Restaurant Reviews

One-Upping Mom?

As far as I'm concerned, there's always room for another home-style diner, especially if it serves chicken and dumplings as good as those to be found at West Gray Cafe. I never thought I'd be saying this, but these dumplings rival my mother's. And the chicken stew, God help me for admitting, might actually be better than Mom's. The thinnish gravy is a lovely, rich shade of yellow-brown, flecked with black pepper and teeming with large chicken pieces. I spied not one chicken bone in my entire serving, nor one bite of gristle. The side dishes I sampled were nearly as successful: an intensely buttery macaroni and cheese goopy with solidified Cheddar on top and a serving of slightly overcooked green beans redolent of pork. A basketful of breads yielded up yeast rolls blistered on top from the coating of butter they had been baked under and cornbread muffins, pale yellow, dense and soft, ever-so-faintly sweet.

Owner James Kidd, a veteran of the construction business, hired a team of folks well experienced in making people feel at home: assistant manager Karen Lucas, who worked 20-odd years at the Avenue Grill, runs the front of the house, and manager Matthew Smith, with 20-plus years off and on at the Confederate House interspersed with stints at other restaurants, estimates that he does "98 percent" of the cooking. At the end of a busy lunch hour, Smith will come out front for a break and chat with the regular customers about, among other things, what sorts of pies he has available. It didn't take me long one afternoon to be talked into a wedge of lemon chess pie. The fact that it had been made the day before was given away by its soggy bottom crust, but that didn't matter: its custard was opulently sweet and sour. Even though I was already full, I scarfed it down with a cup of coffee and was glad I didn't have to go back to an office that afternoon.

One warning: on another day, I had one of the most frustrating experiences with a cheeseburger I've ever had. The smallish patty was obscured by a half-inch thick onion slice, two huge angel wings of iceberg lettuce and a bulky tomato wheel. Normally, I would be pleased by such an abundance of produce, but all that vegetation, combined with the fact that the burger was nearly impossible to eat because the bun mushed apart when I bit into it, obliterated any memory I have of whether the burger even tasted good. I do, however, remember enjoying the fries.

And there are always those chicken and dumplings ... on some days, at least. Call ahead, because lunch specials change daily.

This year marks the first in which Houstonians will have the opportunity to participate in an AIDS fundraiser called Eat Out & Chip In. Thursday, June 20, participating restaurants have agreed to donate a portion of their day's proceeds -- anywhere from 5 to 50 percent -- to the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA). For 47,000 HIV/AIDS-infected Houstonians, an AIDS service organization -- as opposed to family or friends -- is the primary caregiver, and it's no secret that these organizations depend on donations from the likes of DIFFA to keep afloat. DIFFA (552-9445) will fax you a list of participating restaurants to help you figure out where to spend your dining dollar.

Finally, Patrick Zone of Bistrot Aventure (the renamed l'aventure cafe) called to let me know that, contrary to what I thought, a new menu has been introduced to go along with the new name. Some old favorites have been kept, but a more international bistro approach, rather than the traditional French, is the current direction.

-- Kelley Blewster

West Gray Cafe, 415 West Gray, 528-2887.

West Gray Cafe:
daily lunch special, $5.95; cheeseburger with fries, $5.25.

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Kelley Blewster