Lotsa Pasta

Just emigrated from New Orleans, Semolina's international noodles are trendy and copious -- but only intermittently scintillating

On paper, Semolina is a great idea. Billing itself as an "international pasta bar," this hyper-eclectic world-o'-noodles operation has been a big hit in New Orleans; restaurant critic Gene Bourg of the city's Times Picayune says he has witnessed people virtually fighting to get into Semolina's Magazine Street restaurant, one of four locations there. The lure? Huge portions of moderately priced pastas ($9.95 tops) in a trendily multicultural mode -- Asian, Mediterranean, Neo-Creole, Neo-Midwestern, Southwestern -- all served up in amusing, resolutely casual surroundings. If somebody held a gun to my head and ordered me to describe the Semolina Look, I'd blurt out "Elvis-does-Milan-on-the-cheap."

Sounds like the restaurant of the '90s, right? That's exactly what lots of would-be entrepreneurs thought when they read in the restaurant trade journals about two-year-old Semolina's carbo-intensive profit margins. Now Semolina's three chef-owners (they call themselves the Taste Buds, I am sorry to say) have investors lining up to buy franchises. The Houston "store," as food-biz lingo labels such an outpost, opened quietly last month in Westheimer's Briargrove Center and is one of the first of 60-plus Semolinas due to colonize America in the next few years. They're riding the same expansionist pasta-chain wave caught by our own Carrabba's boys -- with a key difference.

So far, the Houston franchise makes the Semolina concept look less like a sure thing than like an interesting and iffy proposition. Some of the pastas are appealing -- and one is outright spectacular -- but others, too clever for their own good, seem pointlessly gimmicky. The few side dishes that flesh out the 21-pasta menu range from bad to adequate. Part of the problem may be the very nature of expansion via franchise: unlike Carrabba's, which is growing under corporate ownership and hands-on quality control by its creators, Semolina is selling off its concept, recipes and methodology; quality control is up to the individual franchisees. So it's hard to know whom to blame when a dish admired by New Orleans critics -- the Santa Fe pasta -- shows up in Houston acting wimpy.

This dish arrives at your table in Semolina's characteristically showy style. Coaxed into a vivid, sculptural mound that borrows from the voguish "Tall Food" school of presentation, the pasta inhabits expansive, colorful soup plates painted with scrawls of red-chile purée. It features Semolina's madcap "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to composition: red and green peppers, cilantro, chicken, tortilla strips, black beans, hominy, green chiles, red onion and sour cream decorate the pile of linguini. But once you toss this bazaar of ingredients together... nothing happens.

I thought immediately of Lloyd Bentsen. "I know Southwestern flavors," I wanted to chide the Santa Fe pasta, "and you're not Southwestern flavors." The dish lacked enough chile kick and cilantro spark; its allegedly cumin-spiked chicken came off as sad little poultry chunks; an excessively gentle masa lime cream sauce contributed only an intriguingly mealy corn texture. Perhaps the flaw lay in the concept, perhaps in the kitchen's execution; whatever the cause, this pasta will need retooling to satisfy a Houston audience.

Not so the pad Thai, a dish that captures Semolina at its best. I know pad Thai, and this is a terrific, contemporary riff on the real thing: alive with talkative flavors and textures; heaped into a hilarious garden tower bristling with bean sprouts, julienned carrot and cilantro; its boisterous red-pepper level countering a sweet-sour undercurrent that is further buffered by fresh lime. Its modernisms -- shiitake mushrooms, great rafts of velvety bean curd with a chewy, stir-fried crust -- actually improve the Thai rice-noodle classic. And unlike that Santa Fe chicken, the shrimp involved are respectable.

This may very well be the best pad Thai in the city. Certainly this one dish alone justifies putting Semolina on my restaurant rotation; and the restaurant's engaging counter, perfect for quick drop-ins and impromptu solo dining, makes it even more likely that I'll be back.

The only other Semolina production I can imagine myself actively craving is their Shrimp Bangkok, an angel-hair tangle of considerable subtlety and finesse. Basil ribbons and shreds of pickled ginger give it character; carrot batons and bean sprouts give it crunch; a broth infused with soy, garlic and chiles gives it quiet soul. Adding plain black beans instead of the salted Chinese variety works better than you might think. This is a dish that wears well.

A couple of Semolina's more rococo conceits, surprisingly good though they be, are harder to polish off in one sitting. Pasta Athena is a lively number in which small shells are goosed up with tart sun-dried tomatoes, sharp feta cheese, slivers of marinated peppers, two kinds of olives and two-count-'em-two sauces: a sprightly marinara and an even fresher tzatziki-type amalgam of yogurt, cucumber and garlic. It sounds frenetically busy, but somehow it works. Of course the scallops that supposedly form the centerpiece seem like afterthoughts, but then most of Semolina's featured proteins (always the most expensive component of a menu) play a subsidiary role.

Semolina's New Age Louisiana connection manifests itself in Pasta Jambalaya, corkscrews tossed with good, smoky andouille sausage and smoked tomatoes, which give the dish a rustic note; peppers, garlic and red onion fill out the big ingredient roster, along with more of those sorry chicken "morsels." I wondered what the hell cheese was doing on this pasta until I tasted the fluffy gouda-and-provolone curls strewn here and there; again, my skepticism to the contrary, it worked.

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