Grade A

It's always seemed to me that college cuisine is perfectly defined by the three Fs: fast, fatty and forgettable. But sitting at a table at Barron's Restaurant at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston, I had to reconsider my opinion. Looking out the window, I admired the lush greenery of the UH campus; looking at my plate, I admired the lush excess of a massive seafood platter consisting of some shrimp in a whispery-light batter, a few medallion-sized scallops, some open-shell mussels (admittedly a little on the dry side) and a generous portion of grilled salmon, cooked so that the juices still flowed. The meal set in front of my luncheon companion was equally enchanting: an ostrich tenderloin served in a rich soy sauce to keep it moist, along with crisp asparagus and quinoa, a rarely seen high-protein grain similar to couscous.

Definitely not your standard scholar's burger and pizza fix. But then again, Barron's is definitely not your standard university commissary either. Rather, it's a well-appointed, white-tablecloth kind of place with the look and feel of a classy restaurant. The lunch menu is both lengthy and adventurous, even by non-collegiate standards. And once I tried one of the restaurant's International Dinners, I knew I had discovered something very special.

If you weren't aware that you could eat a gourmet meal at UH, don't worry. You're not alone. It's one of the city's best-kept secrets (so much so that it's even unknown to many UH students). In fact, Barron's Restaurant almost seems not to want any visitors. It's not listed in the phone book, and a call to information yields only a "sorry, there is no listing" reply. Then there are the hours of operation -- 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for lunch, 5 to 7 p.m for dinner, Monday through Friday -- which aren't all that convenient for people outside the immediate neighborhood. After trying a couple of times to rush home and then make it to Barron's for the final 7 p.m. seating, I finally gave up and simply dined on my way home. I was glad I did.

In 1969, when Conrad Hilton pledged $1.5 million to begin construction of the building that houses the college named after him, little did he know that the school would turn out to be one of the preeminent institutions of its kind in the world. What Hilton's pledge ultimately resulted in is a hotel with 86 guest rooms, 30,000 square feet of banquet area, 11 conference rooms and two restaurants, all of which is a stone's throw from the main entrance to UH, and all of which serves as a laboratory for nascent hotel professionals. The building also houses an extensive library and archive of Hilton Hotel memorabilia, including some concept drawings for the first hotel in space.

How the school came to be in Houston is an interesting story unto itself. In August 1969, James Taylor, who would become the Hilton school's first dean, went to Conrad's son Eric with a set of blueprints for a fully-functioning college of hospitality. Eric was impressed with the plans and showed them to his brother, Barron. They both thought that it would be an honor to have a school of this kind in Texas, where their father began his famous chain. That historic event occurred 78 years ago in Cisco, near Abilene. Conrad Hilton was passing through the state at the height of the early oil boom and was literally unable to find a room at the inn. Since the roustabouts worked 24 hours a day, hotel rooms were rented by the hour, and turned over up to three times a day. On his first night in Cisco, Conrad slept on the couch of the town's only hotel, noticing the incredible business it was doing. The next day he offered to buy the place, and the cornerstone of the Hilton empire was laid.

Over the years, the Hilton foundation has contributed more than $30 million to the college of hotel and restaurant management. It's little wonder, then, that the school's two restaurants are named in honor of his sons -- Barron's and the more casual Eric's. Here, students get practical training in all aspects of hotel and restaurant management, from how to make a bed to how to cook coq au vin. The only place students aren't allowed to work is behind the fully-stocked bar. And lest you question, as I did at first, whether you should pay full fare to be served by trainees, remember that they are very eager to please, and that since they have yet to be jaded by the real-world public, they actually have genuine smiles on their faces.

One of the most appealing aspects of Barron's is the capstone course of the advanced food management program. Called the International Dinner Series, it's the culmination of four years of training and study. The students selected as chef and as manager for each evening are responsible for thoroughly researching a night's theme, menu selection, pricing, entertainment and decor, as well as getting customers through the door. Though the students are fully in charge of the restaurant, everything they do is done under the watchful eye not only of instructors Layne Eggers and Mary Wollin, but also of French chef Jacques Fox. Since the decorations and music change to fit the evening's food, Barron's is rarely the same place two nights in a row.

The pair of evenings I attended were as different as they could be, though they bore many similarities. The theme for the first week I visited was France, and I happened on the Evening In Auvergne, a mountainous region of central France. I chose the prix fixe menu, although items were also available a la carte. For $16.50 I enjoyed an appetizer of a country herb páte that was a deliciously creamy mixture of cheese, dill, thyme and some chives. The next course was a country vegetable soup laden with finely-chopped traditional soup vegetables such as turnips, carrots, leeks and potatoes, all of which simmered in a thin, well-seasoned broth. Unlike the mushy medley that results from serving too much time in the soup pot, these vegetables still had an easily discerned consistency. My only complaint was that the soup was served in too small a bowl; a much larger vessel would have better sated my appetite.

Next was the coq au vin, here a chicken breast served dry as opposed to the more customary stew. The wine sauce was hard to discern. The coq au vin was served with roasted new potatoes and some crisp, sliced carrots and broccoli. Dessert was a wonderfully smooth cream cheese mousse served over a strawberry sauce. The presentation, with the strawberries thinly sliced and fanned out, would have made any restaurant proud. The alternate dessert was the house signature creme brulee, which is a truly spectacular dessert. A three-inch round pastry shell is filled with a rich custard, into which strawberries are blended. The top of the shell is then covered with brittle, caramelized sugar, creating a textural and flavor contrast to the creamy filling. As if this were not enough, it is served on a lickable bed of apricot sauce along with a swirl of rich, dark chocolate. Two of these could easily count as a balanced diet.

On my second evening the theme was the Renaissance, a point made clear though a soundtrack of early music, some patrons in period garb and a staff dressed like the Merry Men. Honestly. The appetizer was an egg mimosa that consisted of a hard-boiled egg stuffed with a delicate tuna mousse, and while I felt it may have been more appropriate at an outdoor picnic, I had to remember the era it was trying to conjure up. This was followed by a wonderfully smooth, well-seasoned asparagus soup, its pastel-green color lightened by a swirl of sour cream. The alternate was a grilled mixed bell pepper salad with tricolor peppers grilled and marinated in olive oil, served with black olives over a bed of spinach leaves. My prix fixe entree consisted of a tuna steak that was delicately sauteed with raisins, tiny, sweet pearl onions and pine nuts, which added a crunchy dimension. Garlic-seasoned roasted new potatoes rounded out the plate. An alternate entree was the garlic cornish game hen, which was served with a whole garlic bunch and the same new potatoes, as well as half a zucchini stuffed with ricotta and Parmesan cheeses. Dessert was a delicious iced nougat consisting of pistachios, almonds, honey and cherries, all mixed with a light cream, then frozen. Served with a tart raspberry sauce that balanced the honey well, it was creamy and crunchy at the same time. Even the coffee wasn't your run-of-the-mill kind, but a generous portion of French press coffee, though it suffered from being a hint too weak. As you might expect, this being a training facility, service is a little rough around the edges, but not for lack of trying. The pride of working in such an establishment shines through in everyone.

The meals I enjoyed at Barron's were made even more satisfying by an incredibly affordable wine list. The restaurant features Texas wines from the Llano vineyard under the Staked Plains label at $10.50 per bottle. I also enjoyed a 1995 Baron Philippe de Rothschild merlot, its beautiful ruby color hinting at the notes of black cherries and touch of spice, for a mere $19.95. With a wine list covering most of the wine-loving world, there is much from which to choose. When I inquired about these bargains I discovered a simple philosophy: Price the wines attractively so that students have the opportunity to learn how to correctly open a bottle. (Funny, I didn't think any college student would have a problem knowing how to open a bottle or two.)

Since many of the customers tend to be friends or family of the students, complaints are rare. And since comment cards given to diners at the conclusion of their meals form part of the students' grades, there is a strong motivation to do a good job. One suggestion I wasn't able to include on my card: The International Dinners could be enhanced by a paragraph or two on the menu describing the region or the food being highlighted. Judging by the amount of work the students have to do to prepare for their evenings, this little extra likely wouldn't be a burden, and would add a lot to the overall enjoyment. Instructors take note.

And diners take note that Barron's is only open when school is in session, that this week is the last week before semester break and that things pick up again on September 1 with a Global theme. To get a peek at the upcoming dinners, you can access the school's web site at www.hrm.uh.edu (then University Hilton, then International Dinner Series).

The final secret of the Hilton school worth discovering is the Fred Parks wine cellar. Named after a prominent Houston attorney and wine connoisseur, it is a small room, covered with wine racks, tucked away in what from the outside looks like a stairwell -- all concrete, no windows. The marvels that are inside -- like a 1918 Chateau Lafitte Rothschild or a 1928 Mouton-Rothschild -- would make any oenophile take note. I have my doubts as to whether the school would allow its students to practice opening these bottles.

Barron's Restaurant, 4800 Calhoun, 743-2555.

Barron's Restaurant:
ostrich tenderloin, $10.95;
tuna steak, $21.95;
garlic cornish game hen, $20.95.

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