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Ancho chili pork chop comes with a large variety of local vegetables

Keys to the Kingdom

by John DeMers | Photo: Debora Smail | Houston magazine | May 28, 2013

Imagine for a moment that the residents of River Oaks all banded together to stage Phantom of the Opera. The crystal-dripping, multimirrored set would look a lot like the opulently baroque-style—and yet casual-in-spirit, and unexpectedly healthy—restaurant-bar-nightclub Darla Lexington has created in the space long inhabited by the neighborhood’s beloved Brownstone. And for this evening’s performance, in the role of the Phantom…

Bruce Molzan, one of Houston’s best-known and most controversial chefs of the past three decades.

With Corner Table, Molzan returns from the exile that seemed inevitable last year when the last vestige of his multiconcept Ruggles empire was torn down near the corner of Montrose and Westheimer—leaving only a few Ruggles Greens, which are not his. At that time, naturally, Molzan proclaimed he had more restaurants to build; yet few hearing his promises pictured anything as big-bucks or high-profile as the Lexington’s setup.

In fact, not since property magnate Haidar Barbouti opened Up in his own Highland Village has there been an eatery aimed so explicitly at Houston’s upper crust. On this night—a Tuesday—you’d think it was a Saturday. Every table has takers by 7pm, with more than a little private-club-like visiting between courses. Before long, Molzan is making the rounds, pressing the pampered flesh like any good candidate for city council.

“I’m just a guy who cooks here,” offers the chef at our table, a curious response to an inquiry about how Corner Table fits into his oeuvre. This may be merely a way to distance himself from legal disputes over pay and other issues from Ruggles days. (As in, “Hey look, I’m a working stiff like everybody else.”)

And yet, his connection with Lexington makes a crazy kind of sense. Molzan’s past of openings, closings and legal disputes sort of meshes with that of a woman who navigated a multiyear battle to get what she claimed was hers from the estate of her late boyfriend, the famous personal-injury attorney John O’Quinn. The lawsuits and countersuits—arising from the fact that Lexington and the attorney, who died in a car accident in 2009, weren’t married—ended with a settlement in 2012.

None of this fascinating back story is openly discussed at Corner Table. But looking around at the mostly mature and monied crowd, it’s a safe bet plenty of the customers know it by heart. And many of them are no doubt friends and supporters of Lexington’s.

These top-of-the-foodie-chain diners have adopted Corner Table as their latest see-and-be-seen hangout, much as they did at Up, and much as they did at Armando’s before that, elevating Tex-Mex to haute cuisine—and, of course, much as they’ve always done with anything Tony Vallone sets up.

Part of the buzz around Lexington’s new setup with daughter Michelle Coopwood extends beyond the restaurant itself, as there are no fewer than four spaces other than the dining room that serve the varying interests of the area’s nightlife set. Downstairs, in addition to a patio that’s as lovely as it is lively after dark, there’s a two-in-one sort of affair, with the 1919 Wine Bar and the Mixology Bar touting the latest iterations of craft cocktails.

Every drink, including Coopwood’s mojito-spun namesake The Chell with white rum, watermelon, cucumber and mint, is mixed with fresh juices, herbs and other ingredients. Live music abounds in 1919 six nights a week, from American standards to jazz to R&B. Young musical prodigy Keegan Daleo brings his soul-jazz to the stage regularly.

Upstairs, though, is where the serious weekend party—and most of the dancing—happens. The Oak Bar, formerly the celebrated Red Room, blends that chandeliered Victorian Phantom chic with a big of the ragtag joie de vivre of River Oaks’ late-great bar Marfreless. Here, as there, you’re more likely to trip over the mismatched furniture in the loungey dark rather than actually see it. While DJs usually set the tone—trying to “read the room,” playing anything from contemporary grooves to classics from the ’70s and ’80s—there is a piano at the ready for live concerts.

The food at downstairs’ Corner Table—envisioned by Molzan and prepared under young Chef de Cuisine Ryan Ng—quite fits the “old guard” motif. Not only because it’s good, but also because it’s almost humorously retro. With the exception of an unexpected fixation on the no-gluten, no-grain, no-dairy and no-legume cookery known as paleo—“what our ancestors would have eaten,” informs the casual back-and-front menu—the whole thing could almost have been devised for a Houston restaurant 20 years ago.

Consider the old-school pastry dome atop the butternut squash soup—or the warm goat cheese salad with apples, toasted almonds and a sundried tomato vinaigrette, or the savory cheese creme brulee in a jar.

Did I say 20 years? Maybe 25 is more like it. That’s when Phantom opened on Broadway—1988. Is it possible Lexington picked up some of the old props from eBay? Nah. But there are enough antique chandeliers and gilded mirrors—set in adjoining small rooms along twisting passageways—to make you wonder.

There are, it must be said, a few touches of modernity in the L-shaped main dining room, pointing out onto that patio resembling a jet-setter postcard from Marbella, with six umbrella-topped tables arrayed beneath a canopy of trees. For one thing, most of the dining room’s framed art draws from the 20th and even 21st centuries, more than from Phantom’s 19th. For another, Molzan and Co. prepare food in an open kitchen, something even the most egomaniacal of French chefs wouldn’t have considered until a generation ago.

Service at the Corner Table, I’m told, has been an evolution. For some reason, the place opened in January as rather casual, almost quick-service in the manner of, say, Café Express. But Lexington and her friends decided they wanted something more extravagant from the servers who swirl through in clipped black ties, well-pressed white shirts and black pants.

The menu also evolved to serve the interests of a crowd who wanted fine dining but without the need to dress for dinner. Patrons wanted upscale and refined cuisine they could purchase any night of the week. The very thing virtually every non-fast-food restaurant in America wants to be these days seems to be what Corner Table has stumbled into being, almost by accident.

The fascination with all things paleo seems to come directly from Lexington and Coopwood. Servers mention bodybuilders loving the place, though I’m not sure how many bodybuilders reside in River Oaks. Perhaps more universal are the notions of weight loss and healthy living, which this week seem to focus on cutting carbs as much as it used to focus on cutting fat. The end result at Corner Table is a number of dishes—less than a tenth of the menu, honestly—that jump through hoops to achieve great taste and satisfying texture without using carb-heavy or otherwise offensive ingredients.

You have to admire Molzan’s quasi-scientific approach to reworking the basic elements in his dishes. The Paleo Paella, for instance, has no rice, except for something mildly rice-like that started out as cauliflower before taking on housemade chorizo, organic chicken, salmon and mussels—not to mention flavoring from saffron, tomatoes, coconut milk, coconut oil and jalapeños. The Paleo Shrimp, like the turkey bolognese, features noodles made from spaghetti squash rather than wheat flour, while the chicken enchiladas are made in coconut-flour tortillas. (I’m not sure how the chefs get “flour” from all of this, but “our ancestors” were a lot more advanced than I thought.)

Setting aside the fitness-minded culinary wizardry, the real theme of the menu might actually be throwback chic. To the delight no doubt of the many who miss the old Ruggles days, Molzan is happy enough here to trot out some greatest hits. Or at least new versions of them.

The best example is the Ancho Honey Glazed Smoked Pork Chop, which could be the vegetarian platter—heaped with no fewer “local vegetables” than separately cooked carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, asparagus, broccolini, green beans, yellow squash, zucchini and cauliflower—if it weren’t for that oversized hunk of pork. It strikes me as something of a protest against today’s tiny, over-stylized, artisanal portions of, really, who the heck knows what.

Desserts are less a treat than an attack. Expect your server to bring a large tray of nearly 30 of them. Servers strain to support the weight while describing each and every one. Best bets include the warm fruit cobbler—blueberry tonight, but sure to change seasonally—the citrus cheesecake and the brownie, all more or less paleo since they use nondairy substitutes for lushness and novelties like coconut and almond flour for crunch.

As my dining experience ends, I chuckle at the funny ideas Corner Table has called to mind. Phantom of the Opera, indeed! And the paleo business, and that massive dessert spread. Amid all this glamour, and all this decadence, I find myself musing to myself that our ancestors—I mean really—never, ever had it so good.  

Corner Table
2736 Virginia St.

Lunch Monday-Saturday 11am-3pm; dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10pm and Friday-Saturday 5-11pm

Appetizers $8-$14; soups and salads $9-$13; entrees $13-$37; desserts $7.95

Why Go
Famously once-embattled local socialite-restaurateur Darla Lexington joins forces with famously once-embattled chef Bruce Molzan to create a multilevel playground for In-Crowd-meets-Old-Guard (and notably health-conscious) wining and dining River Oaks.

Valet at the entrance for $5. Very limited street parking in a surrounding neighborhood turning more high-density by the minute.

Dressing Down
For most of the regulars in the dining room, it’s an evening that’s both a night out and a night off. Yes, there are a few cocktail frocks scattered about, but mostly folks are dressed for comfort as much as style. As the hours get later and the younger-tilting club set arrives, snug designer jeans and slinky LBDs are more the rule.

Kids Stuff
Four out of five items on the Kid’s Table menu are designed to be paleo, so the little ones are invited to obsess about their diet, too. The spaghetti involves turkey meat and organic spaghetti squash.