I don't know Watkins personally, but I do eat at his restaurant from time to time, and always leave impressed. Over the years, he has established himself as a master of subtlety, a man whose effects owe much of their impact to a determined nonchalance. Of late, however, he's undergone a change. And a dramatic one at that. Dr. Jekyll has vanished now. In his stead stands Mr. Hyde.
You can encounter the new Watkins at The Blue Agave, and I'm not sure you're going to like him very much. Subtlety is little in evidence now. In its place is stridency, a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am approach that I, for one, am at a loss to explain. Is it possible that his experience at Sierra, which he still owns and where he continues to cook, has made him cynical? Has he decided that Houston diners are Beavis and Butt-head Neanderthals, who, if one is to gain their attention at all, must first be beaten about the neck and face? Much on the new menu has a pumped-up, steroid quality about it. It smacks of testosterone. What's gotten into this man? Watkins is a great chef, whose food at Sierra Grill remains as good as ever. But at The Blue Agave, he seems to have lost his way. Keep your fingers crossed. With luck, it may only be temporary.
The chicken Blue Agave ($11.99) is as good an example as any of Watkins's new style. The chicken is topped with tomatoes, peppers, onions, avocado and cheese. Which immediately begs the question: Does chicken need to be burdened like this? What's the point? None comes to mind, unless, of course, Watkins feels that, at The Blue Agave, he's dealing with relatively unsophisticated people whose idea of fine dining is a plate with plenty on it. My chicken, I might add, was overdone -- though with so much clamoring for my attention, it took a while for me to notice.
Pecan-crusted trout ($16.99) was nearly as excessive. It comes with garlic butter and pico de gallo in such quantity that the pecan crust is all but undetectable. There's far too much happening on these plates. Too much ferment. To look at them, you'd think they were re-enacting the Big Bang. I was reminded of the Emperor Franz Josef complaining to Mozart that one of his symphonies had too many notes. A bit of scaling back would do Watkins all the good in the world.
Watkins can be overbearing, too, in his use of seasonings. Both the pork tenderloin "barbacoa" ($13.99) and the baby back ribs ($15.99) provide an unexpected -- and not very pleasant -- jolt as a consequence of overexposure to what the menu calls "Mexican barbecue spices." I like spices -- in this case, ancho chiles, Anaheim chiles and cumin -- as much as the next man. But care must be taken with these things. (When we were ordering, the waiter assured us that the tenderloin was "incredible." Only later, when he'd pronounced the chicken incredible as well, did we realize that it was his all-purpose word.)
The menu isn't all Mr. Hyde. Once in a while, Dr. Jekyll puts in an appearance. (And very welcome he is, too.) The quesadillas -- there are two varieties, spinach and chicken, both costing $6.99 -- are splendid, thanks in part to lots and lots of caramelized onions. And the black-bean soup resonates with flavor. I also recommend the calamari Agave ($6.99). Tossed with peppers, onions, tomatoes and garlic butter, they are resistant without being tough, and are quite delicious. I have reservations, though, about the beso queso ($8.99): bacon-wrapped shrimp in chili con queso. One of the menu's signature dishes, it's baked in foil and looks like a Hershey's Kiss. But on the whole, it isn't terribly interesting. Part of the reason may be the packaging. Because it's somewhat novel, one naturally expects that the contents will be novel, also. Instead, they turn out to be dreary. I felt let down -- the way one does when one opens a present and finds inside nothing more interesting than a fountain pen.
Two other complaints. On both my visits, the chef was in the dining room a lot -- something that never fails to disconcert me. It's like being on an airplane when the pilot walks through the cabin. Hey, you want to say. What are you doing back here? Shouldn't you be minding the store?
And the other thing: Some of the plates refuse to be still. Touch them at all, and they spin like tops. The word on the street has not been kind to The Blue Agave. Some blame its shortcomings on Bill Sadler, who, with Watkins, co-owns the place. But while it's tempting to cast Sadler as playing Mephistopheles to Watkins's Faust, to do so would not be fair. Sadler is a well-regarded -- and well-liked, I should add -- restaurateur who has had his share of success. He owned the River Cafe from 1984 to 1989 and Cafe Noche from 1992 until 1995. There's really no reason why The Blue Agave shouldn't succeed as well.
But for that to happen, changes need to be made. For starters, Watkins will have to rein himself in. And Sadler? Well, the first thing I'd do if I were he would be hire a decorator. Right now, the place has an air of haste about it. Tacky to a fault -- there are even Christmas lights -- it was clearly put together on the cheap. A fountain occupies the center of the main dining room, its four levels filled with fake greenery. Serapes do service as curtains. And then there are the gewgaws and gimcracks -- clay masks and wooden fish, for the most part -- described in a press release as "Mexican folk art." Wrong. This is Mexican kitsch. When I first saw this place, I thought: Now this is interesting. A parody of a Mexican restaurant. But that wasn't the intention at all. Bill Sadler was saving money. And like many attempts at frugality, this one proved a false economy. To make a restaurant attractive requires more than scouring the souvenir shops in Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo.
The Blue Agave, 1340 West Gray, 520-9696.