It's a fiasco

It's a Veritable Feast! fumbles into famine

Restaurateuring is a hard way to make a living, harder than any honest profession except perhaps those involving a set of erasable markers and an Amway starter kit.

Running a restaurant is a risky endeavor fraught with start-up glitches, long hours, and little financial reward. But no matter how backbreaking restaurateuring might be, there is a certain rule that should never be violated, even in the depths of hardship. It's a rule that even Amway doesn't seem to get as it continuously introduces its products via the most disliked member of each American family. And that rule is: Your profession should never be harder on your customers than it is on you.

It's an unwritten rule that the management of It's a Veritable Feast!, located on level four of the West End MarketPlace, might want to consider writing down--perhaps several times. Because eating this food is most certainly a chore. And while giving bad service in a place that has no service may seem something of a contradiction, It's a Veritable Feast! pulls this off too, making the struggle by diners that much more onerous.

In all fairness, this counter-service eatery has had more than its share of start-up glitches, according to Feast! operator Paul Jerabek, who also owns Special Affairs Catering. A West End MarketPlace news release dated October 17 pegs the opening date November 1. But because of delays, its actual opening date was December 2, and planned amenities such as a gourmet coffee bar and a Sunday brunch buffet, along with food classes and cooking demonstrations, won't be part of the mix at least until February. The core menu, consisting of soups, sandwiches, salads, pastas, pizzas, and desserts--which the release describes as homemade--is in place, with just a few gourmet salads to be added later. But if this menu is homemade, the house it was made in should be condemned and razed before any more food can escape.

In true Amway style, the menu is scribbled in dry-erase marker on a pair of white boards listing items such as hamburgers; the soup of the day; tuna, egg, and chicken salad sandwiches; pasta, green, and Caesar salads; and soft drinks. Although Jerabek claims pizza is served daily, it was never listed as an available menu item (there is no printed menu), nor was there any sign of pizza-making paraphernalia during two visits.

Chicken and rice soup came with hearty chunks of chicken and perfectly cooked rice. But the carrots, celery, and onions were mushy, flavorless, and nearly colorless, while the broth tasted as if it were rendered from car-wash drippings.

Lubrication seemed the overriding objective for the pasta salad. This simple assembly of bow-tie pasta, pepperoni, mushrooms, red bell pepper, artichoke, and pimiento was so over-oiled and slimy that the pasta kept sliding off the plastic fork no matter how fiercely it was stabbed.

Burgers and sandwiches anchor the menu, but on our first visit, we were never asked simple things such as how we wanted our burgers cooked (we were informed of a choice between American or Swiss cheeses) or what kind of bread we wanted. (We discovered on a subsequent visit that Feast! offers white, wheat, seven-grain, and sourdough breads.) Plus, the burgers came underdressed in lettuce and tomato with none of the toppings--pickles, onions, relish, peppers, or fresh cucumber slices--you would expect from a place with Feast! in the name. That's too bad, because these dry, rubbery meat patties, crowned with cold, unmelted slices of cheese, were in desperate need of distractions.

The bland chicken-salad sandwich, little more than chicken chunks choked in mayo, was delivered on dry, stale bread--staples that even West End mall rats would just as soon relegate to park pigeons.

Jerabek, who moved his catering operation from Lovers Lane and Inwood to the West End after 15 years, says his new venture aims to upgrade MarketPlace food service with the hope of drawing more retail business to the upper levels. "What they wanted me for was better food for the general public here," he explains. "And I needed a place to run my catering operation. So we're doing both up here...We have a new, clean place, and we serve a quality product."

But here again, the talk and the walk trip all over each other. Feast! shared a food-court-type common eating area decked in Southwestern touches such as terra cotta tiles, rough-hewn white-washed chairs, glass etched with cacti and horses, and walls with broken tile in Southwestern hues. Yet its service counter is little more than a sticky mess with food crumbs welded along the edges and in corners. The immediate seating area was littered with food scraps, while the near-empty bakery case, presumably designed to show off Jerabek's fresh-baked creations, was a disheveled hash of hardening bits of Reese's Pieces cheese cake and a runny, listing slice of black forest cake on a curled, yellowing piece of cardboard settled among a scattering of bakery crumbs and debris.

While things went better on a second visit (we were actually permitted to order burgers medium-rare, which rendered them juicy and flavorful), the foibles continued to trump the tenuous successes. A smoked-turkey sandwich was nothing more than folded slices of turkey on bread (not stale this time) wiped in mayo and mustard. An order of chili, featuring a core of pulverized meat and bean mush, was so greasy, it seemed the down-flush from a car oil change constituted its primary ingredient. Plus, the goop was so hot, it melted the bottom out of its Styrofoam serving cup.

Relatively fresh and cluttered with spongy croutons, the crisp Caesar salad came with a side of dressing served in a large plastic tub. We were instructed to use our own plastic spoons to ladle as much of the stuff as we wanted on our greens before returning the tub to the counter for reuse.

While opening delays and glitches are an everyday part of the restaurant business, it doesn't take a degree in quantum physics to launch a counter service. Nor does it take vast capital outlays and high-level strategic planning to wipe surfaces, stock fresh ingredients, and meet minimal service demands. Your average roach coach executes better than this certifiable fiasco, with or without the gourmet coffee bar.

While the above operation represents simple counter service at its most nightmarish, Cafe Express expresses this operative mode at a high level of swellness. Launched in 1984 in Houston by Southwestern cuisine lord Robert Del Grande of Cafe Annie fame and partner Lonnie Shiller, Cafe Express first hit North Texas in 1994 with a location in Addison. Roughly a year later, a second opened on the long-vacant corner of McKinney and Bowen. The third Dallas installment opened in late October on Lovers Lane near Inwood in Woodlane Plaza, bringing the total number of Cafe Express locations to nine, the remaining six all in Houston. Plans call for additional locations in San Antonio and perhaps Phoenix and Las Vegas.

But this new Dallas edition is fast becoming the most successful replication yet, racking up the biggest opening day and the most successful initial week in the history of the company. So far, it competes neck and neck dollarwise with the top-two grossing stores in Houston. Which is all fine and dandy for Mr. Del Grande and Mr. Shiller. But does it translate into a good plate of chow self-delivered on a plastic serving tray?

For the most part, yes. Cafe Express continues to offer surprisingly good food fast in a crisp, energetic environment. One of the most entertaining amenities in the Express concept is the "oasis," a table in the center of the restaurant with a steel palm tree rising from its center. It holds coffee, olives, capers, cornichons, pickles, parmesan cheese, mango sauce, barbecue sauce, balsamic and sherry vinegars, and basil-, lemon-, and red-pepper-infused olive oils that you can use to dress your meal as you choose.

There were a couple of loose ends dangling from the menu, however. A cup of black bean soup--made with chicken stock, rice, onions, garlic, salt, cumin, and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro and scallions--seemed underseasoned and was loaded with tough, undercooked beans and rice. Also chewy--to a jaw-aching level--was the roast beef sandwich with grilled onions. A stingy portion of sliced beef, with melted Swiss, tomato, and "special sauce" was slipped into a thick, bulky baguette that did nothing to complement the flavor of the ingredients, while it detracted with its texture. Sides of fries were light, crispy, and well-seasoned, but they were served cold on two separate occasions.

Highlights outweighed the blips, however. The Express salad bowl, a generous trio of tuna Tuscany (albacore), chicken (with pistachios and red bell pepper), and pasta pesto salads, were all fresh, meticulously prepared, and well harmonized. The only drawback was that the chicken salad had too much mayonnaise.

A big surprise, the vegetable sandwich with roasted bell peppers, avocado, grilled onion, and zucchini on a crisp-outside, tender-inside roll slathered in goat-cheese spread, was hearty and flavorful. But Express' roasted chicken is perhaps the best item on the menu. A half chicken sitting in a puddle of pan drippings and seasoned with herbs including parsley, thyme, chives, and rosemary, this bird was crisp and golden on the outside, and tender and juicy on the inside: a light, hearty eat.

Another pleasant surprise is Express' wine list, which, limited to just a handful of selections, shows some thought and creativity. There are reds, whites, a blush, and sparklers from California, France, Australia, and Texas at reasonable prices. Wine can't be ordered at the food counter, but you can order your meal at the bar and sip your wine while you wait for your order number to be called out.

Virtually every Cafe Express has the same decor, with shades of plum and deep violet, stone bar walls, and a tile bar top surrounded by furry bar stools, faux marble tables, faux stone tile floors, brushed aluminum ceiling fans, and backlit, punched stainless steel stars on the walls. The look is fresh, engaging, and void of a strenuous lunge at hipness.

Shiller Del Grande Restaurant Group has recently launched a restaurant in Houston called Taco Milagro, featuring "hand-crafted" Mexican cuisine that isn't "cheesy or gunky," according to group spokesman Greg Martin. Slated to hit Dallas in 1999, the restaurant, patterned after Express, even has an oasis featuring eight different salsas and other seasonings such as chopped onions and cilantro. If it's anything like Express, any wait will be too long.

It's a Veritable Feast!, West End MarketPlace, fourth level, (214) 871-1061. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight, Sunday noon-6 p.m.

Cafe Express. 5600 Lovers Lane, (214) 352-2211. Open seven days 11a.m.-10 p.m.

It's a Veritable Feast!:
Hamburgers $3.50
Sandwiches $3.50 whole, $2.00 half
Soup $2.50
Salads $2.50
Drinks $1

Cafe Express:
Cup of soup $1.95
Express salad bowl $7.25
Roast beef sandwich $5.95
Vegetable sandwich $5.25
Roasted half chicken w/house salad $7.25

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