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Good things happening at Cafe Annie

I have been mostly disinterested in Cafe Annie for the last several years. The food just didn’t seem to get quite to the level of other top restaurants in Houston and the menu was getting long in the tooth. There are only so many times you can see "wood grilled this" and "pan roasted that" on the menu before falling sound asleep.

Lately, a couple of good lunches have made me wonder if I was just making poor menu choices or if perhaps Cafe Annie is going through a renaissance of sorts. To be clear, the menu is still way too formulaic, especially so at lunch, but the flavors are brighter and the more refined. Overall, the food seems to be at a much higher level than before. Or is it just me?

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While the tortilla soup seemed perfectly average a bit less than a year ago, the mushroom soup with truffle croutons and the chilled potato with leeks and watercress I had recently were both exceptional. The potato soup today, served just a touch below room temperature over a chilled potatoes cubes, was delicate and perfectly balanced. A great spring dish. The mushroom soup a few months ago was just as good of a fit for winter – smooth, deeply flavored with actual mushrooms, rather than chicken broth and salt. Added bonus? The word "foraged" was nowhere to be found on the menu. How’s that for understated?

After striking out with lackluster entrees like buttermilk fried chicken salad, wood grilled shrimp with potato enchiladas and wood grilled skirt steak with yet more potato enchiladas (see the trend here?), I changed my strategy and started paying more attention to the daily specials instead. On both of my recent visits the specials was pan roasted sea bass, but they were served with sides and sauces interesting enough to make them stand out as distinct dishes. Both times the fish was simply prepared, with a perfectly crisp skin and very delicate texture. Reef offers a similar preparation with their Crispy Skin Snapper, but Cafe Annie seems to execute it with far more precision worthy of the acclaim the restaurant usually receives and maybe just a little beyond.

Another thing I have noticed recently (unless I just missed it before) is that every meal begins with an amuse. I know it’s not a big deal, but it’s a nice way to start anything. A good amuse bouche is the difference between a well thought out gift and a generic gift certificate – something selected for you by the chef that you might not otherwise order yourself.

The amuse for one of my lunch in February was the classic gulf crab tostada  w/ avocado relish served on a single tortilla chip. Today it was a bite sized serving of shrimp wrapped around a green chile pepper served on a bed of creamy grits, which does not appear on the regular menu. I thought the shrimp was over seasoned for a split second, until I realized that I really should be eating the whole thing in one bite. After that, everything fell in it’s place.

Another sign Cafe Annie is heading in the right direction?

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