I love the Angelika Cafe and Bar. Love it truly, madly, deeply. Why? For lots of reasons, really. But mainly because the hostess there -- a delightful person -- helps men into their jackets. A lot of women would consider that demeaning, I told her. Not me, she said, all defiance. "I come from Greece. In Greece, women help men into their jackets all the time." (Memo to myself: Investigate the possibilities of buying a small house in Athens.)
The cafe and bar forms part of the Angelika Film Center and occupies one side of a huge lobby. As vast as the Plains of Abraham it is -- and unremittingly modern as well. This is architecture that reveres parallel lines and 90-degree angles. Not a curve in sight. (If you ignore the Jean Harlow poster. And I'll bet you anything you can't.)
There's lots of natural light here, too -- at least when the sun is visible. (I don't much care for restaurants in which you have to grope your way to your table. What do they take us for? Moles?) And then there is that wonderful view: the Alley looking like a fortress; and Jones Hall, inspired by the Parthenon; and that great hulk of a thing, the Wortham Center, that puts me in mind of a dyspeptic toad. As skylines go, this is no Manhattan. And it pales before Hong Kong. But what does that matter? It's ours, by God. And we love it! (Another memo to myself: Contact Houston Image Group and ask if I don't deserve a retainer.)
One aspect of the decor I would quarrel with: The tables are on casters and are apt to move when you least expect it. What with that, and the fact that Benjamin Britten's opera Billy Budd was playing across the street -- this Budd's for you, Billy Boy -- I felt at times I was eating on an 18th-century man-of-war.
The food at the Angelika, which strays little from the now familiar (did someone say overly familiar?) pizza-pasta axis, is fine, as far as it goes. Pastas are all the rage, of course, and while I like linguine as much as the next man, I long for the day when the rage shows signs of abating. Part of the problem is that most pasta menus are distressingly similar: penne with mushrooms; angel hair with tomatoes and basil; fettuccine Alfredo.... There's no end to it. Why is everyone so conservative? There are dozens of wonderful pasta dishes rarely seen on Houston menus. Garganelli tossed with arugula and smoked tuna, for example. Or linguine with bottarga, the dried roe found in the Mediterranean. Or bucatini amatriciana -- pasta in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and pork jowls.... The possibilities are endless.
The Angelika is a little more enterprising than most pasta restaurants in that, here, you will find ogliolo ($6.95) -- linguine with olive oil, roasted garlic, Parmesan cheese and grilled chicken. It's a simple dish and, for that reason, holds special terrors for a chef, because it leaves him no room for error. Make a mistake, and there's no disguising it. The Angelika's was perfect: lightly dressed and properly dense and arranged like a chignon in a plain white bowl.
Equally good was the herbed-chicken pizza ($7.50). Caramelized onions, sun-dried tomatoes, fragments of goat cheese, grilled chicken and basil pesto: a nice blend of elements and a skillful one. When you combine a lot of ingredients, great care is needed if one of them is not to dominate. (What I call the bully factor.) This herbed-chicken pizza is a model of peaceful co-existence.
The menu contains the occasional surprise, one of which is the Asian quesadilla ($5.95) -- thinly sliced chicken, julienned vegetables, fresh ginger and peanuts sandwiched between flour tortillas and served with a lime-colored coconut-curry sauce. Lots of grace notes here. Quite delicious.
I would advise avoiding the angel dip ($6.25). A mix of roasted garlic and artichoke hearts, it tasted like a glorified cheese and spinach casserole. No, that's an exaggeration. It tasted like an unglorified cheese and spinach casserole. Something else that amounted to less than the sum of its parts was a dish called pasta packages ($8.25). Ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms, pine nuts and goat cheese, it sounded nice. But that isn't how it tasted, someone having taken it into his head to reduce the mushrooms, nuts and cheese to a dull, tasteless mush.
But the salmon purse ($7.95) is worth your attention. Sliced smoked salmon filled with avocado relish and served over a balsamic-tomato vinaigrette, it comes with freshly grilled bread and made me so happy, I was forced to ask for more.
The Angelika Cafe and Bar, 510 Texas (in Bayou Place), 225-1609.
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