The Art of Cooking?

Okay, so I was wrong. So sue me.
A couple of weeks back, after a deliciously delightful experience at the University of Houston's Barron's Restaurant, I delivered myself of the opinion that student-run cafes were treasures to be sought out, unknown gems unfairly passed by because of a bias toward professional operators. But then, alas, I ran across The Restaurant at the Art Institute.

On the surface, the Restaurant would seem to have a distinct advantage over Barron's. After all, while Barron's aim is to produce people who can slip easily into the food service industry, the Restaurant is focused on turning out chefs with a capital "C." (The difference between art and commerce, don't you know.) And considering that among the Art Institute of Houston's graduates are George Christie of Christie's Seafood fame, Charles Clarke of Da Capo's and Aaron Guest of Sabine -- one of the most talented young chefs in Houston -- the focus seems to work. Unfortunately, though, I discovered that while the Restaurant's emphasis on cooking may create noteworthy lords of the kitchen, it doesn't necessarily guarantee a good meal. Indeed, the one major lesson I learned at the Art Institute is that fine dining depends on a lot more than fine food.

Two of the things it depends on are service and atmosphere, and on those grounds, the Restaurant flunks. My first Restaurant experience was an evening event presented by the Great Chef's Club (which is made up of students of the Art Institute) celebrating the work of the famous Chicago chef Charlie Trotter. There was only one seating, at seven. My companion and I arrived promptly at 6:55 p.m. and were among the last diners to be seated. Then we began to wait. And wait. Twenty-five minutes later, a bread basket appeared. Even later was the first course.

Still, that first course was an encouraging start. It consisted of a chilled cucumber soup, a refreshing choice for a sweltering midsummer eve. The base of the soup was a puree of yellow and red watermelon combined with apple juice. The centerpiece was a thick slice of skinless cucumber whose hollowed-out core contained julienned jicama. Following this was a prawn brandade galette -- basically, a crab cake, only made with shrimp. The pan-fried cake was nicely and delicately crisp, though it suffered from the thin broth on which, for no apparent reason, it lay, and which sadly softened the underside. The cakes were also barely warm, which suggested to me that they'd been impatiently waiting to be eaten for as long as I'd been impatiently waiting to eat them.

The salad consisted of baby red and green romaine lettuce upon which a horseradish Caesar dressing had been drizzled. Shavings of Parmesan cheese added a nice flavor. But when I say baby romaine, I mean baby romaine -- all four leaves of it. It barely covered the center of its dish. Nouvelle cuisine, I mused, does not have to mean nothing on your plate. But I was mollified by the main course, a peppered lamb loin, four small slices of which sat atop a bed of spinach and a crisp slice of polenta. A ratatouille brought this masterpiece together. Dessert, too, was a plus: an incredibly rich chocolate cake with fresh berries on the side. The moist cake was made more interesting by the addition of dried banana chips, which added an enchantingly crunchy texture. It was all well worth eating; had going through these courses not taken three hours, I would have been well satisfied. But I twiddled my thumbs as much as I pleased my palate, something that puzzled me. Since everyone was served the same food, I expected faster, not slower, service. The check -- $70 for two -- also caused me to raise an eyebrow. This seemed significantly higher than it needed to be, especially considering the portion sizes.

A better deal was the $19.95 five-course culinary meal. A better deal financially, that is; time was still a problem. The culinary meal I sampled took two hours to conclude. My order was taken 20 minutes after I arrived, and then only after I could stand it no longer and asked which waiter had been assigned to my table. For excessively long periods there was nobody at all on the restaurant floor. No waiters, no busboys, no manager, no one. When someone did appear, he or she was pounced on by a multitude of patrons.

The sourdough bread, served only after I requested it, looked promising, but was raw in the center. An ice tea was ordered and forgotten. Water glasses were not quickly refilled. The food, however, did offer some saving grace. The roasted corn chowder was deliciously smooth, with large corn pieces that broke up the textural monotony. Its smoky flavor was enhanced by the addition of small chunks of ham. Another worthwhile appetizer was the portobello mushrooms served with a balsamic vinegar. Since part of what's taught at the Restaurant is food as art, the mushrooms were served on top of a slice of crisp polenta that perched precariously on some collard greens. My entree was a molasses-glazed pork tenderloin served with braised collard greens and black-eyed peas. Minutely sliced sweet potatoes, fried to look like hay, was an interesting Southern-style side dish. My faith was about to be restored when along came the dessert: cheesecake, still frozen at its core and consequently very crumbly, decorated with a hint of freezer burn.

Lunch offered a similar mix: good presentation, good (generally) taste, lousy service. The gumbo I tried was much too thin. Not only did it lack the dense texture and dark, swampy color so necessary in a memorable gumbo, but the all-important file powder was missing. When I asked about this, I was told that one of the chefs was allergic to file. A taste of the soup of the day -- black bean -- made me wonder if he was likewise allergic to heat. The black bean soup had a nice smoky flavor, enhanced by thick chunks of ham and sausage, and was topped with some fresh pico de gallo that added bright colors to an otherwise dull spectrum, but it was also barely warm. A little lecture on the value of temperature, I mused, might be of help to the Restaurant's students.

As, for that matter, might a talk about how less is not always more. The house salad of baby fresh field greens was barely covered with enough vinaigrette to give it any flavor, though what was there was adequate. And the vegetarian focaccia pizza, even though it was covered with ample stringy mozzarella cheese and finely sliced vegetables, was short of distinguishable flavors; it was too subtle for its own good, which seems to be a recurring problem. Better was the grilled rib eye steak, which was nicely done over charcoal, something that imparted an excellent grilled flavor to the meat. Too bad the meat was fairly tough.

As I tallied up my criticisms, I began to question whether I should be so critical of students in training, people who, for the most part, seemed to be trying. No, I decided; the prices I was being charged were not student prices, but full fare, and so full service was required.

The Restaurant opened two and a half years ago on the fourth floor of the Art Institute's building on Yorktown near the Galleria. The idea behind it was to give students in their final quarter of study practical experience. The culinary program is under the directorship of chef Michael Nenes, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, and while the placement rate of his students indicates the school is doing something right, the Restaurant itself could still use some work.

Actually, it wouldn't take much to improve the overall perception of the place. The first thing to do is change the name -- "the Restaurant" isn't particularly inspired, or inspiring. Then there's the decor, or lack thereof. The Restaurant has an institutional feel akin to that of a hospital cafeteria. Even the white tablecloths at dinner fail to transform the space into something inviting. Since the Art Institute has classes on interior design, an excellent project might be to have those classes come up with a more enchanting look. And then there's the art on the walls, which is also institutional. Why not use the wall space to show off the works of the Art Institute's budding fine artists?

But the most important improvement would be to shoo some of the Robert del Grande wannabes out of the kitchen and into the dining room. They need to learn that no matter how brilliant and beautiful their creation may be when it comes off the stove, if it doesn't reach the mouth in a reasonable time, then it's all for nothing.

The Restaurant at the Art Institute, 1900 Yorktown, 966-2756.

The Restaurant at the Art Institute: gumbo (bowl), $3.45; soup of the day (cup), $1.75; house salad, $1.95; vegetarian focaccia pizza, $4.50; rib eye steak, $8.95; Great Chef's Club dinner, $35; five-course culinary dinner, $19.95.

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