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Simple Wonders

A mean cook shines through Shug's unlikely facade

Shug's qualifies as a find on several counts. So awkward is its location, crouched

beneath Loop 610 West just south of the I-10 intersection, that you literally must ferret out a way to get there. So unlovely is its monosyllabic name, so deceptive its prefab ranch house exterior and so generic its signage ("Seafood & Pasta Grilled-Broiled) that you'd never guess at the scarce commodity lurking within: highly gratifying food of a distinctly un-restauranty nature.

From the kitchen glimpsed through a slot in Shug's triple-wide dining room -- an improbable hybrid of New England inn and prettified Texas roadhouse -- comes refreshingly "normal" fare, the kind you might get at the home of a really good cook. A simple and sensational grilled pork loin, for instance, thick and tender and pinkish inside, tinged with just enough charcoal, just enough salt. Pristine vegetables du jour that startle in their lack of adornment. Great little house salads. Addictive house-baked rolls. A dessert guaranteed to bring you back.

Add to these virtues the Friday-night atmospherics supplied by pianist Jeff Shelby (who once played with Kinky Friedman's Texas Jewboys), and you have a restaurant that is very much its own singular self. "I wish I had brought my top hat and cane," announced my companion as Shelby essayed a sly version of "Sunny Side of the Street." Jazzy and ironic, Shelby can sound like a slightly bent Betty Boop soundtrack or a vintage lounge act; when he riffs on "Night and Day," you halfway expect the affluent seniors who've migrated over from the nearby Forum retirement high-rise to cut a rug on Shug's broad, blond, highly polished floor. Instead, they offer scattered applause, which the self-mocking Shelby answers with half-bows and protestations of, "You're beautiful, I love you all." Then he launches into a manic "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, chef-owner Vincent Danna Jr. -- also known, like his father before him, as "Shug" -- is busy impersonating a miniature cyclone. He sends out a heap of baby crab claws in a sparkling lemon-and-garlic butter sauce threaded with dark ribbons of basil; you sop up every stray drop with French bread, making plans to order the broiled red snapper with a similar lemon-and-mint butter sauce next time. He dresses his photogenic house salads in a lively walnut-lemon-Parmesan vinaigrette that makes the romaine, avocado and red peppers fairly jump with flavor. He outfits his impeccable pork loin with gently steamed spinach zapped with garlic and crisp-tender carrot batons that could persuade even a carrot-hater to eat her vegetables. (So what if they're out of rosemary-garlic new potatoes?)

Crawfish fettuccine, with bicolor noodles and an alfredo-esque sauce, is one of the few nods to fashion on this sensible, homey menu; it is very good, and so rich it practically demands to be shared. While I have scant interest in such banalities as fried cheese or chicken Parmesan, Shug's has a record of surprising me with its deft renditions of commonplace dishes. Spaghetti with meatballs may sound boring, but here it is a pleasure, endowed with a zesty, red-peppery marinara and outsize meatballs of sufficient tenderness and complexity; the recipe comes from Danna's paternal grandmother, on the Italian side of the family. Do they equal Joe Matranga's Platonic, grievously missed meatballs? Nope, but they're in the ballpark.

One night's special, a pastiche of lump crabmeat, asparagus and hollandaise astride sweet sourdough rolls, conjured up nothing so much as fussy home-dinner-party food. But the dish proved so frisky that only the most snobbish, dried-up Scrooge could have scorned it: the crabmeat pearly, the asparagus skinny and perfect, the hollandaise so unexpectedly giddy with red pepper that it somehow balanced the eccentrically sweet bread underneath. Those rolls have a way of growing on you. I ended up spiriting the leftovers out of the breadbasket and into my purse. (They made a swell breakfast.)

The beauty of this food is its freshness and straightforwardness. Danna makes as many as two trips a day to the nearby Louisiana Foods seafood warehouse for his crab, crawfish, fish and shrimp. That he doesn't rely on gobs of cheese or the latest precious ingredients for effect may spring from his days as an Army cook in Anchorage, Alaska. "I did very good in that position," confesses Danna with some diffidence. He'd call home to Houston for his mom's recipes; soon, understandably, he was playing to a packed house.

Today the family connection permeates Danna's year-old restaurant: vintage clan photographs adorn the primly wainscoted and lantern-sconced walls. His cousin makes the distinctive Italian sausage that shows up, split and grilled and satisfyingly spicy, on a crusty French loaf spilling sweetly sauteed onions and peppers -- a sandwich that becomes even finer with a cup of marinara on the side. You can get the sausage on spaghetti, too, and I intend to.

Catherine Danna -- Mrs. Shug, if you will -- makes the desserts, which include a sprawling, confectioners' sugar-dusted lemon bar that, two times out of three, has been devastatingly moist and tart. (Once it had too much sugar.) I can't leave Shug's without ordering one, the lemon cheesecake and the "softball-size" cream puffs notwithstanding. Actually, the rather stolid and biscuit-like cream puff, filled with a pleasant custard and sided with chocolate sauce, was the low point of my visits -- and as low points go, it was pretty high. Bonus points for Shug's excellent coffee, which escapes the poisonous, over-simmered taste that caps off the meal at too, too many restaurants. Now if only the wine list were more than perfunctory; with crab claws and pork loin this good, it ought to be.

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