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Past Imperfect

Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. Not if my recent time-tunnel excursion to Memorial's venerable Lantern Inn is any indication. Prompted by ads touting the Inn's 30th anniversary (an age that passes for ancient in this city), I headed west, my brain filled with hazy memories of a dim, old-fashioned dining room in which flames leaped high from tableside carts and such comforting chestnuts as steak Diane dwelt on the menu.

"I've seen funeral parlors that were cheerier," carped my companion as our pupils struggled to adjust to the Inn's perpetual dusk. "Cheery was never the point here," I told him as we settled into one of the individual alcoves so cherished by Memorial burghers -- "Lovers' Booths," the restaurant likes to call them -- each one upholstered with crimson fabric walls, draped in black chintz and equipped with twin rheostats. I twirled one and then the other, deepening our own private twilight; I admired our own private moon window of leaded glass, behind which an illuminated dried-flower arrangement glowed, faintly surreal. I was already having a swell time.

Then my eye fell on such unexpected menu language as "tomatillo salsa" and "barbecue duck crepes." After all these years, had the Lantern Inn transformed itself into Cafe Annie West? Not to worry. So-called "crab cushions" from the newfangled side of the menu proved to be little more than baby egg-roll affairs, their "Mexican cream" notwithstanding: very fried, very dispiriting and endowed with a tomatillo dipping sauce that was unconscionably sweet. A decent Caesar salad with a sharp, creamy dressing was more what I had had in mind.

Glasses of wine arrived: a dreadful white, soon replaced by an equally dreadful red. In the opposite alcove, a middle-aged son presented his parents with a miniature Old Smokey barbecue grill; "I'll get that, Dad," he said when the time came to leave, diving gallantly for the big box. One alcove over, a couple watched in silence as a beautiful young Indian woman prepared their meals, dousing her saute pans with various liquors and setting them aflame.

At last it was our turn. But the steak Diane, a retrograde dish I'll confess to craving every couple of years, failed to deliver on its tableside theatrics. The beef, cut into awkward sheets, seemed to have been tenderized by pounding, an operation that could not remove its slightly sinewy quality. Its red-wine-and-brandy sauce, while perfectly okay, was not the stuff of which nostalgia is made. Nor was a dark, musky-tasting rice pilaf or the fishbowl-sized goblet of bananas Foster that only made me miss Brennan's version.

As if to teach me not to romanticize the past, a brochette of grilled shrimp wrapped in bacon and anointed with a modern tamarind-chipotle glaze worked just fine. Still, I was glad I had come. For a few hours, I was back in a simpler Houston, where leaping flames equaled sophistication and you didn't have to worry about getting carjacked on the way home.

-- Alison Cook

The Lantern Inn, 12448 Memorial Drive, 465-5684.

The Lantern Inn:
steak Diane, $15.95; bananas Foster $4.95

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