Visitors to 1800 Post Oak will see something that may invoke a great deal of nostalgia. RDG + Bar Annie has been rebranded to award-winning chef Robert Del Grande’s former restaurant name, Cafe Annie. Along with reclaiming the classic logo and iconography, Del Grande has also put some of Cafe Annie's dishes back on the menu.
Chef Robert Del Grande wanted to do something to celebrate the 35th anniversary of starting his career in Houston, but he didn’t want to have a big party. Those are over too soon, are quickly forgotten and leave people feeling terrible the next day. He, his wife, Mimi, and the staff considered just bringing back some of the classic dishes and celebrating the birthday for longer than a day — perhaps a week, a month or even a year.
“It just snowballed,” said Del Grande. “I was just amazed at the resonance of the idea. Everyone was so excited about it and all of these stories started to come out. ‘Oh yeah, my wife and I got engaged there.’ Restaurants are like signposts in time for what happened along the way. One waiter said, ‘Oh yeah, I ate there four times before I got hired.’ This is a fun way to take a new look at what happened.”
In truth, his longtime customers and even the staff couldn’t help but call RDG + Bar Annie by the old name, so this re-establishes a connection that should have existed anyway. “People like continuity of things,” said Del Grande, “so when one place changes and moves and they can’t find that long thread, they have a harder time remembering it or something. I think when they come in and see the menu and the name, the thread is picked up and things become so much clearer.”
That leads to the question of why it ever changed at all.
When Cafe Annie closed and the restaurant moved to its current location just down the street, Del Grande thought at the time there needed to be a clear delineation between the old place and the new one. “The building was so different, we felt we should tell people it wasn’t going to be exactly the same so they wouldn’t feel like they were in the wrong place.”
One challenge was reconstructing the old Cafe Annie recipes. Restaurants didn’t have computers back then. Recipes were written on yellow notepads and hung on the wall — or memorized. “My ‘office’ was a nail in the wall. We did everything standing up,” said Del Grande. “No one ever cooked from the page. Everyone was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll always remember that.’ Then a few years go by and you’ve forgotten.”
Some, by choice, are simpler versions of the old recipes, since these days Del Grande eschews on general principle frilly garnishes used to make a dish seem fancy. “It was the era of youth and adding stuff to make it seem more sophisticated,” he said. “Now we’re looking at how to make it the best we can, but simpler.” So if, for example, a snapper dish was all about the fish, lime and chile, there won’t also be a cilantro garnish unless it is something Del Grande thinks is truly integral to the dish rather than an extraneous add-on.
Some of the recipes that have been brought back seem old-fashioned but comforting, and others are still striking and unique. Take, for example, the ahi tuna with roasted beets and pecan with frisée and black truffle salad. It is surprising how well the unlikely combination of tuna and beets goes together, and the bright swaths of sauce look like pop art.
On the comforting side is the black bean terrine filled with a neat round of goat cheese that rests upon a bright red splash of roasted tomato salsa. It's casually adorned in bright green cilantro and rustic chunks of avocado. It's also a dish that emphasizes just how much the right salt matters. Crunchy fleur de sel adds its own beautiful texture, a counterpart to the terrine's creaminess.
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Del Grande, along with a handful of other chefs, is credited with being one of the fathers of Southwest cuisine. Does he ever feel like an actor who had been cast in an iconic role that audiences will forever identify him with? For someone whose business is partially to be creative, does that bother him?
“As long as it’s the right role. As long as it’s James T. Kirk, that would be okay,” he said with a grin.
Del Grande is a musician who has frequently performed, and even recorded a record with his old friend and fellow James Beard award-winning chef Dean Fearing, who was at the Mansion On Turtle Creek for 20 years before moving on to his own restaurant, Fearing’s, in Dallas.
So, it is no surprise that it's a musical quote, one by the late Waylon Jennings, that resonates more for Del Grande. “When you do a song, you’ve got to remember you are going to be doing that song for the rest of your life. You better make sure you like it.”