Cafe Zol Gets a Makeover

When Cafe Zol opened in early 2008 in the old Crostini location on Shepherd near Westheimer, the menu was billed as "Scandinavian tapas." Houston food cognoscenti responded with head scratching and mixed reviews, wondering if there really needed to be a challenger to the local IKEA superstore's apparent monopoly on such cuisine. But owner Liz Knox made a right go of it, even bringing in a chef from Denmark.

A year and a half later, Cafe Zol has reinvented itself. Gone are the Scandinavian tapas and quirky green alligator logo, replaced by a "New American" menu, i.e. comfort food that everyone likes to eat. It's quite normal to see a niche restaurant serving a somewhat obscure cuisine eventually yell uncle and fall back to the broadly palatable New American concept. Some make it work, some don't.

Cafe Zol is still owned by Liz Knox, although the Danish chef has returned to the homeland. In his stead comes Executive Chef James Peterson, late of Bistro Lancaster downtown. The menu includes lots of crowd pleasers, including filet mignon, veal and lamb chops, salmon, scallops and duck breast. Mains are priced at $25-35, and lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch are all served. The posted hours indicate the kitchen is open until 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, and midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Those are late hours for an ambitious and upscale menu of this type, and certainly welcome by late-night diners looking for more than pizza, poor boys and tacos. There's also live music Wednesdays through Saturdays.

A recent lunch visit found the dining room empty, though the staff was friendly and enthusiastic. We ordered off the lunch and dinner menus. The creamy leek and gorgonzola cheese soup ($7) was well-executed and filling, if a bit heavy for a hot August afternoon. Semolina-crusted calamari with chipotle aioli ($12) had a light breading that allowed the taste of the very tender and fresh squid to come through nicely.

For our main course we ordered off the lunch menu -- mini-burgers with tenderloin tips, fresh basil, roma tomatoes, and white-wine mustard ($12). They came with a side of fresh-cut french fries. Basically upscale sliders, they were, again, filling and well-executed.

It's always hard to tell if a restaurant re-invention is brilliant strategy or desperate maneuvering. Cafe Zol's new menu certainly looks promising, if a bit pricey, and Chef Peterson seems to have the chops to bring it to life. The Sunday brunch menu looks interesting, with lots of omelets and build-your-own pancakes. It's certainly a capable makeover -- let's hope customers agree.

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