Unlikely Lunches

Lunch at Houston's cities-within-the-city just got a lot more interesting. At the Galleria, Neiman Marcus has plunked its sleek, amusing sidewalk cafe of the future -- Il Posto -- right out on the mall's main street, with a painted Tiepolo sky above and sacred temples of consumerism on every side. And over at the restaurant-poor Medical Center, Houston's answer to the Silver Palate gals have conjured a charming, homey oasis -- the Cafe Don Bosco -- amid the towering acres of concrete.

In a perfect world, Don Bosco's captivating food would be served in Il Posto's captivating space, and everyone would live happily ever after. That's because Il Posto's pretty, pricey goods -- while better than they have to be -- are not as good as they could be; and because, for all its warmth and soul, Don Bosco is inconvenient for people who aren't already (expensively) parked and doing business at the Medical Center. But in this imperfect world, each spot manages in its different fashion to humanize its corner of the city.

The beauty of Il Posto is its vastly entertaining concept: it's the Houston equivalent of the posh little cafes that march up the middle of the pedestrians-only Karntnerstrasse, Vienna's Rodeo Drive. Only here there's a roof, and plenty of central air conditioning, and instead of a real city unfolding around you there is the perfumed cocoon of the mall to end all malls, complete with its rich human circus.

Sitting behind Il Posto's low chrome-and-wood fence, with one of its handsomely spare chairs pulled up to a burnished, streamlined table, you have one of Houston's catbird seats. Look! Going into Barneys, shopping bag in hand! Isn't that gallery owner Hiram Butler? And when did he chop off his signature ponytail, anyway? There's a guy who looks like an MTV star heading for the Versace Versus shop ... should you know him? Whoops. Someone you do know is bustling out of Neiman's, wearing his favorite Bottega Veneta tie, the one with the monkeys on it. You wave him over. He sits. He orders coffee. He raises a jaded eyebrow at the individual French press it arrives in: even Mr. Been-There-Done-That is impressed.

For this is nothing if not an individual French press kind of place. Il Posto is more style than substance, if you want to get right down to it, but here in the most upscale reaches of Houston's most upscale mall, that seems only fitting. The waiters and counter guys, looking like a multiethnic poster for Benetton, sport fashionably cut tunics that owe more to Commes des Garcons than to a chef's supply house. A full third of the beautifully designed little menu is devoted to "boutique varietal coffees" of the estate-grown sort, no less. Even the chips that arrive with sandwiches are hip chips, by god, wrought of beet and yucca and plantain instead of plebeian old potatoes.

The sandwiches in question are likable ones, mostly, made with respectable local breads and accessorized with such trend-conscious ingredients as horseradish aioli. My choice to accompany the spectacle of a cutting-edge Barneys window display under construction would be the grilled portabello mushrooms and tartly marinated eggplant on farm bread (from the Empire Bakery, I am happy to say). Or anything with the rare roast beef that shows up pretty regularly -- in the company of grilled peppers, perhaps, or (you knew this was coming, didn't you?) goat cheese.

I did take exception to the dryish pork tenderloin that adorned one daily-special sandwich, although its focaccia bread and pungent imported fontina cheese got good marks. So did its aioli dressing, which beat mayonnaise by a garlicky mile. There's always a salad (maybe immaculate spinach with bacon and marinated chicken, in a rather too laid-back vinaigrette). There's always a pair of soups, including a perfectly nice roasted-tomato and three-bean variety that tastes less special than it sounds. (I had visions of those multi-bean soup packets that upmarket grocery stores sell.)

Mostly, though, the food is room-temperature stuff that is more a matter of assemblage than cooking; at its core, Il Posto is little more than an exceptionally handsome kiosk with a lifeline to Neiman's third-floor cafe, The Cafe, whence cometh the cold, cooked meats and the clean coffee cups.

Not to mention the occasional ambitious special: poblano peppers stuffed with a good-quality shrimp salad on one recent afternoon, the shellfish bound with the gentlest of goat cheeses. With its boutique lettuces underneath and its vivid garnish of red and yellow peppers, this cold plate was modern Texas luncheon-party food; poblanos notwithstanding, Helen Corbitt, Neiman's late, great food guru, would have understood.

Still, Il Posto is a long, long way from Neiman's late Mariposa Room, the delft-tiled in-store restaurant that caused such a stir among Junior League types when it opened back in 1969. The Mariposa was its own polite world, shut off from the traffic of the store -- much less the brave new mall. I couldn't help wondering what the very civilized Corbitt would have thought about dining directly athwart such meccas of conspicuous consumption as Tiffany's, Mark Cross, Fendi and Piccolini, an Italianate kids' store selling tiny dresses that cost in the mid-three figures and look like something the very young Marie Antoinette might have worn.  

Quintessential Houston, is the way I see it. Seduced by the view, I know now to skip Il Posto's elderly banana nut muffin and choose one of the Empire Bakery's superlative apple tarts, which can feed two or three people. I know to ignore the flavor of hazelnut that may unaccountably creep into my cup of Ethiopian Harrar coffee. I even know to overlook the mummified state displayed by the counter's menu-items-under-glass; where are those Japanese plastic food replicas when you need them?

I know, too, to keep an ear peeled for the sound of polyglot accents, and an eye peeled for Galleria vignettes. Without breaking stride, a T-shirted teenager reaches over Il Posto's rail to gently stroke a matte silver pepper grinder that resembles some celestial apple. A family that might have come from Conroe, or Schulenberg, perches innocently on the cafe's high-style fence to rest their feet. Chic saleswomen from Neiman's cluster at Il Posto's counter in their standard-issue black, bearing away chic takeout containers that are done up in black, too. Barneys' window dresser has abandoned his three naked mannequins; my diet-conscious companion notes with satisfaction that they boast anatomically correct stomach folds. When the tab arrives, I recognize it for what it is: rent on one of the best seats in town.

When the tab arrives at Cafe Don Bosco, on the other hand, I recognize it for one of the city's real bargains. Everybody and his dog has to do panini these days, but Don Bosco chef Amber Poole, who has catered locally and once ran the Onyx Tearoom, does these ubiquitous Italian sandwiches right: showing up at 3 a.m. to bake her own fat, springy focaccia bread; roasting her own chickens to the proper turn; anointing them with a verdant, rosemary-laced pesto; tucking in strings of sauteed onion and rounds of Roma tomato. The results have a lovely, handmade quality, and it's almost a shock to encounter chicken that has a roasted texture rather than the usual dense, boiled dampness.

Half a Don Bosco's panini du jour -- which is just about the right size -- comes with a cup of soup, a jot of salad, a small house coffee and a big, mom-like cookie for the grand total of $5.75. It's a deal. And it's a beautiful plate, too, with sliced kiwis and strawberries and an adorable, astringent kumquat posing as if for a glossy food mag against the deep-blue soup mug.

The panini might be made with prosciutto and provolone, or salami and mozzarella. The soup might be an almost perfumed posole bobbing with white hominy kernels, cabbage and chicken. Or brothy black bean with a cap of sour cream, an undercurrent of cilantro and a red-pepper tinge that lights up the tongue -- plus tiny curls of bay shrimp that give it a real south-of-the-border flavor. Swell stuff, every element identifiable, but all working together.

The surroundings -- all half-dozen tables' worth -- are just as fetching and individual as the food. Don Bosco's diminutive, pumpkin-walled grotto opens off the eerie, vintage lobby of the Medical Towers building, on Dryden between Fannin and South Main; it recently housed a branch of Mientje's coffeehouse, which left a hallucinatory painted strip of blue sky and white clouds hovering over the door. From the distressed-concrete floors to the patterned tin ceiling, from the countrified tables and chairs to the classical and Latin music wafting from the sound system, it's all very classy and inviting. All, that is, except the jarring soft-drink case that occupies one corner, looking like a tourist who wandered in by mistake. But in the context of such cozy colors and warm, subdued light, it's easy to ignore.

The coffee sack thrown across one high-backed wooden bench happens to be from the Panama coffee plantation owned by co-proprietress Nancy Moreno's in-laws. Ergo the Don Bosco name, and the excellent house coffees -- shipped from Panama and roasted here in Houston, where they end up as stout cappuccino, espresso and a variety of regular or flavored brews. They're a nice counterpart to Poole's inspired baking, which produces such rewards as banana nut muffins studded with bittersweet chocolate and an almondy, anise-flavored biscotti as good as anything in town.  

Moreno, a striking presence with a mane of black hair and an easy manner, works the semi-service counter where you order and pay. Poole, a reassuring presence in kitchen mufti and her signature black fedora, pops in and out of the dining room. Her menu is still mutating, as the menus of infant restaurants tend to do, with a revolving slate of items that change daily. For now, at least, Thursdays mean Chicken Marbella -- a dish that food mavens will recognize as an homage to the original Silver Palate cookbook, the homey-but-contemporary sensibility of which matches Poole's own. "Eat your heart out, Boulevard Bistrot," joked a friend of mine as she vacuumed up every last one of the prunes and olives that give this brine-and-herb-tinged chicken dish its Mediterranean character. Al dente green beans, a nice orzo salad, a price tag of $6.75 ... it's hard to beat.

So is the focaccia pizza. Cut into user-friendly thirds, it's really more of an open-faced sandwich that's a lush dose of summer: ripe Roma tomatoes, melted provolone and shredded Parmesan, plenty of green-tasting pesto to soften the splendidly crusty, spongy bread. I found myself thinking that I could eat it for breakfast. Speaking of which, Don Bosco starts dispensing coffee and baked goods at 6:30 a.m.

A couple of caveats apply here. Parking in the adjoining Medical Towers or the nearby Scurlock Tower is a pain in the neck. You can take your chances on the somewhat restricted side streets across Main, but that's a pain in the neck, too. And Don Bosco's service and kitchen drill are still at a balky, fledgling stage; your food may not come out fast, but it comes out in a form that is liable to make you forget, momentarily, what a pain in the neck even felt like. In the Medical Center -- or anywhere else -- that's something.

Cafe Don Bosco, Medical Towers lobby, 1709 Dryden at Fannin, 799-9496. Il Posto, Galleria I at the main entrance to Neiman Marcus, 2600 South Post Oak, 621-7100.

Il Posto:
grilled mushroom and eggplant sandwich, $6.95; apple tart, $4; Ethiopian Harrar coffee, $2.25.

Don Bosco: chicken pesto panini, $4.50; black bean soup $3.75; cappuccino $1.60; banana-and-chocolate muffin, $1.25.

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