Gelato Grotto

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"White or wheat?" asked the perky order-taker at the Black Walnut Cafe, the counter-service restaurant on Morningside. I'd ordered the black-bean-and-cheese "Tex-Mex omelet" for breakfast, and it came with a side of toast.

"I'll have flour tortillas," I replied.

"We don't do that," she said.


Black Walnut Cafe

5510 Morningside Drive, 713-526-5551.

Hours: 7:57 a.m. to 10:03 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 7:57 a.m. to 9:03 p.m. Sundays.

Black Walnut salad: $9.9743
Meatball sandwich: $7.9529
Tex-Mex omelet: $6.7943
Spinach and mushroom quiche: $5.6312
Rustic grilled cheese: $6.7961

The Black Walnut Cafe has a section on its to-go menu extolling its "outstanding service" and "guest first" attitude. The text goes so far as to call the staff "caring." The real reason I asked for tortillas instead of toast was to see how the woman behind the counter would react. And she wasn't acting very caring, if you ask me.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Excuse me?" she said, looking bewildered.

"Why no tortillas?"

"Because the omelette comes with toast," she said.

"You have quesadillas. And you make quesadillas on flour tortillas, right?" I asked, doing my Jack Nicholson impression.

The woman turned red, then she excused herself to go find a manager. Either she was about to lose it, or the decision to substitute tortillas for toast on a breakfast order at the Black Walnut Cafe is an executive-level decision -- I'm not sure which.

In the end, I got my tortillas, along with a dry and boring omelette with black beans cooked into the eggs, some cheese inside and some colored tortilla wisps on top. My companion's quiche tasted like it was heated in a microwave. You could find a better-tasting breakfast -- and a better attitude -- at any taco truck in the city.

It's odd when a fast-casual restaurant boasts about high-quality service. Isn't the walk-up-counter concept about eliminating service? You pour your own water, tea and coffee, get up and get your own food when the little buzzer goes off -- and don't forget your silverware, or you'll have to make another trip. You do all the work. And then they have the cods to brag about their "caring" service?

The Black Walnut Cafe was founded by George Pallotta, the guy who started Sghettie's in The Woodlands. He also owns two Pallotta's Italian Grills in the northwest suburbs. The original Black Walnut Cafe, which opened in The Woodlands in 2002, was supposed to be an "American upscale coffeehouse/cafe." Alongside national chain neighbors like Tommy Bahama's and Benihana, it stands out like a rough-hewn original, I'm sure. In Rice Village, it feels like any other chain outlet.

"It looks like a fern bar in a cave," one of my dining companions said of the decor at the Morningside location. There are lots of dark wood panels and giant plants in the dimly lit space. A series of belts and flywheels runs across the high ceilings, powering an extensive set of mismatched fans. There are plumbing pipes for fixtures and wingback chairs at some of the tables. I told her that I liked the interior design, despite its studied eccentricity. Dark, cavelike spaces are very comfortable in the glaring afternoon of a Houston summer, I contended, and at least the plants aren't plastic. She pronounced me a fern-bar-era relic.

But the Black Walnut Cafe really is different from all the other big chain restaurants. Just look at their hours and their prices. They open at 7:57 a.m. and close at 10:03 p.m. -- kooky! The big menu in the front listed my omelette at $6.7943. The quiche was $5.6312. How eccentric can you get?

Just don't ruin the illusion by asking for substitutions.

The woman behind the counter heated my big ceramic coffee cup with a splash of hot water before handing it to me, so my coffee stayed hot after I poured it. That was a nice touch. The place also serves espresso and other coffee drinks. But there was only one other table occupied at breakfast time.

The restaurant is much busier later in the day, and the main attraction seems to be the ten tubs of gelato in the lighted display case at the front counter. During my two dinner visits, I watched group after group walk in and order nothing but Italian ice cream.

I asked the cashier if the Black Walnut uses a mix or if it has its own recipes. He said they used their own recipes, but he wasn't convincing. Made from scratch or a mix, it's pretty good gelato. The flavors change daily. There was no chocolate the last time I was there. But they had mango, strawberry, raspberry, hazelnut, panna cotta, peanut butter and pistachio.

My daughter got a peanut butter and strawberry combo. It tasted like a PB&J sandwich. Another dining companion got the panna cotta and mango. She said the panna cotta tasted like marshmallows. The mango had a fresh, tart flavor and was decorated with slices of the fruit. I got the pistachio, which was a disturbing dark olive-green color. But it had a thick texture and a wonderfully intense flavor.

The Black Walnut makes a fluffy sort of gelato rather than the dense, chewy version, but there's plenty of butterfat in it. And since there aren't many places to get gelato in Houston these days, you have to give them high marks.

Unfortunately, the dinner fare doesn't rate as highly. I tried the "Damn Goods" burger, made with two ground beef patties that weighed 9.193 ounces before being overcooked. It was especially difficult to choke down the dried-out meat on an onion roll with lettuce, mushrooms, cheddar and bacon but without mayonnaise. The Black Walnut uses garlic cream cheese instead of mayo, which is a terrible mistake. If you're going to overcook a burger to the point of juicelessness, you need some alternate form of lubrication, and cream cheese doesn't do it.

The meatball sandwich, served with tomato sauce and mozzarella on an onion baguette, was a fiasco. The secret of a meatball sandwich -- as any East Coast hoagie, sub or grinder aficionado can tell you -- is to put the stuffed sandwich in the oven and bake it for a few minutes to toast the bread and melt the cheese. If you don't bake it, the bread gets soggy and the sandwich falls apart.

The Black Walnut's meatball sandwich was a pile of slop. Maybe they heated it in the microwave; maybe they don't even have an oven. Whatever the reason, the bread was goo and the meatballs were squirting through the uncut side of the roll before I even got it to the table. It was impossible to pick up and disgusting to cut with a knife and fork -- an utterly worthless excuse for a $7.9529 sandwich. The onion soup I got on the side tasted like generic beef broth with some shredded onions and a slice of microwaved cheese-topped bread thrown in. All in all, it was a sad mess of a dinner.

My dining companion got a Black Walnut salad for $9.9743. It came with chopped romaine, grilled chicken, green apple slivers, Gorgonzola and walnuts. According to the menu, the chicken was "hard steel grilled," which sounds like a fancy way of saying "cooked on a griddle," but it was actually very tender and juicy.

The julienned apples were soggy. Had the kitchen kept the apple slivers in lemon water to prevent discoloring and soaked them too long? Or were they buying frozen apple shreds? My dining companion observed that when you go to a real restaurant like Daily Review and order a salad with apples and cheese, they actually cut up the apples just before they serve them and arrange them nicely on the plate. It doesn't seem like much to ask, really.

The best things I ate at the Black Walnut besides the gelati were the grilled cheese sandwich and the tomato basil soup. The soup, a straight-up tomato puree with herbs and a couple of tortellini, was quite tasty. But the rustic grilled cheese sandwich was outstanding.

On a split focaccia flatbread, they arrange a cheese blend, sliced tomato and some red onion. Then they grill it on both sides, until the cheese melts and the bread is toasted. Dunked into the tomato soup, it tasted like an upscale version of that favorite childhood pairing, a grilled Kraft Single sandwich on Wonder bread with a side of Campbell's cream of tomato soup.

You can't do much better for gelato, and by all means, try the grilled cheese sandwich, but don't expect much else from the Black Walnut Cafe. The food sounds great when you read the exciting descriptions. But sadly, the unimaginative kitchen staff can't keep the promises made by the clever menu.

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