"Uh-oh," was my first thought upon hearing that John Puente's Restaurant had revamped its menu and rechristened itself the Woodway Grill. Would chef Brent Trudeau's provocative New American cuisine be dumbed down to match the bland new name? Would his fiercely modern version of turkey pot pie be lost to creeping menu homogenization?
No, as it turns out. For the Woodway Grill, a little toning down hasn't scuttled the interest level. Market pressures may have suggested to owners John and Tracy Puente that a less ethnic-sounding name would lessen confusion, broaden appeal. (Explaining the place wasn't a Mexican restaurant grew so tiresome.) And market pressures, more's the pity, may have banished such challenging Trudeau-isms as grilled oysters over buttery braised fennel from the menu, along with the restaurant's invigorating cranberry-walnut tart. But the cozied-up Woodway Grill, with its inviting new booths and its warm vanilla hues, still manages to entertain in its somewhat less imaginative new incarnation. Order right, and it remains one of the better (and more affordable) upmarket dining experiences in town.
Above all, this is a comfortable restaurant: solid of feel, soothing in demeanor, the increasingly rare kind of place in which it is possible to conduct a civilized conversation. The service is as attentive and professional as it can be, considering that the dining room seems to be marginally understaffed. One's fellow diners exude a certain bourgeois stability; the businessmen that crowd in at noon do not look as if they are worrying about where their next deal is coming from, and the businesswomen all look as if they have just closed a lucrative real-estate sale.
Night brings a mixture of Tanglewoody neighborhood types, stray foodies and the occasional hot young couple who seem bent on occupying the same chair. They sit beneath the (largely) tactful light of curvaceous wrought iron chandeliers and baby sconces, wrapped in a neutral cocoon of pale-washed brick and creamy walls that sprout the occasional kink. The strange curlicues athwart a doorway ... the vignette of a flute-playing dog serenading an airborne cat ... they float, inexplicable and faintly hallucinatory, on the otherwise tranquil horizon.
Just in case you might have missed the point that chef Trudeau trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, he confronts you immediately with crisp slices of a red-peppery, cheese-gilded garlic toast strewn with exclamatory needles of rosemary. Pay attention! these fancy croutons seem to command. Eating one leads to eating two, at the risk of making a first course irrelevant -- which would be too bad in the presence of a stirring seafood gumbo jazzed up with unorthodox corn kernels, or rabbit quesadillas striped from the grill. "Eat Bugs Bunny?" protested a friend of delicate sensibilities. Yup: especially in the form of these elegantly skinny triangles, spiked by a lime-freshened relish of black beans, tomato and corn.
Those who do not shrink from fried foods can fight over a huge platterful of chile-laced onion ringlets and addictive little sweet-potato shoestrings that demand to be eaten by the fistful. There's a smoky, sweet-hot cascabel chile ketchup to go along, and a briskly tart tomatillo green sauce -- not that the filigreed sweet potatoes require any adornment.
On the upper end of the entree list there are gorgeous doubled lamb chops, fat and rosy and soft as velvet. They come with a discreetly garlicked reduction of pan juices pooled on the plate, and a hillock of whipped potatoes laced with just enough goat cheese to register as a note of subtle luxury. The thriftily inclined can treat themselves to a generous bowlful of Mediterranean flavors in the form of a chicken-and-artichoke pasta dish that escapes the boredom endemic to the genre. Finesse has something to do with it, by way of resilient linguine barely coated in a graceful, savory cream. So does feistiness, by way of an emphatic olive-and-caper relish that lends interest to such commonplaces as chicken, fresh tomato and processed hearts of artichoke.
In between the pasta and lamb chop extremes, the menu yields such pleasures as grilled salmon in summery combination with cucumber crescents and the sweetest pink grapefruit; or an expansive slab of flounder baked in a gently herbed, crumblike crust and given a creamy, mustard-seeded sauce that is just lively enough without overwhelming the flaky fish. How to explain, though, the chef's budding romance with brown rice that seems to have been simmered in fish stock? Its effect is unsettling, and faintly repellent. Fortunately, the plate holds vegetable distractions: perfect emerald broccoli, corn of great freshness and crunch, waffle-cut carrots done exactly right.
Even the pitfalls here are more in the nature of shallow potholes than dire chasms. The shrimp-and-corn fritters that sound so appealing turn out to be spongy little ringers for doughnut holes -- overly browned, glistening with oil, listlessly seasoned. An interesting sounding dried-tomato and bread soup bears a disconcerting resemblance to liquid pizza -- no gooey cheese, but an all-too-familiar tomato-and-herb configuration. Stodgy chicken breast stuffed with Chappell Hill sausage, spinach and a little cheese is remarkable only for its central heap of deliciously cheesy grits. And a salad of expertly grilled, barely gelled scallops with mildly pickled spears of jicama and carrot lacks some magic ingredient that might pull it all together. It's almost there; if only the scallops, the vegetables and the undressed leaves of lettuce did not seem to exist on separate planes.
Good news, though: there are a couple of desserts here guaranteed to smooth over any rough spots in the road. One is a lemon mousse tart that is really more of an ethereal, citrus-tinged cheese cake; it is splendid enough that I scarcely missed the departed cranberry-walnut dessert from the Puente's era. And a snowy globe of amaretto ice cream rolled in smoked nuts and tiny chocolate shards is a grownups' version of the good ol' Texas pecan ball, with a pale vanilla sauce streaked by caramel in place of the traditional hot fudge. There are few witty ice cream desserts in this world, so enjoy it.
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A few notches down, but none too shabby, are a monumental carrot-and-blueberry cake and a peanuty Snickers pie that is better (and less powerfully sweet) than you might expect. An apple custard pie, however, is pale in appearance, paler still in impact. It scarcely seems to have come from the same source as that amaretto ball, or that lemon tart.
On your way out, be sure to note the refurbishment of the once-rustic, Santa Fe-style bar. Now it is moodily dark and centered on a glittery, suspended galaxy of colored glass fragments swung from chicken wire on transparent monofilament line -- a loving-hands-of-home craft project gone eccentrically moderne. Equally amusing is the barside painting of a martini olive that has come to a bad end (see to appreciate). As you exit, refrain from the impulse to give a good, swift kick to the culinary gnome who presides over the foyer. He may be annoying, but the overall experience at the reborn Woodway Grill is anything but.
Woodway Grill, 5055 Woodway, 623-0788.
chile-fried onions and shoestring sweet potatoes, $4.75;
double lamb chops with goat-cheese mashed potatoes, $22;
amaretto ice-cream ball, $5.25.