Houston heavyweight

Chef Robert Del Grande's reputation carries as much weight as the ceramic platter at Cafe Express

The big deal about Cafe Express isn't the concept - we've seen upscale fast food (as if that weren't an oxymoron) before - but the fact that its owner is Robert Del Grande, a real big deal chef, the owner of the renowned and illustrious Cafe Annie in Houston.

This is similar to Dean Fearing opening an "upscale" fried chicken shack, or Stephen Pyles setting up an "upscale" tamale wagon. Cafe Express is the culinary equivalent of a designer T-shirt.

The philosophical question is - and it's soon to rival the famed tree-in-the-forest question - is you didn't know it said DKNY, would that cotton interlock really look any better than Jockey's? Ergo, If you didn't know this was Del Grande's recipe for (sigh) roast chicken, would it really taste that much better than Boston's? Think about it.

The owners (Del Grande et ux., and Lonnie and Candice Schiller) want you to think about it or assume you're going to; the serious slogan attached to my press materials for the enterprise is "Fast food for the thinking man or woman."

It depends what you're thinking of, I guess. Some things were not thought of.

This is one of those places where you stand in line to place your order from a menu posted over the cash register. You pay, then find a table, and when your name is called, retrieve your food from the front counter. It's called self-service. (Don't forget to pick up your napkins, silverware, and such from the kiosk in the middle.)

But there's a problem. Cafe Express serves its pasta in great big, beautiful white ceramic pasta bowls, and the roast chicken on a large white ceramic platter. Add a salad in a white ceramic bowl, and say your friend wants a chicken sandwich - served on a white ceramic plate - and it seems you've gotta press about 50 pounds just to get your tray to the table.

Don't get me wrong - I detest eating off of cardboard and especially styrofoam, but what's wrong with the idea of waiters these days? Why is everyone phasing out of this ancient and honored profession?

To be perfectly fair: when I groaned, the cheerful and helpful counter person (who told me it had taken months for the chef to perfect that roasted chicken recipe) offered to carry it for me. But I just wonder - when the place is really crowded, would he have offered, and what if I was really old and out of shape or something? (No, I'm not.)

Then, of course, when you want a glass of wine or a drink, or a cup of coffee or dessert, you order and pay for it at a separate register, which probably has something to do with Texas' arcane liquor laws, but which is also highly inconvenient. Especially if you want two glasses of wine, and then dessert - which you will, because the food deserves wine and the desserts are worth eating. (Dallas is a gelato-starved city, and the scary thing is, most people don't even realize there's a shortage. We're such ostriches.)

There are several Cafe Expresses in Houston already; the enormous (6,000 sqaure feet plus a patio) stone palace on Belt Line Road is the first of four or five projected to open in the metroplex, and is the first one outside of Houston. "Upscale," the word Cafe Express used most often in press materials to describe itself, probably refers as much to the excessively tasteful stone-temple design of the place (the ancient Aztecs might find it cozy) as it does the menu offerings of gelato, cappuccino, wine by the glass, chicken, chicken, chicken. And -surprise - pasta. (For an additional charge, you can add a variety of chi-chi inggredients to any dish: avocado, bacon, pesto, goat cheese, pine nuts, pistachios, etc.)

Well, once we'd lugged those trays over to our table, the food was good. If part of what the thinking man (or woman) is thinking about is what he puts in his mouth, his thoughts will be happy ones.

Though the penne pasta was splitting its sides from too long in the water, the spicy, fennel-fragrant tomato sauce -as far a distance as you could go from the standard sweet tomato-soup-type slop served in most mass-market restaurants - made it easy to ignore the flaw.

Our salad was also easy to ignore - the cold bowl of overly pre-chilled greens, pepperoncini, radishes, and cherry tomato was topped with a glob of congealed sweet dressing that looked eerily like chicken fat but tasted slightly sweet. A mug of thick potato soup with tiny-diced celery, carrots, and onions was enriched with smoky bacon. Our sandwich was served on a toasted roll with just enough texture to hold its own but not as formidably earthy as bread tends to be these days in "upscale" restaurants; it's generous filling of grilled zucchini and onion, avocado, and red pepper seemd to be missing the promised goat cheese but nevertheless proved that a vegetable sandwich doesn't have to be virtuously dull. The grilled chicken sandwich has a lot more competition in this category; the Cafe Express version comes with cheese and bacon, replacing some of the fat removed with the chicken skin. There are plenty of low-fat foods on this menu - but I was relieved to find that flavor came first.

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