$13 at Café Rabelais in Rice Village

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: Café Rabelais, 2442 Times Boulevard, 713-520-8841

What $13 gets you: If you’re me, a profoundly dissatisfying and discomfiting meal.

I steer clear of upscale restaurants because too often I end up feeling out-of-place, undeserving and just plain sad. And when it comes to ordering, it seems I always choke.

Recently, following an interview with a Rice University professor, I rode Sunset west into Rice Village and wandered into Café Rabelais. I should have followed my instincts and returned to the street after noticing how nearly every table included a middle-aged white woman with a pageboy haircut and white sweater tied at the neck. Was this a café or a country club?

But the diners appeared far stuffier than the place itself, which employs giant chalkboards as menus. Lunch items include great-sounding salads such as warm goat cheese, country ham and hazelnuts over a spring mix ($7.95) and sandwiches including a fresh tuna steak with egg, tomato spring mix and oil on crusty bread ($8.95).

Pretty much everything on the menu sounded wonderful. And, looking around, everyone was enjoying their meals, which came with golden fries served European-style in paper cups.

So why in hell did I order, of all things, a plate of smelts?

Recommended? If you’re not me, yes.

Café Rabelais is best known for its extensive wine list, and has received numerous awards from Wine Spectator magazine. It’s no slouch in the food department, either. The 2008 edition of the popular restaurant guide Zagat gave it a 26 out of 30 for food, a very enviable rating.

True to form, I got what must be the worst dish on the menu. In my defense, I do usually enjoy smelts and very rarely see them on menus. The best I’ve had were in Greek restaurants. These were the worst.

The six itty-bitty pan-fried filets, each about the size of a canned sardine, were too salty to eat. Big springs of parsley were jammed into a cup of remoulade that tasted like jarred tartar sauce. I managed to get down two fishies then gave up. My lunch instead consisted of the complimentary bread and butter and a bottomless glass of iced tea ($1.50).

Bonus point: More than 500 wines to choose from. – Todd Spivak

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