The Place to Be: Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar in West Ave

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If you've driven by the new West Ave development on Kirby and Westheimer at twilight, you've probably seen the crowded, happening scene taking place through the floor-to-ceiling windows at Robert Del Grande's new Ava Kitchen & Whiskey Bar. I know I've been intrigued, so when I found myself there one busy Thursday night, I was excited.

When we walked through the doors, we were struck by the chi-chi scene. To the left, two well-dressed, blazer-clad men with slicked-back hair were comfortably lounged, looking like they could've stepped out of an Armani ad.

Since we didn't have reservations, we made our way to the bar, where prettily made-up and dressed-up twenty and thirty-something women stood clustered together, mingling with males looking their best and ready to impress.

This was definitely not your typical kick-back, jeans-wearing, beer-drinking crowd. This was a scene to be seen in, and the crowd was lapping it up.

Our small group of three somehow snagged much-coveted seats at the bar, and it's a good thing we did. As the hour approached 10 p.m., the bar area got so packed that the crowd extended itself around the corner of the bar, into the service area.

I have no idea how it sounded to diners trying to eat in the adjacent space, but the hectic hustle and bustle was loud. At one point, I could hear the gal sitting next to me raise her voice to an almost-shout just to be heard.

But it was happy noise -- the laughing, high-spirited sounds of people imbibing and having a good time. I asked for a cocktail menu, forgetting that since Ava's a whiskey bar, they wouldn't really have one for me to peruse. We ordered wines by the glass and a couple of plates to share.

The bartender recommended the smoked muscovy duck breast with liver mousse and apple endive. Served cold, the thinly sliced muscovy duck breast was smoky and tender, prepared beautifully. The mild tartness of the thinly sliced green apples and endive complemented the duck well. The liver mousse was as attractive as a grayish mound of liver mousse could be, and texturally it was smooth, but personally the taste of it was too "livery" for me. One of my companions quite enjoyed it, however, and finished it with gusto.

Feeling like eating something hot, I ordered the pappardelle with duck and wild mushrooms. Served with a liberal sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan, the pappardelle was perfectly al dente, but the ragout of braised duck and mushrooms lacked seasoning. "It needs salt," my companion said, picking up a shaker. It definitely tasted better with more salt, but there was still something missing that I couldn't put my finger on. It was as if the ragout had been watered down and it was missing depth and heartiness.

Most of the small plates fell in the surprisingly affordable $10 to $14 range, and I plan to return to Ava to try some of the other appealing dishes, like the roasted, stuffed squid, the shrimp sausage and Mediterranean salsa verde, or the spicy coppa and taleggio with dried mission fig and fennel salad.

Ava may not be my first choice for a cozy, quiet dinner date, but if I'm feeling social, it is definitely the place to be. The people-watching is great, the décor is chic, the lighting is flattering to everyone, and it's the perfect excuse to get dressed up and join friends for a night on the town.

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