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First Impressions: Cafe Express

Mike Sutter
From top, blue cheese and bacon burger with sweet potato fries, grilled chicken salad with candied pecans and bacon, and roasted vegetable tart with Greek salad.

Except for the dowdy mansard roof like a shingled sun hat, you won't see traces of the La Madeleine franchise that used to occupy the building on North Lamar Boulevard where Cafe Express opened in October. The redesigned space is as bright as a solarium, with sealed concrete floors, blonde wood tables and chairs, a slatted wood screen along the street and window walls for a view on the big courtyard.

The entrance allows enough space for milling around with the menu in hand before walking to the register to order. That's good, because you'll need time to pick from a battery designed to reach every member of your party of six: the eat-anything dad, the dressing-on-the side mom, french fry guy, I-think-I'm-a-vegetarian girl, the friend who thinks everything's too spicy and the gourmand who can't believe you dragged her here.

Cafe Express targets them with nine salads ($6.99-$10.99), four soups ($4.29), nine sandwiches and seven burgers ($6.79-$9.99 with a side), seven pastas ($7.29-$13.99), a half-dozen grilled and roasted entrees ($7.79-$10.99), a kids' menu ($4.29 with drink and side) and a dessert case ($1.49-$3.29). Oh, and breakfast until 11 a.m. A Provençal scramble with spinach and roasted tomatoes ($7.29) might ease the pain for La Madeleine mourners. That, or a glass of wine.

Cafe Express is one of the concepts developed by Robert Del Grande, the chef behind Houston's celebrated RDG + Bar Annie, a James Beard Award winner who takes Texas and Southwestern staples and dresses them up for the boots-and-suits crowd. As part of the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group, he's turned his cooking into a brand that includes Cafe Express, which has a dozen locations in Houston, a handful in Dallas and now one in Austin. The same group is putting together the upcoming Lake Travis view-and-chew called Soleil.

But if you're looking for a spark of what made Del Grande famous, you won't find it in the Cafe Express boilerplate salad of grilled chicken ($8.39). Everybody makes a salad like this: spring mix, tomatoes, candied pecans, bacon. It will neither offend nor delight anyone.

A notch up from that, a burger with blue cheese and bacon ($9.29) was like a jailbreak on a bun, a rowdy overcrowding of big slabs of bacon and piles of lettuce and great gobs of cheese. I'd have traded some of the condiment crowd for more beef, though, cooked something shy of campfire crisp. But I liked the side of sweet potato fries, especially with a sweet-hot habanero salsa from the Land of the Magic Jars.

Let me explain. Cafe Express doesn't call it the Land of the Magic Jars. It's just a space between the iced tea and coffee stations filled with extras: roasted garlic cloves, kalamata olives, gingered carrots, pencil-thin crunchy breadsticks, smoky chipotle salsa, capers and the like. This is where you take mild-mannered fast-casual food and make it your own, tricking it out like Jennifer Hudson singing the National Anthem.

That sleepy chicken salad? Pile on raisiny-sweet sun-dried tomatoes, some thick-grated Parmesan, a few capers and olives (watch the pits), and maybe you've got something. Same with the burger: kick off the lettuce, mash up a few garlic cloves and layer on pickled ginger carrots.

But a roasted vegetable tart ($7.79 with a salad, 50 cents more for Greek) needs none of that fuss. A red, yellow and green array of tender spinach and roasted tomatoes and artichoke hearts fills a flaky shell, topped with creamy goat cheese. It's a dish of warm garlic and herb flavors, something that feels like it was conceived and cooked somewhere other than this cafeteria-style environment.

Two things to know about dessert: The chocolate lava cupcake ($3.29) is rich enough for two, so dense with chocolate and cream cheese that the Ghirardelli square on top is the least decadent thing about it. And for just $1.79, your coffee cup can go from Kenya to Costa Rica or wherever Cafe Express is stopping that day.

Cafe Express. 3418 N. Lamar Blvd. 452-9888, www.cafe-express.com . Open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Breakfast served until 11 a.m.