Restaurant Reviews

Plain Is Beautiful

Eating out has become strenuous. The chef of the moment unveils the exotic new ingredient of the week, working it into the fusion cuisine of his choice (Pan Asian, New Southwestern, Kosher Indian...). The menu needs a glossary. The waiter spends ten minutes describing the day's specials, all of which include vegetables you've never heard of, from farms you don't care about, in combinations you've never imagined.

Yeah, yeah: American restaurants have never been better or more creative, and the level of cutting-edge cooking is higher here than almost anywhere in the world. But there are times when you don't want cutting-edge. No strange new combinations. No sauces dribbled around the edge of the plate. And please, God, no tall food, not tonight.

You want a return to normalcy. Food that's familiar. Good food, expertly prepared. Homestyle food with flair. You want JacQuisine.

The restaurant claims to purvey New American cuisine, but really this stuff isn't all that new, even out on FM 1960. I prefer to think of the place as an American bistro, a comfortable place with good food, well prepared, at moderate prices, even a decent wine list. You can loll at the comfortable booths and tables, lulled by gentle lighting and murals of New Orleans that decorate the walls. Billie Holiday plays on the sound system. Every neighborhood should have a restaurant just like this one.

It has been said that only the pure of heart can make good soup; if this is true, then JacQuisine's chef is guaranteed entry into heaven. Every day brings a choice of three soups (fresh vegetable, potato and chowder, and mushroom Brie) along with one daily special, such as cold avocado, split pea or chicken rice ($3.25 per cup, $4.25 per bowl). All soups are made from scratch, and taste it. Chicken rice is thick with rice and fresh vegetables (even peas!), the potato and corn chowder hearty, with chunks of potato and still-crisp corn. My favorite, however, is the mushroom Brie. A cream of mushroom with plentiful slices of fresh mushroom is enriched with the unmistakable tang of melted Brie.

A good lunch choice is the soup and salad combo ($7.25). A cup of soup is served with their terrific verte salad, romaine tossed with lots of stuff: Swiss, feta and Parmesan cheeses, plus bacon, walnuts, homemade croutons and tomatoes. A salad that assertive requires an assertive dressing, and gets one: a ravigote, full of capers, gherkins and anchovies.

JacQuisine started life as a deli/bakery, so it's no surprise that it still makes a pretty good sandwich. Along with all the standard cold sandwiches, you can order burgers, club sandwiches and even -- shades of childhood -- patty melts. I especially enjoyed the roasted portobello mushroom sandwich with roasted-garlic mayo, lettuce and tomato on a toasted onion roll ($7.25) served with excellent potato salad, french fries or fruit salad. The mushrooms were even juicier than the burger.

At dinner the menu goes more upscale, still familiar and accessible, but with enough special touches to keep it interesting. The fabulous soups are available at dinner (as are the hot sandwiches), and the list of appetizers includes standards such as nachos with black beans, as well as grilled teriyaki wings served with a side of jicama slaw (a nice touch). There are also stuffed mushrooms with Alfredo sauce, crab cakes (fresh crab and toasted corn with a green peppercorn tartar sauce), a Middle Eastern mezze platter -- there's even house-smoked salmon. At our waitress's insistence, we had the baked Brie ($6.25). A good-sized wedge of cheese (enough for four) is wrapped in phyllo, glazed with apricot preserves, sprinkled with almonds and baked until the pastry is golden-brown and the cheese slightly molten. Served with toast points and fresh fruit, it's a great combination of textures and flavors. It is so good, in fact, that our waitress told us that people come in just for the Brie and have been known to leave on the rare occasions when it is not available. If in doubt, call first.

Among the menu's regular entrees, a pecan-stuffed chicken breast ($13.95) was delicious: the chicken juicy, the stuffing nicely savory. A chef's special grilled fillet of beef ($22.95) turned out to be two large, tender slices, cooked medium-rare and served with a rich mushroom sauce and garlic mashed potatoes. (The best kind, slightly lumpy with mashed-in potato skins.) The shrimp with angel hair pasta came with a light cream sauce, the mushrooms, green onions and diced fresh tomato imparting a fresh, gentle taste. I enjoyed its subtlety.

A heartier choice was the fillet of pork with almond sauce ($15.95, including those great potatoes). A slab of pork is floured and sauteed until crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. It's then smothered with an almond cream sauce so nicely seasoned that we were reduced to using bread to mop up the remains. It's amazing how quickly sophistication can go flying out the window.

You'll see the desserts in the display cases as you walk in. Everything (including the bread) is baked on the premises, and it's all good. Classic desserts such as lemon tarts, carrot cake and sour cream apple tarts. More modern ones such as white chocolate mousse in white chocolate cups with strawberries. They even have macaroons. I especially liked the chocolate roll with whipped cream and fresh strawberries ($3.25). Square? You bet. And the perfect ending for a classic meal.

JacQuisine, 6013 FM 1960 West, (281)444-1488.

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Dennis Abrams