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Cafe Zol

Maybe I jumped the gun with Cafe Zol. I had heard that the dormant building that housed Crostini had been remodeled into a Scandinavian restaurant. Prior to Cafe Zol, the closest you could get to Scandinavian food in Houston was the completely random meatball stand at Ikea. Real viking food in Houston? Sign me up!

I did virtually no research on the place, beyond the location. The restaurant opened sometime in January, so going in February I was hoping to find Cafe Zol kitchen just hitting it’s stride. George Bush spent less time thinking about invading Iraq, so what’s the worst that could happen?

From the moment you drive up to Cafe Zol and see the green dinosaur on the sign (sadly, there is no dinosaur meat on the menu) you get a feeling that you are entering an alternate universe. I am not talking about Denmark or Sweden, but another dimension entirely where things look right but everything is out of place and people talk backwards. At noon the place was deserted and the host seemed surprised to see us. One of the tables was occupied, but it turned out to a public relations consultant explaining her plan to make Cafe Zol a runaway success to the first time restaurant owners (you can see their handy work at Citysearch).

Things went rapidly downhill from there. The menu explained that Cafe Zol offered an array of “Scandinavian tapas”. I was fairly certain that there would be no fresh whale dishes, but you can readily get deer, elk and various sea creatures in to pull off a Scandinavian concept. Worst case scenario – I could make stupid Viking jokes and feast on smoked salmon and herring. Unfortunately, none of those things were on the menu, which read like it was put together by Aramark. Salads, sandwiches, burgers and items you don’t often find on Scandinavian tapas menus.

Right around the time we stated looking for an escape hatch a bread basket arrived with some pink whipped butter. The bread tasted like a frozen Pepperidge Farms loaf that has been undercooked in a barely warm oven. It was too late to leave, so we decided to tough it out. Cheese rolls (Danish specialty?) turned out to be to be of the same variety as on every Thai menu in Houston. The meatball sandwich looked perfectly edible and my friend, who was the only one wise enough to order it, thought it was pretty good, as far as cold meatballs go.

Everyone else at the table ordered chicken and dumplings, so terrible a dish that I could not eat more than two spoonfuls. The broth was completely unseasoned and slightly sour, even after we began dumping life threatening amounts of salt and pepper into it. The sour taste was a lot stronger in the dumplings, which tasted like Ethiopian injera bread that has been left out in a warm, damp place for a couple of days then molded into dense little balls. As we tried to figure out how to get out of Cafe Zol without having to explain why we aren’t enjoying our Scandinavian tapas the owner came by to tell us that the soup is one of the best dishes on the menu and her personal favorite. By the time we paid our bill, another lunch party had arrived and proceeded to tell the waiter that the food was terrible.

Driving away, the only thing I could think of was the disappointment the Cafe Zol owners would soon feel when the place inevitably fails. Will it happen before or after they spend much of their life savings trying to live out their dream? It happens to much better restaurants than Cafe Zol, such as the excellent La Posada del Inca that recently went up for sale after the owners found they were not cut out for the demands of the restaurant trade.

Maybe Gordon Ramsay will read this post and decide to visit Houston to help turn Cafe Zol around…

February 12, 2008   3 Comments