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Ari's: The Sequel

Still, it has its moments. One of them is a good house salad with a tart Parmesan dressing; another is a very pleasant pommery-mustard chicken in a sauce barely sweetened with honey and punctuated with those modish sun-dried tomatoes. The promised roasted potatoes would have served this chicken better than the bland fettuccine Alfredo that arrived with it, but the briefly cooked spinach was pure and perfect.

Angel hair pasta with grilled garlic shrimp was a pure puzzlement -- one of those dishes that one loves in defiance of all reason. Strike one: regrettably withered grilled shrimp. Strike two: a faintly gummy texture. Strike three: canned peas. But the pasta itself was unaccountably delicious, buoyant with red pepper, sun-dried tomatoes and good-quality olive oil; if the kitchen gets its grilled-shrimp act together, this dish could be a winner.

Some of the more expensive entrees arouse similar ambivalence. A trio of lamb chops in a lively, herbal marinade was hopelessly muttony and over-grilled -- sins exacerbated by the $17.95 price tag. Osso buco proved agreeable enough, but its very tomatoey sauce made it hard to detect any of the promised fresh herbs and red wine; and the 20 buck tab fostered unfortunate comparisons with the stellar versions at Brennan's and Anthony's.

The serious Gulf fisherman I dined with one night loved his thick red-snapper fillet sauteed in a graceful white wine sauce; rare-fish person that I am, I thought it a shade overcooked, and I marveled -- as always -- at the impulse to pile artichokes, crab meat, mushrooms and lord knows what else on top of a nice piece of fish.

I wish I could be more sanguine about the Italian cream cake that graced the un-tempting dessert tray, but I can't. Flat, textureless and icky-sweet are the adjectives that come to mind. I also wish I could be more sanguine about the dreary wine list, but a watery $40 bottle of Gavi di Gavi jaundiced my view.

As to the waiter who actually kissed my hand in an effort to enhance his tip, don't ask. You know you're in the Land of the Walking Obsequious when the words "You are smart, you are pretty, you are rich" issue from your server's lips. Beyond blarney -- but hey, that's Continental! Cartoon version, anyway.

What's not too Continental (but ever so Houstonian) are valet parkers you must pay to stash your car in a small, self-contained parking lot. One view is that this is insurance against being bopped on the head by a mugger; another is that it's extortion. Nor is an outdoor terrace lit by the harsh, white glare of the Ari's sign a worldly touch; alas, it is all too typical of this city, where lighting is often the furthest thing from a restaurateur's mind.

These objections notwithstanding, Ari's lives. And I'm glad. The food's half-promising (something the old Ari's never was, however perversely I loved it). The place looks good. The 19th-century wooden bar rescued from the Memorial site is a reminder that though what's lost is lost, it isn't necessarily all gone. Ari's, in whatever form it has re-created itself, is part of our collective past. And if it will just fix that bread, it may have a chance of working its way into our collective future.

Ari's European Cafe, 2411 Shepherd, 521-3240.

Ari's:
calamari, $5.95;
mustard chicken, $10.95;

osso buco, $19.95.

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