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Warming Up to Down House

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I first visited Down House to vet the Pumpkin Phosphate during my search for great pumpkin dishes in Houston. I was heartily impressed with the phosphate but still a bit wary of the food. The restaurant, as Katharine Shilcutt has pointed out, has some identity issues, and I wondered whether the entrees would be as well-crafted as the cocktails.

A recent dinner has convinced me that Down House ("Coffeehouse. Restaurant. Bar.") is serious at least about fulfilling the second and third parts of its advertised trifecta status.

Familiar with the phosphate, I opted to start off with another of Down House's new winter cocktails, The Normandy Tart ($10). The name made me think of some hapless floozy traipsing along a French beach. The taste, however, was cooler and more sophisticated thanks to piquant citrus and ginger notes and a soothing base of allspice dram and egg whites.

I managed to restrain myself from licking clean the cinnamon and sugar dipped rim by focusing on our appetizers. The "Deviled Eggs Three Different Ways" ($6) and "Unroast Beef Sandwiches" ($11) were delicate toasts topped eggs, dill and aioli, peanut sauce, and raw beef with a creamy horseradish sauce. Their light, whimsical flavors so evoked old-school English tea parties that eating them without gloves felt wrong.

At first glance, I wondered if the warm green bean salad ($11) would suffer from excessively botanical flavors. But I had sorely underestimated the power of the perfectly poached egg and bacon lardons to infuse the entire mixture with a salty richness that pleasantly overtook the natural bitterness of the beans and balanced well with the sweet, fibrous pear.

Choosing an entree is always an ordeal for me as Indecision, Thy Name Is Joanna. I thought I was playing it safe (and perhaps boring) by choosing the fried chicken with mashed potatoes and spinach salad ($16).

But the non-standard preparation provided a fresh twist on my old favorite. The buttermilk-brined chicken was laced with thyme and the honey-glazed crust was denser and thicker. Each bite was a wonderful mix of sweet syrup and savory poultry juices. I soon gave up on the fork and ate the leg and breast cave-man style, so as not to miss a smidgen of flesh.

I'm not much of a coffeehouse connoisseur, so I may never be able to verify Down House's offerings in that realm. But as a restaurant and bar, they seem to have come a very long way since somewhat shaky beginnings and I look forward to seeing what's next.

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