I had not been to Cafe Annie in several years. I have too much mental baggage about it. I know it is one of Houston's most expensive restaurants. I know that its owner/chef was once considered by many as Houston's best chef. I know it once had the best wine guy in Houston, who has since moved on to the French Laundry in Napa.
I remember the early 90s when tables were hard to get, when the wait staff was snobby, and when all the male customers wore coats and ties. Expensive dinners at Cafe Annie were a symbol of Houston's upper class and its excesses.
I also felt that, in recent years, the innovation of the cooking had trailed off and that the quality of the wine list had dropped. For a while, the crowds trailed off too. I remember going on a Friday night in 2001 when only five tables were full.
In short, I guess I have been avoiding Cafe Annie because it seems like a relic -- a very expensive relic.
When I did return last weekend, I tried a thought experiment. What if I erased all my knowledge and opinions about Cafe Annie, and tried it from the eyes of a newcomer. What would I think?
Last Saturday night, the restaurant was crowded. It was not too formal or dressy. Although some men wore coats, quite a few men wore collared t-shirts without a coat. And no one wore a tie. Several customers had brought their pre-teen children. The waitstaff and front desk staff were quite friendly and gracious.
The huge wine list reflected intelligent thought. Most restaurants put new releases on their list immediately. Many new releases are too young. But not on this list. Vintages were carefully selected. For instance, we ordered a 2002 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir. The currently released vintage is the 2004, which right now is too tannic and backward -- not good to drink. After trying a 2004, I did some research and learned that Swan pinots get much better two years after release, and that the 2002 Swan estate pinot is currently one of the best California pinots of that vintage. Somehow, Cafe Annie knew this and waited to offer the 2002 until it was ready. That may not sound so impressive until you see the hundreds of wine on their list.
The food also was very high quality, and some of it was quite innovative.
I started with an appetizer of two scallops with a slab of applewood bacon and an asparagus salad. This dish was fascinating because the texture of the scallops and the pork was almost identical, yet their flavors were distinct and complimentary. The asparagus stalks -- interestingly sliced down the middle -- were far better than any asparagus I have had recently.
My wife's appetizer was a Ceasar salad. It was expertly prepared, but nothing unusual or interesting.
She also ordered a column of barely seared rare tuna with dollops of a tabasco-based sauce and a roasted beet and frisee salad. Somehow, this raw tuna was at least as good as the best tuna sashimi I have had in the best sushi restaurants. It paired nicely with the baby beets and frisee. This dish was not that innovative, but again I was impressed with the quality of the ingredients. I also was amazed at how well the raw fish brought out the fruit in the pinot noir.
I had a Cinnamon Roasted Pheasant, which came with a very light cream chili sauce and polenta. The cinnamon flavor was very subtle, which was good because this was the best quality pheasant I have ever had. This was an enormous bird with crispy skin. I have tried pheasant elsewhere that was gamey. The taste of this dish reminded me of Cafe Annie's similar chicken dish, which is one of the best chicken dishes in Houston -- wait -- strike that -- I'm putting aside my past experiences with Cafe Annie for this post.
From the eyes of a newcomer, several qualities stand out about Cafe Annie. First, the service is impeccable and friendly, but reserved.
Second, the ingredients are of the highest quality. I do not exaggerate when I say that our meal included the best pheasant, some of the best asparagus, and some of the best tuna I have had anywhere.
Third, for a restaurant that focuses on Southwestern flavors, the spicing is remarkably tame, and the cooking techniques are much more Continental than Texan or Mexican. Dishes involving chili peppers somehow capture the taste, but not the spice, of the chili. In its restrained Southwestern style, Cafe Annie's cooking is completely unique among Houston's fine restaurants. It is not the most innovative cuisine, but it is different.
Taking off my newcomer's hat, Cafe Annie has not changed much in 20 years. Sure, the menu changes frequently. But the dishes all seem to have the same sauces and the same preparations. They also seem to have the same high quality. It is very good food. It is distinctly Houston. And you still pay through the nose for it.