Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Holy snapper!

Our critic kneels before the Lighthouse’s upscale comfort food

Posted on Wed, Apr 2, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2008-04-02

The Lighthouse’s new operation on McCullough (the original is at 1604 and Stone Oak) is appealingly transparent after dark. From the parking lot — or even the street, for that matter — you can see the bakery, the pastry case, the merchandising islands …

For those concerned about the separation of church and steak, the merchandising islands do intrude a tad into the dining space, and more than one diner has commented to me about the feeling of eating in a religious gift shop — a feeling that is intensified by the high lighting level in the space devoted to dining. Fortunately, the food is worth a measure of devotion in its own right, so even diners of a secular bent can feel right at home in this self-titled Christian Coffeehouse and Café. We’ll pay homage to the meat loaf any day of the week.

But first a hymn to the ecumenical appetizers. Some Asian influences are apparent on the menu, and they are especially welcome in the green-onion and pulled-chicken lettuce wrap with sesame soy sauce. True, the chicken breast was chopped, not pulled (traditionally it might even be ground), but the only possible complaint is one of excess generosity: There was so much of the moist and flavorful chicken that the tender lettuce leaves were entirely inadequate to the task.

Generosity also characterized the appetizer crab cake, full of large flakes of crab meat and few binders and extenders. (At $12, generosity is to be expected, of course.) A red-pepper coulis was pretty but unnecessary (though actually applied to the cake, not just drizzled on the plate, it might have had an impact), but the bok-choy and cabbage slaw was just right as a contrasting accompaniment to the briny-metallic crab. To follow the appetizer, we had intended to order the char su duck breast (char su may be more familiar as a marinade and glaze for pork, with flavors that usually include hoi sin, five-spice, ketchup, etc.) and spinach salad with soy vinaigrette, but frankly forgot. Oh, well, another time.

Organ swell, please; the sautéed snapper is about to be served and a little reverence is due. Beautifully crusted, platonically flaky, and served atop a gratin of fennel (some) and potato (more) with gruyere, this was perhaps the best fish I’ve had in a fortnight — or many months, for that matter. Everything on the plate worked, including the simple sauté of tomato and onion that topped the filet. Only in the company of such finesse (the chef, it turns out, is a C.I.A. grad) did the braised short ribs with pappardelle stumble slightly. Yes, the pasta was perfectly cooked; yes, the ribs were meaty and full of flavor — as was the braising liquid sporting carrot, onion, and tomato. A little reduction of that liquid so it better coats the pasta is all I ask; then it would be heaven.

Short ribs are a modest cut of beef that has been exalted lately, and if the presentation at Lighthouse is any indication, the glorification of the meat loaf is about to burst upon us. It comes in a fashionable shallow bowl, draped atop a mound of turnip-laced mashed potatoes that have, in turn, been mantled with sautéed spinach. It’s pretentious, but it’s all perfect. Loved the potato-turnip combo. The spinach was superb. And the generous meat loaf was flavorful almost to a fault. At $12, this is surely the bargain of a dinner menu that ranges from $9.50 (a burger) to $28 (a “mini” beef ribeye).

What is not a bargain is the wine. The list is small yet interesting enough, and all bottles are 50-percent off on Tuesdays and Saturdays with dinner (there’s also live entertainment on Saturdays), but the wines by the glass are frankly pricey and the glassware doesn’t support the tariff. $13 for a small glass of Murphy-Goode’s Liar’s Dice Zinfandel (it retails for around $20 online) simply seems excessive — no matter how good the spicy and berry-driven wine is with meat loaf and short ribs.

Breakfast is served all day at The Lighthouse, and though offerings such as a strata with sun-dried tomatoes and leeks and a crab version of eggs benedict take the menu beyond the realm of pancakes and waffles (though they, too, sound especially inventive), it’s this focus that leads one to assume that desserts should be special as well — there’s that visible bakery, after all. As a bread pudding was the only item of interest one evening (crème brûlée is getting to be so been-there-done-that these days) it got the nod — but not the expected benediction due to its overly sturdy texture. We enjoyed the combination of two breads, one chocolate, the other unflavored, but that was about all.

I can bear witness to the quality of the peanut-butter cookies, however; they are paragons of the form. And the very healthy (which is to say non-frosted) muffin I sampled was also a beacon of virtue. Note that virtue takes many guises.

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