Haute vinyl

Close your eyes and say "coffee shop." Tell me what you see.
Ten-to-one the vision involves orange vinyl, white polyester, and hottles. Maybe a laminated menu, too--I like the ones illustrated with those reassuring color photographs. Coffee shops are attached to motels: they're a one-night stand, a quick fix.

Change one consonant, and you don't see those coffee shops anymore. Hotels--classy hotels--have real restaurants.

At a hotel like the Fairmont, the Brasserie is the closest thing to a coffee shop you're going to get. That is, if you were staying at the Fairmont, this is where you'd eat breakfast and supper in those rare times when the convention had nothing more exciting and convivial planned. But the Brasserie is also a good option for downtown eating, though one easily overlooked.

Coffee shops have cooks; the Brasserie has a chef, Jeff Worthington. Chef Worthington recently changed his menu around--he calls his new food "Tex-Med" (Tex-Mex-Mediterranean), which sounds dumb, and is a combination everyone else is trying, too. The difference is, this food actually works in the mouth.

It's a typical hotel menu in that it must and does appeal to a wide--and in this case high-end--range of tastes. For instance, there's a section of "Big Simple Meals" on the menu for real meat-and-potatoes people. We skipped that and instead tried the enchilada trio from "Mexicana Fresca"--three enchiladas, one filled with spinach, one with a ratatouille-like sautŽ of eggplant, and one with chicken--and the chile relleno, covered with green tomatillo sauce and filled with goat cheese melted to thick cream, a flavor pairing as perfect as tomato and basil. We ate some great, lemony guacamole, rather pretentiously labeled "fork-mashed," but it is good to know before you dip that no rotary blade has messed with your fruit.

A terrific plate of black bean soup was thick and rich as fudge; we passed it around and around the table, everyone dipping in a spoon when we ran out of tostados. The crust of the "Grilled Mexican Pizza" was so thin it couldn't bear the weight of the toppings without a fork's support, but you wouldn't want to eliminate the tomatoes, jalape–os, chicken strips, or goat cheese from the mix. The seared steak sandwich had likewise made the leap from fingers to fork; it was piled so high with meat and blue cheese crumbles that only a caveman would have felt comfortable using his hands.

Desserts (some of them award winners from the State Fair) were outrageously gargantuan. The dense carrot cake and the Key lime pie topped with coconut cream were my favorites; chocolate peanut butter mousse cake and "World Famous Fairmont Stacked Cheesecake" were a little gross in sheer dimension, even if they were meant to be shared.

It can be a little intimidating to drop into the Fairmont for a bite--the glitzy lobby can feel like a club you don't belong to. (The Brasserie itself is a little easier--a light-filled, rosy room with subtle touches that relate to the Southwest theme, instead of the continental menu called for by the rest of the building's decor.) But we thought there was something festive and fun about entering the lobby from the escalator to go out to eat--pitiful homebound creatures that we are, it made us feel like we were travelers going somewhere, on our way to Tex-Med.

--Mary Brown Malouf

The Brasserie in the Fairmont Hotel, Ross & Akard, 720-5291. Open Monday-Friday 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Open Saturday-Sunday 6:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

The Brasserie:
Grilled Mexican pizza $5.95
Fork mashed guacamole $5.95
Enchiladas $7.95


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