Sometimes, what appears to be a disaster can turn out to be a blessing -- even if not everyone involved recognizes it. Linda Williams, I suspect, would be one of those reluctant to admit to the blessing, but that's understandable. She was, after all, the one who bore the brunt of the disaster.
That brunt fell last year when, after a decade of catering to ladies who lunch, her Heights-based Ashland House was tossed from its home. The details of how she ended up losing her lease vary depending on whom you talk to -- Williams or her former landlord -- but it was not a happy parting. Toward the end, Williams even took to posting a notice for all her customers to see lamenting her unwelcomed eviction. Not that it mattered. By midsummer of '96 she was on the street and someone new owned her former abode. Williams was left to fend for herself in the big, bad world.
As it happens, she's fended pretty well. And the folks who ended up possessors of her former house in the Heights haven't done badly either. Where once there was a single Ashland House, now there are two, which for those who lunch is a double delight. Williams's Ashland House -- the real Ashland House, she's quick to insist -- ended up in a single-story building in Spring Branch that had most recently been a hair salon. There, in July 1996, she opened the Ashland House Restaurant, bringing with her all of her staff and many of her old customers. And since the new place is twice the size of the old one, she's busier than ever. At the same time, over in the Heights, Jim and Brenda Walters laid out some serious bucks for renovations and in September of last year opened Ashland's in the Heights, which has done very well, thank you. And so everyone lived happily ever after, and all is forgiven.
Well, maybe not all. When asked if Williams's customers following her to Spring Branch put a crimp in the business of Ashland's in the Heights, a waitress at the Ashland House Restaurant does reply brightly, "One can only hope so." But Williams, now nicely ensconced in her new place, seems more interested in strengthening her new business than obsessing over her old. Though the dwelling that now houses her restaurant has the appearance of something built in the '50s, she has managed to create that tearoom look. And while the dining areas here are larger than in her former house, there is still a sense of intimacy, especially if you sit at one of two tables tucked behind a pair of huge trees that grow through the roof of one of the backroom additions.
Williams's new tearoom is, like her old, a soup, salad and sandwich kind of place. And as was the case in her old incarnation, the offerings here vary in their level of success. While the cup of vegetable soup is laden with vegetables and was very warming on a chilly, wintry day, it lacks anything memorable. Better is the cheese soup, a house specialty made with three different cheeses that's smooth and yet is chock full of vegetable chunks. Thanks to a dose of cayenne pepper it has a nice heat level. That touch of imagination is lacking in the pita sandwich, a baked chicken breast served with sauteed mushrooms, onions and melted cheese that is then stuffed into half of a pita shell along with lettuce and guacamole. Unfortunately, when I had it, the pita bread was cold; it would have been improved by grilling, which would have brought out more of the flavors. The chicken tarragon salad was enhanced by the tarragon; with the fresh fruit served on the side it could be considered a heart-healthy lunch (assuming you exclude the sour cream).
Williams justifiably prides herself on her desserts. On any given day, displayed on a sideboard for all to see are more than a dozen cakes, all homemade. An Italian cream cake is a triple-layered example of her flair with desserts: A cream cheese walnut frosting is interspersed between the layers and covers the top. My delight with this made me perk up when the server described the hummingbird cake as "a layered spice cake with bananas, pineapple, pecans and a cream cheese frosting." What I got, however, was not quite as exotic as what I'd expected -- it was basically banana nut bread gilded with a cream cheese topping. Not bad, but I would probably have skipped it if not for the delicious description.
One nice point that sets the Ashland House Restaurant apart from other such places is its high tea. The English have elevated the taking of tea to an art form, but except for the Ritz-Carlton, the Ashland House is the only place I know of in Houston where this civilized ritual can be enjoyed. Except for the use of tea bags -- which are soon to be replaced with loose tea -- this is as close to the real thing as you can get. High tea is a mid-afternoon repast normally served between lunch and supper, and is made up of tea sandwiches, cakes and pastries. A glimpse of what's available can be seen in the still life promoting the tea service that's arranged in the middle of the Ashland House's dining room. Set upon a lace tablecloth is a teapot, some fine china and a pair of ladies' gloves.
The $9.95 per person charge may seem a little steep at first, but once one experiences the almost endless stream of delicacies, it seems more than reasonable. Following the presentation of a large teapot and some haphazard china, round one begins with homemade cheese crackers, each the size of a silver dollar. They seem innocuous enough, at least until the heat kicks in like an afterburner. Round two brings a plate of small sandwiches, all with different shapes and all missing their crusts. One is a round Cheddar cheese and chives on whole wheat bread, another a rectangular cream cheese and cucumber on pumpernickel. Yet another is a square egg mayonnaise on wheat; there's also a turkey walnut celery salad on wheat. Finally, there's the requisite cucumber sandwich on none other than white bread. Round three brings what the English refer to as "sweetmeats," two tiny muffins with a cream cheese and nut topping, a small slice of a moist chocolate cake with chocolate-striped icing on top and two mini-tarts fat with a cherry filling and topped with whipped cream. Round four is reserved for the scones. About the size of a typical American biscuit, they're served with strawberry jam and more whipped cream. Hot water is added to the teapot at just the right time. There is hardly anything dainty about this sweet feast -- it's downright decadent, which might be enough to turn an English tradition into a Texas one.
Meanwhile, if you head on over to Ashland's in the Heights, you can tell immediately that you've arrived somewhere special -- especially if you come by way of 19th Street. Built in 1907 by H.J. McDonald, this is a genuine piece of Houston antiquity (though, of course, anything older than 25 years is considered ancient in this town). It has the air of a stately manor. The Walterses expended considerable effort in their renovations, and in the process crafted a friendly, comfy, traditional Victorian tearoom atmosphere, one accentuated by lace curtains throughout and a front door made of stained glass. The place cozily seats 60 in a series of small rooms.
Considering that Brenda Walters's only professional culinary experiences are two courses she took at UH's Conrad Hilton School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, she is obviously a gifted chef. That, or she follows directions exceptionally well. Her husband Jim, a retired petroleum engineer, plays host and cashier and, wisely, would not dream of interfering in the kitchen. By keeping the menu simple, only offering soups, salads and sandwiches with one daily hot plate special, and by only opening for lunch, the Walterses have managed to cope with the crowd of diners they've attracted. Seven months in, they're obviously still trying to work out the kinks. On more than one occasion when I visited they were out of many dishes as well as a couple of desserts, and this was early in the lunch hour. One hopes this problem will resolve itself with time.
Brenda does an exceptional job with her soups -- which change daily -- even though on occasion they seemed a little on the thin side. The cream of chicken with asparagus soup, though, didn't leave one searching for the ingredients; it was laden with both chicken and asparagus. The split pea soup was very smooth and must have been simmering for hours, since it had a wonderful ham flavor. The cream of mushroom soup had lots of mushroom slices, but it also had a little too much butter, which floated to the top.
The avocado shrimp salad, a recently introduced menu item, is something I found lacking in any substantive flavor, save for black pepper. Mixed with celery, onion and green pepper, the shrimp sit atop the avocado and are doused with a tart, very vinegary dressing. The accompanying deviled egg looks lonely, but it's a welcome addition. The Reuben sandwich is an undeniable mouthful, but an unimaginative and not inexpensive one. A mound of shaved slices of corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese is mixed with a traditional Reuben dressing and served on grilled rye bread. Not only a better value, but a much better dish, is the Thai grilled chicken salad. A sliced, grilled chicken breast is served with traditional salad greens; it could have been like any other chicken salad, only it was saved by the addition of crisp oriental noodles and a spicy peanut sauce that turned it into much more exotic fare.
The warm apple and peach cobbler has a wafer-thin crust dusted with sugar. The combination of apples with peaches is a definite plus, since it's almost like eating two desserts as you savor both flavors. Good as that is, it isn't at the top of Ashland's menu hierarchy. That honor belongs to the white chocolate bread pudding. Every once in a while I come across a dish that surprises me, and at Ashland's, it's the pudding. Easily large enough to share, it comes in a four-inch square that's at least one inch thick. All of the dessert presentations are glamorous and spectacular, but particularly this one. Four dollops of whipped cream sit on the pudding's four corners; a sweet raspberry sauce tops the mounds of cream. The pudding is so moist that the bread, golden sultanas, coconut and pine nuts all meld together wonderfully. But it is the sauce upon which the expansive pudding rests that sets my taste buds aflutter. Its pale cream color almost does it an injustice in its plainness. Made of hazelnuts and Frangelica liqueur, it's a sauce that makes you want to pick up the plate and lick the hell out of it. Until, of course, one realizes that one is in the company of others. Pity.
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The only thing missing here are some signature dishes -- except, that is, for the bread pudding -- something that will bring diners back again and again. Given time, I believe Brenda Walters will concoct such dishes. But even without it, the Ashland house is a nice house to eat in -- both of them.
Ashland House Restaurant, 7611 Westview, 682-7611; Ashland's in the Heights, 1801 Ashland, 862-5788.
Ashland House Restaurant: cheese soup, $3; chicken tarragon salad, $6.50; pita sandwich, $6; Italian cream cake, $3; high tea, $9.95.
Ashland's in the Heights: cream of chicken with asparagus soup, $2.75; Reuben sandwich, $6.95; Thai grilled chicken salad, $7.25; white chocolate bread pudding, $4.25.