset Tea Room is metamorphosing. Sure, when I ducked in on a recent weekday noon, things didn't look all that different from how they've always looked at this 20-year-old stronghold of the Inner Loop "ladies who lunch" crowd. More than 50 percent of the patrons had blood that obviously ran blue. One table of diners earnestly discussed charity board business, while another was presided over by grandmotherly types in matching volunteer garb. But when I glanced at the sample plates of the daily specials, it was impossible not to notice that something was afoot in the kitchen.
My first solid evidence of this was the osso buco lunch special. On my table appeared a chop whose long bone extended dramatically from the generous portion of meat. The plate was gussied up in the self-consciously messy fashion so haute these days, with clusters of fresh watercress and rosemary and a storm of ground pepper. The red cabbage leaves and asparagus tips were charred to just black and jolted with a shot of flavored vinegar. Tastewise, the lamb was fruity with the flavors of the tomatoes and wine that made up its complex, oily gravy. A half-dozen potato gnocchi came off a bit stiff and chewy, but tasted great. On the whole, the plate's flavors were nicely differentiated and suitably complementary.
All of this sophistication and panache are no accident. They're the sort of transformation you'd expect when a change in ownership and a change in the kitchen occur simultaneously. New owner Bob Sarlay, a Dallas-area restaurateur who moved to Houston a few years ago to be near his son in medical school, hired chef Aaron Guest with the goal in mind of livening the Tea Room up and broadening its appeal. Guest has even modernized that quintessential Junior League favorite King Ranch Casserole a bit. (Given the restaurant's baby-pink walls, the classic Texas comfort food has been christened with a surprisingly macho moniker: the King.) Dig through the archaeological layer of yummy, stringy Cheddar cheese on top and you'll unearth an unmistakable hint of fresh cilantro, as well as some other nuevo Southwestern seasonings. On the day I sampled it, though, I wondered how long it had been out of the oven -- my serving was just a touch warmer than room temperature.
A hint: the very thick, very sweet raspberry vinaigrette is great not only for drenching your salad, but also as a dip for pieces of torn-off whole wheat bread. And its very, very pink color is a reminder that not all has changed at this mini-institution.
-- Kelley Blewster
Sunset Tea Room, 2606 Sunset Boulevard, 666-9032.
Sunset Tea Room:
osso buco lunch special, $16.95;
the King, $8.95
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