"How's the gazpacho?" Melissa Noble asks me. I'm not sure how to handle this. I have asked Melissa to take me to her favorite place for lunch. She chose Bistro Vino, an elegant old lady of a restaurant whose appeal I am having trouble understanding. But I am loath to reinforce the stereotype of the fussy food critic by complaining about the first thing set before me. So I go the diplomatic route.
"Have a taste," I say with a smile. She takes a spoonful and makes a face like a toad crawled in her mouth.
"Ewww. There's something wrong with it. It's fizzing on my tongue." I am greatly relieved that Melissa Noble knows her gazpacho. Melissa is a hairdresser. And although I don't understand the attraction of Bistro Vino quite yet, I do have reason to believe that she knows a lot about restaurants.
Hairdressers are the modern arbiters of taste, Stephan Pyles, arguably the most successful chef in Texas, told me several years ago. I was visiting his famous restaurant, Star Canyon in Dallas, shortly after it opened. It was already booked solid for months in advance. I asked him how he got such a buzz going so fast. "Hairdressers," he replied. When he opened a new restaurant, Pyles explained, he would make the rounds to the city's hippest salons, schmoozing the hairdressers, talking up his venture and giving out invitations. And his strategy always worked.
It makes sense. Keeping up with the latest styles and fashions is part of a hairdresser's job. And that trend-spotting function also includes knowing about the latest places to see and be seen in. I thought I'd test Pyles's equation by finding a practitioner of the coiffure arts and asking for some restaurant advice. Melissa Noble came highly recommended. She is not only a hairdresser but an Inner Looper extraordinaire. She lives in Montrose; in fact, she is a graduate of the now defunct Montrose Elementary School. I tell Melissa about Pyles's theory. "I've been telling people that for years," she says. "Hairdressers see seven to 15 people a day, and everybody is always asking them, "What's the latest?' You expect your hairdresser to be in the know. We are also great psychotherapists and matchmakers." True to Pyles's hypothesis, Melissa knows all about the restaurant scene.
"My friend Janice is the new owner at the Daily Review Cafe [3412 West Lamar, (713)520-9217], and I hear she is going to be redoing the interior," Melissa tells me. "I also talked to her about lightening up the lunch menu a little bit. I don't know what she will end up doing, but my advice is to add some light lunch dishes in the summer."
I ask what new restaurants people are talking about. "Two different clients have told me about a pan-Asian restaurant called Rickshaw [2810 Westheimer, (713)942-7272]. It just opened, and I hear it's excellent. I think defense attorneys have the best taste in restaurants," she says. "And the top defense attorneys I know are raving about Da Marco [1520 Westheimer, (713)807-8857]."
When the waitress comes to check on us, Melissa complains about the gazpacho. The waitress returns to the kitchen to have the chef taste it. She comes back and says she will bring me the other soup selection, a cioppino.
I have ordered the B.V. Express Lunch -- a soup, entrée and dessert. So although I am not dying for soup, I feel compelled to try it. Melissa has ordered salmon in a dill cream sauce ($17.95), which comes with a house salad. The salad looks nice, although the dressing is too tart for Melissa's taste. And then my cioppino is served.
I taste the soup, and Melissa asks if it's okay. I smile and nod. I am trying hard to be open-minded, but I wish they had called it something besides cioppino, which is actually an Italian immigrant dish created in San Francisco. An overflowing bowl of Dungeness crab halves floating in a garlicky tomato-and-seafood stock at the Gold Spike, a funky dive on Columbus Avenue in the city by the bay, will forever crowd out any competing example of cioppino in my admittedly small mind. But I don't want to quibble. So let's just say that Bistro Vino's little luncheon soup with chunks of fish, crab claws and tomato floating in a light seafood broth is lovely; it just needs to be called something besides cioppino.
While I obsess about fish soup, Melissa talks nonstop about photography and music and cramped juke joints in the Third Ward, where she likes to hang out and take pictures of the musicians and patrons. She's a member of the Houston Blues Society, and she dreams of making a documentary about the city's juke joints someday. She tells me about the Sunday-afternoon scene at C. Davis Bar-B-Cue [4833 Reed Road, (713)734-9051]. Elderly black women dressed in their Sunday finest scream at the juiciest blues riffs, while other folks jump up and dance between the tables. Meanwhile, at Bistro Vino, white men in ties and ladies with big hair are drinking designer water with extended pinkies. Melissa Noble has me thoroughly confused.
The salmon fillet looks wonderful. It's broiled, with an attractive bit of char on the corners, and the dill cream sauce is very light. "It's not drowning in cream; it's just a touch. This is a permissible cream sauce for women on a diet," Melissa says with a giggle. The salmon comes with roasted potatoes and big slices of grilled squash. It is an excellent, though clichéd, lunch dish. The chefs I know refer to salmon as "the new chicken," and are thoroughly bored with pedestrian presentations of it. My grilled veal is passable. The pasta with pesto is stuck together in a clump. Melissa inquires about my lunch, and I make a conciliatory gesture. "The salmon is the only thing I ever order," Melissa confides.
Where else do you go for lunch? I ask her. "Yesterday I had a really good chicken salad sandwich at Acadian Bakers [604 West Alabama, (713)520-1484]," she says. "The best place for pizza is Star Pizza [2111 Norfolk, (713)523-0800; 140 South Heights Boulevard, (713)869-1241]; get the whole wheat crust with spinach and garlic topping. When I want Indian food, I go to Madras Pavilion [3910 Kirby, (713)521-2617]. Tien Fu [2390 West Alabama, (713)526-3868] is a fabulous little Chinese place run by a woman named Lisa; she's a single mom, and I love her dearly. Try her garlic shrimp. I also love to eat catfish at El Nedo [3401 Ennis, (713)528-3524] near Project Row Houses in the Third Ward."
These all sound like interesting choices for lunch, especially since the plate before me holds so little attraction. So I ask her to describe what it is exactly that she likes about Bistro Vino.
"I love it because it's so out of date," she says with a devilish smile. She points to the rose-colored tablecloths, the dark wood chairs with tapestry-pattern fabric seats, and the goofy window treatments. "Look at those old dust-catchers," she laughs, pointing to the huge dried-flower arrangements on the mantle. "It's like an old French restaurant in New Orleans or something," Melissa says. "C'mon, I want to show you the courtyard."
Outside, in the thick foliage of the garden, a bubbling stone fountain is surrounded by metal chairs and tables. There are lemon trees and huge rosemary bushes and a lot more greenery that I can't identify. "The Christmas lights are on all year, too," Melissa notes. "When the weather is nice, this patio is an incredibly relaxing place for lunch. This is such a high-stress city; I'm always looking for a place to decompress. A noisy cafe like Ruggles is not a relaxing place to eat lunch."
I have to admit that while my lunch was lackluster, Bistro Vino does have a certain charm. It reminds me of a shabby old restaurant in a little French town where I stopped last fall for a lunch of old-fashioned coq au vin. The dining room was empty save for two other tables, and the high-backed chairs that once must have contributed to an overall stuffy atmosphere were then so threadbare they were just downright comfortable.
"I love this place. Nobody I know comes here, and I can always get a table. There is no music, so you can have a conversation, and although most of the food is hit-or-miss, the salmon is always delicious," Melissa says.
It's an odd recommendation. But I asked Melissa to pick the restaurant, so I can't complain. It's just that I expected her to pick someplace new, hip and now. Melissa certainly knows all of the latest "in" places, but it puzzles me that she didn't choose any of them for our meal. Maybe she just likes to be different. Or maybe her choice of restaurants is a more accurate forecast of Houston's culinary zeitgeist than we are prepared to admit.
"I'm sick of trendy," says Melissa Noble.
Have lunch with Jay Francis.