What's the difference between postmodern industrial chic and Salvation Army shoddy? After several visits to the Palace Cafe and its companion, the Hogg Grill, side by side in the fashionable Hogg Palace lofts downtown, I'm still wondering.
Cinda Ward and Armando Palacios (of Armando's fame) own both cafes. The Palace was the first to open in May 1996, back in the early heat of the downtown derby. The Palace opened before its kitchen was complete, and the first dishes to table were trucked in from Armando's River Oaks outpost. The Hogg officially opened its doors in October 1998. Now both restaurants share a single full-service kitchen under the supervision of Chef Jerry Cox, formerly of the late Quilted Toque.
Ward, a former architect, designed both rooms herself. "I'm the queen of 'no-budget' jobs," she says with a laugh. The Hogg Grill is the significantly prettier sister, but my impression of its decor seesawed dramatically with the time of day. It makes a difference whether you dine by day or night.
The Grill occupies the enviable first-floor corner of the lofts building, a prime spot for people watching within and without. By night, the red-beaded lamps of the Grill glow invitingly, warming the high-ceilinged space. The sexy lighting not only flatters the complexions of evening diners, it also softens decor features less appetizing by day, such as the scabby, distressed plaster on the walls. In the merciless light of noon, chic looks an awful lot like cheap.
Ditto for the designer duds on the waitstaff: "Those sexist men say the dresses are dowdy," grumps Ward. I hate to agree with any sexist man, but I'm forced to second the motion on the baggy gray frocks with handbags slung bandoleer-style across the chest. Perhaps those purses are handy, but they make it difficult to distinguish servers from shoppers.
The menu at the Hogg Grill was drafted in response to pleas for hot meals at the Palace. "I wanted to offer hearty food in the Texas vein, meat-and-potatoes stuff," says Ward. "Someone, I don't remember who, started calling it 'global Tex,' which is a pretty good fit for our concept."
Cox's advertised long suit is "really interesting" appetizers, according to Ward, but I found both hits and misses. There's a luscious salmon-and-leek cheesecake in a pecan crust ($8.50), a towering creamy wedge that we were sorry to see the last of; on the other hand, the angels on horseback with cheese grits ($7.95) were discouraging. This retro number alternates broiled oysters wrapped in thick slices of bacon with tiny grilled quail breasts, but who could tell which lump was which under the thick, rapidly cooling blanket of a charmless brown gravy? This was a potentially hazardous confusion, since one lump can be popped whole into the mouth and the other requires careful deboning. Even more discouraging: The grits huddled underneath were chilly, and I couldn't taste a trace of the promised cheese.
Serving temperature is a recurring problem at the Grill. Cups of gumbo or soup arrive at table barely above room temperature. I found the tortilla dumpling soup ($3.95) downright repellent, the worse for being cold at the perimeter of the cup, its broth thick and bland, the "dumplings" greasy cubes of plain white masa.
On one of our early visits to the Grill, our waiter offered his own analysis of the fare: Stick with the grilled foods. It turned out to be advice worth heeding. Steaks are the centerpiece of the Grill menu, sterling-silver, certified premium aged steaks at that, ranging from a four-ounce tenderloin for $12.95 to a 20-ounce T-bone for $21.95. Those steaks are a good choice, skillfully grilled over an open flame. I can't help but question the wisdom of dousing great meats with strong-flavored sauces, but should you be so inclined, there's an interesting-sounding assortment, including toasted oregano sauce, Parmesan cream or balsamic barbecue.
We also liked the grilled shrimp ($13.95); they were large and tasty, though few. The plate's problem lay in the sides. The mashed potatoes that accompanied both steak and shrimp were served stone cold, and the grilled vegetables were woefully undercooked. Thick round slices of sweet potato were almost raw, reluctantly yielding to knife and fork with a resounding crunch.
On our last visit to the Grill, we pinned our dwindling hopes on dessert, only to be again disappointed. "Uh-oh," said our waiter. "Tonight's not a good night for desserts." We should have learned by this time to listen to staff advice. We tried the monstrous wedge of double-chocolate cake ($5.50); its rich flavor bespoke high-quality bittersweet chocolate, but the poor thing was excessively dry. Likewise, the apple-and-cranberry pie sounded wonderfully seasonal, but the pastry shortening tasted well past its prime. We didn't complain but perhaps were caught grimacing. The waiter, without prompting, informed us he'd removed the pie charge from our bill.
Not surprisingly, the Palace Cafe looks a lot like the Hogg Grill: same scabby plaster, same light green and ochre paint. And again, the room looks better at night. (Seriously. At lunch, four of us drew out neon-orange barrel chairs and simultaneously gasped in horror at the large Rorschach-test stains lurking on all four seat cushions.)
On the Palace's snacky menu, we likewise batted around .500. The chips and too-sweet salsa proved no bargain at $4.00 a serving; the same goes for the insipid, oily hummus with dry, stale-seeming triangles of whole-wheat pita (also $4.00). The rosemary focaccia bread with sun-dried tomato pesto ($5.00) was a smarter pick, although the lurid orange-red paste was sticky sweet. Better was the blessedly simple baked Brie ($7.00), sprinkled with toasted pine nuts and served with baguette rounds, apricot preserves, fresh raspberries and slices of crisp, tart Granny Smith apples.
Best-salad honors went to either the Bosc pears with toasted walnuts and Gorgonzola ($7.00) or the pleasant mix of baby greens, sugared pecans, goat cheese and fresh raspberries ($7.00). We found the Caesar salad ($6.00) so intensely over-garlicked as to require an emergency run for Altoids afterward.
The ups and downs continued through the Palace listing of sandwiches (er, panini) and light entrees. It's easier to like the smoked salmon sandwich ($9.95) for its heavily textured ciabatta bread than for the skimpy layer of sweetish, unsmoky salmon. The chewy focaccia reappears in the Caprese ($7.50), stuffed with very fresh mozzarella but very tired Roma tomatoes and lubricated with a less-than-adequate amount of basil pesto.
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The Southwestern chicken wrap ($8.00) was a complete flop: A flour tortilla arbitrarily tinted shocking pink encased a chilly bland mass of brown rice, black beans and tough chicken. The return of the unacceptable salsa didn't help matters any. On the other hand, the Palace Penne ($7.95) was outstanding, though not what the menu advertised. The penne was purportedly tossed with a basil pesto -- the waiter insisted that's what it was. But the honey-brown dressing tasted like a sinus-clearing Dijon mustard vinaigrette, heavy on the horseradish. "No, no, that's not horseradish," he declared in a tone that would brook no nonsense. "It's cayenne pepper." We had fun but no luck hunting for the sun-dried tomatoes that were also scheduled to make an appearance. Still, we liked the dish.
Aside from the brief pesto altercation, the Palace waitstaff left us almost entirely to our own devices; empty iced tea glasses littered our table as the waiters congregated around the telephone at the front. We eventually figured out that the Palace serves only wine and beer, although our server had dutifully taken down margarita orders. "But he's such a hottie!" exclaimed the teenage girl in our group.
Though I can recommend either restaurant for downtown seeing and being seen, I can't recommend the food. Some of the problems stem from simple carelessness in the kitchen and might be corrected with discipline and time. Perhaps it's a better bet to wait for the third Ward-Palacios effort slated for sometime next year. They've leased an additional 2,000 square feet on the east side of the lofts, next to the Chronicle's parking garage, and have earmarked it for a bar with the working names of "Bar X" and "Ima Bar" (after Ima Hogg, of course). Without the pressures of producing food, that spot may be just the ticket for downtown's avant-garde.
Palace Cafe, 401 Louisiana, 222-8900; Hogg Grill, 711 Prairie, 227-4644.