Restaurant Reviews

Southern Surprises

A funny thing happened on the way to Sabine. Just as I'd reached the restaurant, the door was thrown open suddenly and the chef, one hand clutching his toque, raced past me and disappeared down the street. Now that's something you don't want to see, I thought. Like the rest of us, chefs will stand on their dignity from time to time, so naturally I feared the worst. Aaron Guest, the chef in question, is a man of exceptional ability (as well as being something of a sprinter). Were he ever to leave Sabine, the loss would be nothing short of grievous.

But all wasn't what it seemed. "He'll be back," said the hostess. "He's just getting something from his car."

Oh, the relief. I'd have my lunch after all.
Sabine has a new home. Once located on Sunset Boulevard at Kirby, it's now to be found at 1915 Westheimer -- an address that, until recently, housed the late, lamented Grange. Bill Johnson, Sabine's owner, likens the move to a butterfly shedding its cocoon. "We have more room now," he said. "We can spread our wings."

The place is simple to the point of austerity. The walls give the impression of being made of beaten copper -- I felt at times I was in a fermentation vat -- and the ceiling is painted slate gray. It looks like a restaurant you'd find at a spa -- a place to have a tofu burger before heading off for an hour of aromatherapy. But don't be taken in by all that spareness. There is voluptuousness about this menu that will take your breath away.

Johnson and Guest -- they created the menu jointly -- turn out spectacular food. Called contemporary Southern, it's fresh and bracing and very novel. Neither man seems capable of thinking conventionally. Everything they cook packs a surprise. Sometimes the surprise is a small one. Or then again, the surprise can knock your socks off.

Best of all, there is nothing precious about any of this. In their essentials, most of these dishes are fairly straightforward. What distinguishes them is, first, their decisiveness -- they feel utterly right -- and, second, their felicity. Grace notes abound here for the reason that Johnson and Guest are masters when it comes to detail. And they know, too, when enough is enough. Though the dishes at Sabine combine any number of flavors, very few of them feel cluttered.

It's a pleasure just to read this menu. There's braised lamb shank with tasso-spiked red cabbage; grilled salmon in grapefruit broth; roasted corn and lamb soup; barbecued scallops in saffron bouillon. It's a rare embarrassment of riches. But it can also pose a quandary. All that wonderful food! How is one to choose? Well, the truth is, I didn't. This menu reduced me to such a state of indecision that, in the end, I made my selections blindly, using a pin. Which worked well, as it happened. But one of these days, I'm going back to Sabine, and I shall stay there until, slowly and methodically, I've tried every single dish on the menu.

Among the appetizers we sampled, the quail leg confit ($6) was a standout. (Confit refers to meat that's been cooked in its own fat.) There are four legs in all, and there's a hint of the heraldic about them, radiating as they do from a nest of watercress like the cardinal points on a compass. They're tiny -- it would be overstating it to describe them as morsels -- and scrumptious, and crunchy, too. The bones make a pleasant cracking sound when you break them between your teeth. The watercress salad was also exceptional. For that, credit the dressing -- a combination of quail stock and just the right amount of elderberry juice.

Equally stellar is the caramelized onion tart ($5). The onions, sweet and fragrant, are wrapped in short-crust pastry and served in a pool of bechamel aromatically scented with a puree of roasted garlic. I can't remember the last time a restaurant made me this happy. By the time I'd polished off my tart, I was in something of a daze.

The dish called Green Tomatoes Cooked Two Ways, while enjoyable, seems -- despite the presence of a little crabmeat -- somewhat expensive at $7. One tomato -- actually a tomato slice -- was served in a corn-bread crust; the other in aspic. The only appetizer I didn't like was the sweet-potato vichyssoise with home-smoked oysters ($6). As an idea, this certainly has merit, but the flavors don't cohere. They struggle briefly and then expire. I would have to say of this soup that it was un peu delave -- a little washed out.

Among Sabine's entrees, the potato cakes ($9) are easily the most spectacular. Indeed, they so transcend themselves, the name "potato cake" hardly does them justice. For one thing, they don't look like potato cakes. Instead of being flat, these are vertical, rearing from the plate like large, mutant buds. The crust is golden brown and quite hard. And inside? Sheer bliss -- a great gooey mass of pureed potatoes (the consistency resembles grits), liberally laced with crawfish and shrimp. The plate is garnished with a superb corn, pepper and onion relish.

The duck ($19) is almost as good. The duck, after being degreased, is "varnished" -- not a word I like; it sounds a bit too Home Depot -- during roasting with mayhaw syrup. The result is a duck so lustrous, it looks like a piece of Chippendale. A lovely combination of vegetables -- red cabbage, green cabbage, celery and onions, all lightly sauteed -- completes the plate. Two other entrees I would recommend are the pecan-crusted pork chop, served with a peach reduction and pureed potatoes rich with dill ($16), and the chicken supreme, in a very appealing pear-wine sauce ($11 at lunch).

Will Sabine succeed in its new premises? Of course it will. It must. Sabine has given me a new lease on life. Were anything to happen to it, I'd tie a stone around my neck and jump in Buffalo Bayou.

Sabine, 1915 Westheimer, 529-7190.

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Eric Lawlor