Lotsa Pasta

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

I must confess, however, to a horrified disinterest in two of Semolina's more silly-sounding Louisiana hybrids. Muffaletta Pasta with salami, ham, olive salad, olive oil and cheese? No thanks. Pasta Gumbo with a misbegotten supra-gumbo of shrimp and sausage and chicken? No thanks again. And the biggest no thanks of all to Semolina's Curry Chicken Linguini, a stickily sauced dish whose raisins and chutney make it taste unpleasantly candied, more like dessert than dinner.

Speaking of dessert -- don't. Semolina's apple "tort" (as the menu lists it, in the year's best Freudian slip) is stodgy and gruesomely sweet. The tiramisu is a ghastly sugar nightmare. Both entail the sort of "painted" plates that run amok through the modern food landscape: a messy storm of cocoa embellished the tiramisu; muddy little cocoa cat footprints decorated the "tort." Spare me.

Actually, all of Semolina's non-pasta dishes -- desserts, salads, appetizers -- have a perfunctory air. The plain romaine salad in a decent parmesan dressing is perfectly safe, and it's probably all you'll want, considering the gargantuan size of Semolina's pasta dishes (most could feed one-and-a-half to two normal humans).

Marinated side salads involving various pastas, beans, vegetables and cheese are okay but redundant, given that they repeat many of the pasta ingredients. A red pepper rolled around whipped feta to resemble black-peppered sushi tasted bitter and faintly moribund. Feta cheese baked in a marinara pool and served with garlic toast recalls a similarly goopy Carrabba's goat-cheese appetizer -- but the marinara here is lighter and fresher tasting. The bread is another matter; Semolina might just as well be serving foam rubber.

It seems curious that such a high-profile New Orleans restaurant would open with such a whimper here. So far Semolina is mostly empty at night, which gives you your pick of the abstract hand-painted tables and glittery bronze-vinyl booths set off by glass-block partitions. Want to eat at the counter? No competition.

Service? That's a dicier matter. Resign yourself to having a relationship with your waitperson, an experience that can be tolerable (one charming fellow decorated our Chinese-style takeout cartons with quirky cartoon faces) or not-so-tolerable (a certain Ms. Personality sat down with us to take our order, told us we had so much food we looked like pigs, and grilled us about our marital status). You may find yourself begging repeatedly for water or greeted at the front by an oblivious young person taking a personal phone call.

The question is whether New Orleans' bang-up success translates to a much different market -- especially one where there's already a surfeit of contemporary trattorias. Eventually Semolina's low prices and irreverent food and decor (giant papier-mache vegetables, colander sconces, industrial ceiling and hanging grids) may catch the fancy of the young white-collar neighborhood folks who are the obvious demographic targets. Until it does, I can eat my pad Thai in peace.

Semolina, 6100 Westheimer, Suite 154, 783-6198.

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