The concept is an admirable one, though. Eric's, located on the first floor of UH's "practice" Hilton and named after Conrad Hilton's son, is the casual counterpart to the upscale Barron's Restaurant (much praised by another of our reviewers; see "Grade A," by Paul Galvani, August 6, 1997). Better that students learn early what a heartbreaker the restaurant business can be, I think. And far better that they're gently trained, rather than handed an order pad and tossed into the maelstrom of a real restaurant.
Putting together the "casual" keyword and the college campus locale, I expected a sort of rathskellar ambience at Eric's: Formica tables, indestructible plastic chairs, packets of prefab condiments and maybe, with luck, a full-scale food fight. I was pleasantly surprised to find a handsome, high-ceilinged room paneled in cherry wood, festooned with impressive arrangements of fresh flowers and decked out with real linens. I was even a bit intimidated -- I immediately regretted wearing my scruffy, bulging backpack and tried to hide it under the table.
I watched our waitress-in-training carefully, trying to guess what she'd been taught. She was pleasantly perky and seemed eager to please. Maybe a little too perky, as she effusively praised our every menu choice as one of her personal favorites. I didn't mind being told how smart I was to pick what I did, I'll admit; that course section on buttering up must be fairly effective.
We started with a truly admirable Peruvian-style seviche ($6.95), made exclusively with shrimp and snapper, and beautifully arranged on the plate. Perfect endive leaves, thin slices of buttery avocado and just barely ripe mango fanned out from the central mound of fish, threaded with tiny strands of Spanish onion. We liked the grilled portobello bruschetta ($4.95), too, and it tasted exactly like pizza, just as Ms. Perky had promised. Wedges of crisp French bread were topped with lightly grilled slabs of mushroom and gobbets of sun-dried tomatoes, and I'd guess run quickly under the broiler to melt the thatch of finely grated manchego cheese. There was a pretty little red tortilla cup of fresh, smoky-flavored salsa in the center.
The star of the meal turned out to be the steaming hot soup plate of Peruvian seafood "choclo" ($5.95). We literally locked spoons over the last few drops of this rich, creamy corn chowder, generously chunky with fish and shrimp and kernels of corn straight from the cob. It was prettily sprinkled with bits of red bell pepper and forest-green poblano. I noticed that the two other dinner soups are both vegetarian numbers, one even suitable for vegans, a nice nod to the politically correct dining habits of most of my fellow students. (This is in marked eco-contrast to the restaurant's puzzling practice of replacing each iced tea or water glass with a fresh one, rather than refilling. We must have racked up half a dozen clean glasses each.) Still, these starter dishes were as good as most and better than many I've encountered lately; I'd give the kids a solid A for their effort.
It wasn't until our dinner entrées arrived that we got the faintest whiff of what I think of as "hotel food," refugees from the rubber-chicken circuit. The Grotto and Churrascos pedigree of executive chef César Rodriguez shows. The New World theme runs even stronger in the main dishes, what with bistecca chimichurried and "à la Pampa," or mariscada moho picante. And, I might add, at prices that will clean out a starving student's wallet, ranging from $10.95 to $19.95 per plate.
We tried the "Rollo-Pollo" ($16.95), a roulade as pretty in cross-section as a California roll: chicken breast wrapped around a rock lobster tail, with slivers of poblano and queso fresco tucked inside. It was a challenging assignment, I'll bet, but the execution fell a bit short of the picture-perfect presentation. The chicken unfortunately was dry and tough, and the bright yellowish-orange sauté sauce, said to be saffron-aji, looked and tasted more like bland, runny Velveeta.
We had better luck with the veal rack ($19.95), a grilled chop so fragrant with corn-shuck smoke that it didn't really need its overly sweet sherry-corn sauce. All of Eric's entrées include vegetables; we got tasty butter-glazed baby zucchinis, mashed potatoes pouffed from a pastry bag and those oven-broiled whole tomatoes that show up at so many awards banquets. The salty manchego topping is a good idea, but good tomatoes underneath -- rather than these pinkish, pulpy hothouse numbers -- would have been a better one. We also got a wedge of quiche, which I'd never before thought to count as a vegetable. It cooled a little too fast and was a little too eggy for my taste.
Eric's also serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week, at prices a little less steep than at dinner but probably still prohibitive for most students. Yes, the Huevos Eric ($8.95) are served with salsa, and a tasty homemade chorizo salsa at that; I give extra credit for the crisp arepas underneath. Lunch entrées tend toward the pasta end of the spectrum; the exceptions are the Big Salad ($7.95 with chicken, $10.95 with shrimp), notable for its creamy, spicy-tart tamarind dressing, and the good but pricey half-pound burger ($7.25), topped with your choice of Cabrales blue or that manchego cheese again. The cottage fries alongside, I am happy to report, are impeccably cooked.
Given the price and the decor, Eric's will have to attract the attention of off-campus visitors. In its favor, I will say that the parking garage underneath the hotel is the only surefire parking I know of on campus, well worth the $3.25 fee at lunchtime. (Even better, it's free after dark.) Given the on-campus choices between vending machines, franchise fried foods and the menu at Eric's, I whip out my credit card at Eric's with heartfelt gratitude. But if I weren't already on campus, would I make a trip across town to dine there? Hmm, possibly not. So maybe we should all look at this as a public service we can perform as committed Houston diners: support these trainees and patronize their laboratory, all selfishly, of course, to ensure continued fine food and competent service in our future.
Eric's Restaurant, Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, 4800 Calhoun, entrance no. 1, University of Houston, (713)743-2513.