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Culture Shock

Houston is the best city for test-marketing a restaurant in the USA," enthuses Scott Demick, the manager of Fire + Ice [2801 Kirby Drive, (713)522-4500], a restaurant whose owners are remodeling the imposing neoclassical building that housed the Hard Rock Cafe for more than a decade. For those Houstonians old enough to remember when a top-tier restaurant was identified by such touches as a baked potato neatly wrapped in aluminum foil or a chilled salad fork, this is good news, startling news.

Trend-setting in the restaurant business is still something of a West Coast phenomenon, usually reserved for places like Berkeley and San Francisco. Being at ground zero for test-marketing, however, is seemingly a step in the right direction. It suggests that Mr. or Ms. Statistically Average Houstonian eats meals out often enough, at restaurants good enough and varied enough, to make informed choices. Considering our town's other distinctions -- most polluted city in the United States, located in a state with the busiest executioners -- Houston boosters can be forgiven for shedding a tear from their collective eye upon reading Demick's declaration.

A large painted canvas sign in front of the building on Kirby describes Fire + Ice as "an improvisational grill" and a "world grill." It also provides a Web address (www.fire-ice.com) that, when accessed, gives little information apart from the addresses of three existing operations, in Boston, Cambridge and Providence, Rhode Island. Oh, it also mentions that one of the founders, über-entrepreneur James Miller, used to run a small chain of Italian restaurants in Greater Boston and, for four years, served as the "Landfill Enforcement Director for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts." Demick is happy to fill in the rest of the details, including Fire + Ice's opening date, scheduled for March 1.

"We don't really have a menu," Demick begins. "We are going to have a 25-foot-long rectangular grill. There will be several stations around the grill with raw ingredients. The stations marked 'Markets' will have fresh vegetables, from butternut squash to bell peppers, plus vegetarian items such as tofu and tempeh. Two other stations will have meats and seafood of all sorts. The menu is intended to be very health-conscious. There also will be a station offering 15 different sauces, ranging in strength from a mild spice sauce to a very spicy Cajun. When you have made your choices, our grill cooks will cook it right there for you."

The concept seems similar to that of a Mongolian barbecue restaurant, which boasts a modern interpretation of the cooking style apparently conceived in the time of Genghis Khan. (Curiously, these modern-day places never serve anything that a Texan could identify as barbecue and, to date, have never been seen by travelers in either Inner or Outer Mongolia.) In Mongolian barbecue restaurants, a diner grabs a bowl and fills it up with raw ingredients of the kind associated with Chinese cuisine, then adds a Chinese-style sauce and has the mixture stir-fried on a thick, round steel griddle. Fire + Ice, it seems, will take the concept to a new level of multiculturalism.

"There will be so much variety," Demick enthuses, "that if you came to our restaurant for 30 days straight, you would not have to eat the same thing twice."

In addition to the core concept of assemble, cook and eat, a secondary concept will be tried out simultaneously, that of "a World Feast, actually a Brazilian rodizio," Demick says. "That is new in this location. A rodizio is a restaurant that serves a variety of grilled meats. We'll have waitstaff going around with the meats and carving them for customers."

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Again, Fire + Ice appears to be borrowing from another culture, this time from the traditions of southern Brazil, where gauchos used to cook their meats over an open flame and serve the flesh directly from skewers. The old cowboy cooking method has, in recent years, been translated into upscale carnivore playgrounds like the Rodizio Grill [5851 Westheimer, (713)334-7400; see "All You Can Meat," by Margaret L. Briggs, October 21, 1999] and Fogo de Chão [8250 Westheimer, (713)978-6500; see "Flesh Pot," by Carol Rust, April 27, 2000].

The only regular menu items produced in a kitchen on the premises will be a "selection of seven appetizers."

Curiously, for a restaurant occupying such a grand structure in one of Houston's most upmarket commercial neighborhoods, Fire + Ice will not be open for lunch, as the Hard Rock was; nor will it offer the profitable knickknacks that are the real business of a theme restaurant. Still, if the Houston location performs as the owners hope, Demick states that there "will probably be about seven restaurants in Texas, two in Houston, two in Dallas, two in Austin and one in San Antonio … then we'll go nationwide."

We're sure they'll give the Brazilian gauchos and Mongolians a cut of all profits.

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