It's Saturday evening at 15 past seven, and Corner Table by Chef Bruce Molzan is packed. In the private dining room to the right of the entrance, a group of women, dressed fashionably like Sex and the City fashionistas, are having a small party. The main dining room is awash with this sort of manic, merry madness, and a person in front of me is complaining about why her reservation can't be found in the system.
I wait patiently before checking in with the hostess, only to be informed — surprise, surprise — that my table is not ready. I spy my dining companion at the small bar across the room and make my way to join him. We settle in comfortably, with me facing the hostess stand and entrance and him facing the dining room.
"It's crazy here!" I exclaim excitedly as I watch the scene on display. Attractive, well-dressed patrons are weaving about the room, some coming and going as they check out the adjacent bar, 1919 Wine and Mixology, going out to the patio and back before checking in with the hostess so that they can be led to their seats. There's a sense of consciousness to their movements, as if they know they are being watched, the men displaying a bit of swagger while the women sway their hips provocatively.
Hours: 11 a.m. to10p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Sundays. Fried organic house-made pickles: $8.00 Chef's crab cake: $14.00 Avocado crab tower: $17.00 Greek salad: $11.00 Beet salad: $12.00 Foie Gras Kobe Beef Burger: $26.00 Short Rib Pizza: $18.00 Paleo fish tacos: $18.00 Paleo Paella: $29.00 Zataar Chicken: $26.00 Pistachio crusted flounder: $30.00 White chocolate bread pudding $7.95
View More: Slideshow: A Closer Look At Corner Table Restaurant Blog: Bruce Molzan is Back with Corner Table: This Week's Cafe Review
I'm talking animatedly to my friend, my voice straining a bit to be heard over the ambient noise. We're gossiping about the place even as we are sitting smack dab in the middle of it — about the fabulous shabby-chic decor with the charming chandeliers dotting the ceiling; about someone's hairstyle, dress or pair of fabulous heels; about the mouthwatering-looking food that's passing by on a server's tray; and about the chef.
The chef is definitely gossip material. Known as the mastermind behind the highly successful Ruggles Grill and other enterprises bearing the Ruggles name, Bruce Molzan saw his flagship go down in ignominy after his staff staged a publicly documented walkout, alleging that Molzan had failed to pay them thousands in wages and tips. The scandal even followed him to Corner Table, where former employees picketed the restaurant, demanding to be paid.
But to watch him move about the restaurant with apparent ease, shaking hands with patrons and presenting food to the rapt attention of his guests, it's evident that Molzan has moved on to a newer, more successful chapter of his life.
"Bruce has total control over his food. It's his vision," declares Michelle Coopwood as I speak to her over the phone. Coopwood and her mother, Darla Lexington, own the three concepts that are housed at 2736 Virginia — 1919 Wine and Mixology, The Oak Bar and Nightclub, and Corner Table.
Longtime friends of Molzan, Coopwood and her mother specifically recruited him as head of the restaurant. "He had first right of refusal," Coopwood said, making it clear that she had nothing but admiration for him: "I liken him to an artist."
There's definitely a certain aesthetic sensibility to the food that comes out of Molzan's kitchen. Like the gorgeous photos you'll find on Corner Table's Web page, the food is vibrant and colorful, with lots of primary colors coming from the many vegetables that are used in each dish.
Up close, however, Molzan's food has a busy, almost frenetic appearance. He has an affinity for what I call "squigglies." There was the squiggly mayonnaise, applied generously all over our fish tacos in a criss-cross pattern in the same way that an abstract painter might slash paint across a canvas. There were also the squiggly tuiles, essentially thin butter cookies shaped kind of like a double pound sign, protruding upright from many of the desserts.
His avocado and jumbo lump crab tower was topped with squiggly sweet potato crisps. And his beet salad, topped with what looked like a glob of spring salad mix, had a squiggly pattern of dressing applied all over the beets.
Though his plates are new — he favors a white casserole dish with one handle for many of his dishes — his plating style is very similar to what he used during his Ruggles heyday, with the protein or main component in the center of the plate and vegetables off to the side — usually asparagus, tomatoes and baby carrots.
People don't seem to mind this throwback to Ruggles, perhaps embracing it with nostalgia. They are also loving the dishes he created for the "Paleo" portion of his menu, which focuses on "protein, vegetables and fruit. No gluten, grains, dairy or legumes." I wish I could see what the hype was all about.
Of the Paleo dishes that I sampled, two were a complete bust and one was merely okay. The most disappointing dish was the one I'd looked forward to the most: The Paleo Paella looked attractive on the plate but tasted nothing like a paella should, the cauliflower "rice" pureed into a mush that was unappealing and so salty that my companion took one or two bites and pushed it away. The server took it back and subtracted it from our bill.
Another night, the highly praised Paleo Zataar Chicken came to the table drowned in an overly sour, lemony sauce. The viscous sauce gave the chicken skin a slimy texture, which combined with the already squishy cauliflower puree to ill effect. I wasn't going to say anything, but my server pressed me for a verdict on the dish, appearing flummoxed when I gave him my true opinion. He mumbled something about letting the chef know, but in the end did nothing, and the dish was taken back to the kitchen virtually uneaten.
The non-Paleo dishes on the menu were generally superior to the Paleo ones. Of those, Molzan's simplest dishes — the ones with the least amount of ingredients on the plate — were the most pleasing.
His fried organic house-made pickles, for instance, came to the table on a simple wooden platter flanked by two types of dipping sauce. "These are yummy!" I exclaimed, enjoying the firm texture of the lightly sweet pickles with their crisp breaded outer shell. Molzan's signature crab cake, though unappealing visually (it looked like a browned hamburger patty drowned in sauce) displayed a great balance of texture and flavor. Generously portioned, the panko crust was light and flaky, while the spicy roasted pepper sauce had just the right amount of creaminess and savoriness.
The standout dish from all my visits was the Foie Gras Kobe Beef Burger, which I ordered for lunch on a Thursday afternoon. It arrived at the table open-faced, assembling to form a gloriously high tower of bun, meat, and fresh vegetables. Instead of melted cheese, Molzan layered in a piece of crispy quinoa parmesan cheese tuile, which gave each bite a bit of crunch. A bigger piece of foie gras would have been nice, but the overall combination of foie gras with port reduction, combined with the candied apple and ginger and a perfectly cooked, juicy medium rare patty, was insanely delicious. I smiled merrily as my friend took a bite of the corner I gave her, rounding her eyes and exclaiming "Amaze-balls!" If only all the dishes were that good.
Wearing a flowing chiffon top in an attractive bright orange color, Lexington made a stop at our table to introduce herself the first night I was there. "My name is Darla, and I'm the owner here," she said as she inquired about how things were going. I appreciated the personal touch of that brief encounter. She was pleasant and gracious, like a hostess at a party. Having just finished our appetizers, we told her that everything was going well.
That was before we had the Greek salad with soggy lettuce and the salty paella that we had to send back. And it was prior to my subsequent visits, when we had a tasty but soggy-centered caramelized onion and short rib pizza, a disappointing beet salad, and my sour Zataar Chicken.
I can pick one dish from each of my visits that I liked unequivocally, but the rest of the dishes had problems. Something as simple as a cappuccino even went wrong: It came beautifully presented on a wooden platter with a chocolate spoon and a fantastic house-made macaroon, but they forgot the foamed milk on top, so I had to order steamed milk on the side.
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The famous Ruggles white chocolate bread pudding, my go-to dessert for as long as I can remember, was not the molten-hot, silky-smooth center with golden crispy top that I remembered. The innards were more like a curdled custard, and the top was white and almost stale in taste and texture.
And then there was the snapper and crab chowder, which came with Gulf crab and red snapper, along with tortilla strips and sausage. If you took a bite with the tortilla chips, it tasted like a tortilla soup; if you took a bite with the sausage, it tasted like gumbo. My friend liked it, but for me, the chowder had an identity crisis — it didn't know what it wanted to be, and it was trying to do too much, much like the restaurant itself.
"The menu needs to be edited," my companion pronounced at the end of my first meal there. The oversized menu currently offers eight categories: appetizers, soups, salads, burgers, Paleo, pastas, pizzas and entrees. On top of that, there was an extra daily specials menu on the side, offering at least ten more choices. Shortening the menu would allow them to focus on execution, creating more consistency.
Not that it seems to matter. Every year, there's that one restaurant — the one that's anointed by the public as the "it" place to be. Whether it's the menu, the Molzan name, the Ruggles legacy, the location, the decor or the owners, Corner Table is definitely River Oaks' darling of the moment. Let's hope that more of the food there soon matches up to all that positive momentum.