First Look at The Capitol at St. Germain

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I had a date with two friends to see the Santaland Diaries at the Alley last week, and suggested checking out the new live music venue/restaurant next to the Flying Saucer -- The Capitol at St. Germain -- for dinner. It ended up being a great suggestion. Perhaps too great: We never made it to the Alley.

Despite holding tickets for the beloved David Sedaris show, we ended up staying at The Capitol for a solid four hours, enjoying the hell out of ourselves and finally prying each other out of one of the restaurant's enormous booths only because it was a school night and we had to work the next day.

It had started simply enough, with $3 martinis during The Capitol's evening-long happy hour Thursday. I walked in earlier than my friends and was stunned to see the place packed with people, most of them in suits. They all looked as if they'd come directly from work across the street at Chase and I thought briefly that it must be a holiday party. They crowded the two mahogany bars that flank either side of the entrance, happy people clutching martinis spilling into the main dining room and creating a boisterous, festive atmosphere.

"Are those folks here for a work event?" I asked my waitress.

"Nope," she replied. "Just here for the drinks."

It was an impressive turnout, especially so early in The Capitol's career.

But I can see why it would be attractive to the business set: This is the kind of place where you'd take an important client for a steak and a martini, but also where you could blow off steam with your co-workers over a bottle of wine after work at one of the dual bars.

It's the kind of place to enjoy a Rat Pack-y meal with your buddies, complete with cocktails and a live show on The Capitol's red curtain-swagged main stage. But also the kind of place to take a date if you really want to do something different for a change.

The Capitol, which is named after the street it resides on and the St. Germain lofts above it, really is different from any other restaurant -- and not just any other restaurant downtown. There's no trace of its old inhabitant -- Zula -- in the crisp, classic look of the place. Instead, it offers the city a "grownup" spot for dinner (with correspondingly grownup prices, it should be noted), a swanky supper club that's effortlessly cool.

And perhaps the most impressive part about The Capitol is not how easily it caters to these different dining goals -- nor the way its team has lovingly and painstakingly restored the old building right down to the original moldings on the towering columns in the dining room -- but the plain fact that the food is legitimately good. Supper club-style places with bottle-serviced VIP areas typically offer the same level of food you'd find at a low-budget wedding.

Not here, where chef Kevin Bryant and his sous chef Mark Parmley take their cooking just as seriously as The Capitol does its live music. After all, Bryant took home the blue ribbon at last night's Lucky Dog Gingerbread Doghouse competition with his creation. It's an impressive pastry feat for a savory chef, until you remember that Bryant was the pastry chef at Tony's for many years. Yes, even the desserts here are good.

The Fondue Monks were on stage when we had dinner last week, with bassist Rozz Zamorano rocking as hard as he's done for the past 20-odd years. The three-piece jazz band was the perfect backdrop to a meal of catching up with friends over wine and steak (and, yes, plenty of those $3 martinis).

We couldn't help but order the menage a foie ($14) -- a foie gras trio with an irresistibly punny name -- and found a hint of Parmley's old gig at Catalan in one of the foie gras treatments: a foie gras bonbon, meant to be eaten all in one bite. But it was the torchon with candied shallots we all liked best.

We were less impressed with the tuna duo ($18), a tower of beautiful tuna tartare over avocado and seaweed. Although impressive in structure and quality, the tuna and avocado were sadly unseasoned -- a pinch of salt would have sent it soaring, but there was none to be found on the table. And the quail egg that was supposed to top the tower was missing entirely.

The duck breast ($12), too, suffered from odd seasoning: Served with a strawberry and golden raspberry compote, the underseared breast didn't have enough salt or swagger to stand up to all that sweetness. That was where the complaints ended, however.

Lamb chops ($16) were cooked to a perfect rosy pink inside, with a pleasantly charred crust outside. Unlike the duck breast, the chops were served with a large haystack of potatoes and sauteed crimini mushrooms, enough to make this appetizer into a meal. And at $16, it would have been one of the less expensive entree options.

The only "real" entree we ordered was the Big John, a $36 bone-in ribeye that was larger than the plate it was served on, the steak draped seductively over its sides. No skimping here. The twice-cooked potatoes on the side would have served three people -- and did. We polished off the medium-rare steak and potatoes quickly, prompting my friend to remark how pleased she was with our "man-tastic" dinner.

"It feels like downtown L.A.," she offered further. Having no personal experience with downtown L.A., I asked her to explain. She pointed to the smashing jazz trio on stage, the lively atmosphere, the prompt and professional service, the brightly lit marquee outside and the grand overall feel of the place -- two-story high ceilings exaggerated with larger-than-life booths anchoring one wall, and chic, white leather chairs lining the middle of the room all the way up to the stage. This, apparently, is what downtown L.A. feels like.

To me, however, it feels like downtown Houston could maybe -- just maybe -- finally be coming back into its own.

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