Every once in a while, I encounter an older restaurant that's changed or grown so much over the years that it practically begs for a review -- even if Robb Walsh or one of my other Houston Press predecessors have already ably reviewed it in the past. Charivari, the subject of this week's cafe review, is one such restaurant.
Walsh reviewed Charivari almost exactly 12 years ago, and was as fond of chef Johann Schuster's elegant Continental cuisine as I am today. The difference between now and then, however, is that as Schuster has settled into the Midtown strip center that houses his charmingly old-school restaurant, he's made plenty of changes along the way.
Charivari still serves the seafood choucroute that Walsh was so taken with, and it's still as good as it ever was. If you've never considered eating sauerkraut with lobster or salmon, allow chef Schuster to change your mind about the pairing. Wrote Walsh of the dish in 2001:
I have never found a restaurant in the United States that even comes close to good Alsatian choucroute. Until now. I am absolutely astonished to say that Charivari serves the best seafood choucroute I've ever eaten. And I've eaten a lot of it. With a forkful of tender winekraut, a chunk of lobster tail and a dollop of cream sauce, I even convince my girlfriend, Miss Skeptical, a St. Louis native who firmly believes that sauerkraut should be confined to hot dogs, to reconsider her Midwestern attitudes about fermented cabbage.
But alongside that choucroute and a few other Continental standards, Schuster has introduced a wide array of newer dishes, ingredients and techniques. Although the term "Continental cuisine" often calls to mind stuffy, dusty dining rooms filled with decrepit diners and boring dishes, there is nothing boring about Charivari. Lunch specials change every day, and dinner always afford the opportunity to try something new.
Schuster is maybe best known for his seasonal cooking and the monthly specials he serves, from Peruvian dinners designed to showcase the country's increasingly popular cuisine to white asparagus menus that gleefully incorporate the creamy stalks into every sort of dish imaginable. He even serves black bear from time to time, but you need to keep an eye out for it on the menu or you'll miss it.
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But if you are in the market for the classics, Charivari still executes those flawlessly as well, including the finest foie gras I've ever had in Houston. These days, however, you can wash it down with draft beers from the relatively new tap lines Schuster installed a few years back that carry beers both German and Texan. It's just one small example of how a restaurant can continually improve while staying grounded and true to its roots.