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The Importance of Being Elouise

In most instances a restaurant opening is just a restaurant opening. But sometimes it's a cultural event: one of those occasions that represents some essential truth about a segment of the community. Take the planned reopening of Tony's this fall, a prospect much longed for among Houston's display-conscious society set. Or take the recent reopening of Ouisie's after a six-year hiatus, an occurrence that has plunged many of the Inner Loop's quietly prosperous burghers into a major swivet.

For weeks now, they have swarmed through the polished fantasy barn that proprietress Elouise Cooper -- the "Ouisie" of record -- has constructed on the southern rim of River Oaks. They eye each other with expectancy; they exchange clubby waves and pent-up sentiments. With an almost academic intensity, the acolytes compare the new place with the old, debating everything from its grander scale to its capacious screen porch to its big-league valet parking. They pay reverential homage to their patron saint, Elouise, who roams the premises in kitchen whites or muted Armani and the air of somebody quietly, deeply pleased.

As well she might be. Not everyone has her own cult following, a band of loyalists who act as if they'd like to get down and kiss the hem of her garment. Like Cooper herself, most of the Ouisie's devotees are of middle years and upper-middle income; for a decade, at her original restaurant on Sunset, they looked to her for a potent brew of ritual, nurture and fraternity.

With its legendary community table and urbane comfort foods, Ouisie's became a country club for a prosperous clientele that either didn't have the bucks to join the real, blue-chip thing -- or wouldn't have been interested in joining the real thing in any case. They cheerfully endured epic waits to get in under Ouisie's no-reservations policy, an innovation that only increased the restaurant's cachet.

They adopted Elouise as their Yber-hostess, goddess of a Tuesday-night chicken-fried steak ritual and dispenser of the sort of sophisticated Texas-Southern dishes they might have served at their own entertainments, had they the skills or the inclination.

Their cult fare was the down-home stuff that Elouise pioneered as proper, upscale restaurant food: the vividly garnished black beans she served for Saturday lunch; the pimento-cheese sandwiches she had grown up with in Houston. At the same time, the Junior League crowd that flocked to Ouisie's related to such upwardly mobile touches as the caviar and sour cream that graced the sainted "Ouisie's Spud" (as it was dubbed in precious OuisieSpeak).

In short order, Elouise became the Helen Corbitt Jr. of local boomers -- a spiritual descendent of the Neiman Marcus food guru who nudged Texans to try such novelties as curry while insisting that such dressed-up regionalisms as tamale pie were perfectly polite company fare. The food from Ouisie's fabled blackboard menu seldom made the earth move (indeed, the only really remarkable dish I remember eating there was a Cornish hen stuffed with tamales), but one tended to exit happy, even consoled, and stuffed with clubby gossip. For culinary fireworks, one looked elsewhere.

So it is at the new Ouisie's. There are some splendid dishes and some genuine Texas classics to be had, but the presence of aioli and balsamic vinegar and arugula on the menu does not mean Ouisies' has gone cutting edge. It seems more ambitious than the old restaurant (there's a $23 rack of lamb on the menu) and a bit trendier, what with roasted garlic pods here, polenta there and fresh-cut corn absolutely everywhere. Yet the strength of the food turned out by chef David Goldman -- who ran the original Ouisie's kitchen in its later years -- lies in its freshness and its honest regional simplicity.

There's an appealing, Elouise-like garden consciousness in such side dishes as sugar-snap peas with red bell peppers, or in an elemental tomato-scallion salad. And there is pure bliss in such renovated standards as the lunch and breakfast menu's BLT with a fried egg, a deliriously excessive sandwich that comes alive courtesy of a spirited jalapeno mayonnaise. I could eat one of these every day, if I didn't think my doctor would kill me.

If the weather were right, it's the sort of thing I'd like to eat on the restaurant's simple, screened porch, or on the pale flagstone terrace patterned with inky-smooth river stones. Somehow the dish seems a little humble for the main dining room, a high-ceilinged, elongated white box lit by candle sconces and anchored by black wainscoting. For those with memories of the old Ouisie's cozy intimacy, this room may take some getting used to. "It's like eating in a train station," complained one gentleman of my acquaintance. "A Marriott ballroom trying to be Galatoire's," harrumphed a visitor from Dallas. I took their meaning, but I liked the room just fine, from its warm lighting to its excellent people-watching potential. And the colossal, framed blackboard suspended at one end seemed like a sly in-joke about the new, grander era.

These days, there's a printed menu made up to resemble a child's school tablet, one of those whimsical Elouise touches that devotees adore but outsiders may find mystifyingly cute. As in the breakfast menu's "ugly muffin" or the designation of a perfectly straightforward cheese-and-fruit salad plate as a "Stilton kit." With its toasted walnuts, pears, fancy lettuces, lime-zapped olive oil and "healthy amount of black pepper" (there's that OuisieSpeak again), it's the sort of thing a discriminating eater might fix for himself at home. Which, at Ouisie's, has long been part of the point.

Of the same genre is the supper salad of boiled Gulf shrimp, mixed lettuces and grilled asparagus spears. With its fat, sweet shrimp, its graceful goat-cheese dressing and its cool cucumbers and tomatoes, this is a lovely plate of summer food. Ouisie's traditionally has done right by salads -- from the simple romaine house version to an avocado-and-grapefruit number whose light, lime-laced poppy-seed dressing could teach all its glutinous cousins a thing or two. More avocado and grapefruit would have been nice; otherwise this salad could hardly be improved.

Not so the crab cakes, which suffer from being deep-fried instead of pan sauteed, and from a high bread-crumb quotient. Far better is the pricey new rack of lamb rubbed with a Moroccan-style mix of cumin, coriander and garlic; ordered rare, with simple sauteed spinach and strangely unmemorable minted wild rice, it's worthy of gnawing off the bone. For more conservative eaters, there's carefully grilled beef tenderloin wrapped in trusty apple-smoked bacon, with an updated set of trimmings: foresty wild mushrooms, roasted red potatoes gigged with garlic and rosemary, fresh snap beans and a convincing demiglace sauce. Country-club and then some.

The soulfully inclined can avail themselves of the resurrected Tuesday-night special so many regulars swore by: a surprisingly acceptable (I'm prejudiced here) chicken fried steak with a respectable cream gravy, peppery black-eyed peas, nicely bitter greens and corn so fresh it seems to have leapt right off the cob. Since I remain convinced that chicken-frying a piece of tenderized round steak is a perverse enterprise at best, I prefer to take my soul in the form of a homey whole onion baked with three sprightly cheeses -- a gutsy idea that falls under the chummy heading of "Appetizers, Little Dinners and Old Friends." It beats the palm hearts with smoked salmon and horseradish cream and the house pate, a chicken-liver mash whose brandy and caramelized onions fail to shine through sufficiently.

Desserts? Yes indeed. Swoon-worthy Black Magic Cake shimmers with rum and brandy; so does bread pudding threaded with fragrant orange rind. An Italian cream cake was suffering through a dry spell, but the dark, bittersweet chocolate pot de creme is as good as ever. One bite and the years melt away.

Elouise never served breakfast in the old days, but clearly she was born to do it. Steaming bowls of latte, robust huevos rancheros, glistening soft-scrambled eggs, creamy polenta layered with spinach and a touch of cheese: these are things worth getting up for. And if monkey bread seems a bit jarring with a jolt of vanilla glaze, there are always the stellar toasted biscuits -- here called by the Southern nickname of "catheads," although they are the size of silver dollars rather than cats' noggins.

I tucked the last stray catheads in my purse to take home. And I came away with something else: the sense that regeneration is possible in the midst of life's outrages and sorrows. Elouise Cooper left the restaurant business after her son was killed in an accident; several years later, her husband died suddenly. Now here she is, serenely ensconced in a glamorous new universe of her own devising, surrounded by well-wishers and old friends. When they wax ecstatic to be back, they are not only happy for Elouise -- they are hopeful for themselves.

Ouisie's, 3939 San Felipe, 528-2264.

Ouisie's:
fried-egg BLT, $7.50;
grapefruit, avocado and red onion salad, $7;
rack of lamb with Moroccan spices, $23;
supper salad of boiled Gulf shrimp, $13.50.

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miles
Ouisie's Table

3939 San Felipe St.
Houston, TX 77027

713-528-2264

www.ouisiestable.com


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