Tiny Boxwood's Cafe, Voice at Hotel Icon and Cafe Zol

Tiny Boxwood's Cafe (3614 W. Alabama) is one of the hottest cafes in town. Greg Thompson, one of the names behind Thompson and Hanson, the upscale nursery in the River Oaks area, explains how it came to be: "We had a piece of land on the property that was only used for 30 days a year when we put up Christmas trees. So we decided to open a small coffee shop, mainly for our customers, sort of like the coffee shops they have inside bookstores, because 'plant people' like to hang out and these types of cafes inside nurseries are very popular in England."

Since Thompson has no culinary background, he left the food side of the business to chef and general manager Baron Doke (formerly of catering company A Fare Extraordinaire). Doke has been busy ever since the opening. On a recent Wednesday at 1 p.m., the place was bustling, with the line out the door. No one was giving up, either — it was worth the wait. A community table occupies the center of the restaurant, and it's the perfect place to find a perch and watch the see-and-be-seen crowd that, at least for the moment, seems more concerned with who's coming in the door than the food in front of them.

Not that the food doesn't deserve attention. "I have created this small, manageable menu filled with artisan sandwiches and some great salads like the herbed chicken salad," says Doke, "and people seem to be responding to the freshness and simplicity of the ingredients." They're making their own jams, baked goods, mayo and pesto, and they're having trouble keeping the sausage, gruyère and sage quiche and the breakfast tacos in stock.


Tiny Boxwood's Cafe

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Liz Knox of the new Cafe Zol (2411 S. Shepherd), which now occupies the space vacated by Crostini's, obviously has hospitality in her blood, having formerly run bars like Lizards and Komodos. She greets everyone personally and is eager to explain the menu: "It's Scandinavian tapas," she says, "along with open sandwiches like they have in Denmark."

Don't take that description too much to heart, though. Zol's menu includes "duck fingers." When a visitor noted that they

don't sound particularly Danish, Knox replied, "Ah, but Chef Kim, who is Danish, makes this great dish with puff pastry and apples and prunes, and I really want Houstonians to try my duck and see what it should really taste like."

A better way to describe Zol's concept is "if Liz likes it, it's going on the menu." How else to explain the lobster, lamb chops and spinach dip? But if you want to try something Danish, she recommends the "meatballs and the shooting star" — two filets of fish, one fried, one steamed, on an open sandwich. — Paul Galvani

If things go on schedule, we'll have a new hotel restaurant downtown come early April. Chef Michael Kramer is down to his last four weeks of experimentation before his new restaurant Voice at Hotel Icon (220 Main) celebrates its grand opening with new food and new (lighter) decor. The Voice is going for a more relaxed, casual vibe than its predecessor Bank offered.

At a recent food tasting, Kramer, who led McCrady's Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, and who studied under chefs Roland Passot, Wolfgang Puck and Dean Fearing, says he'll use as much Gulf Coast fish and produce as possible, but won't be turning down any beautiful fish from Fiji. He presented dishes of baby beets with crunchy sea salt, mushroom cappuccino, Gulf red snapper and smoked duck with micro celery — it all looked wonderful and was delicious.

Meanwhile, dessert chef Charles Allen says he's "still kind of in the lab" on which sorbets to match with his different pastry dishes. He makes a praline tart that goes well with anything and a celery sorbet that he calls the perfect palate cleanser.

Watch this space for word on the completion of the $4 million transformation of the former Union National Bank Building. — Margaret Downing


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