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Stepson of Ruggles

Auntie Pasto's has a bright new format, from a newly silent partner

One night's special of seafood Tuscano on black-pepper fettuccine fairly pops with flavor and texture: fresh clams and shrimp and the sweetest, plumpest mussels (still in their shells), plus a long-legged and wonderfully springy squid, all bound up in a spicy, creamy tomato sauce. So why is its sister dish, the regularly featured chicken Tuscano, such a mild-mannered little thing?

And why are those watery winter tomatoes allowed to sog up a perfectly good grilled-vegetable sandwich at lunchtime? Its bread is striped from the grill, its squash and eggplant and red onion deliciously smoky. A few sun-dried tomatoes, nicely marinated, would serve this sandwich better.

Desserts, presented upon those seethingly sauce-squiggled plates that are a Ruggles trademark, can be surprisingly good here. I confess a monumental disinterest in the rococo cheesecakes that are such a Ruggles deal (the ones laden with Oreos and smashed-up candy bars). But the Ruggles-esque Jack Daniels chocolate mousse pie is mid-American chocolate pie gone to heaven, and one night's pecan cake was spectacularly moist and spectacularly un-sweet. Not so the coconut-macaroon torte, which cloyed doubly in conjunction with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The fragile pastry lattice that sprouted from this dessert -- a good half a foot high -- was another matter; I'll take two of those with my cappuccino, please, although I reserve the right to wonder about the strangely toasty aftertaste of this big-flavored brew. Not bad; just odd.

The post-Molzan Auntie Pasto's remains in an expansion mode. Dietrich is raising investor-money and negotiating for his fourth Houston location (the others are on Bellaire Boulevard and Highway 290). The chipper low- budget decor is the sort of look that has "prototype" written all over it. And that shuddersome name will soon be a thing of the past, although Dietrich hasn't hit on a new one yet. Whether he'll be able to keep the quality up is less certain: I've already heard grumblings from regulars who've seen the place through two incarnations that the new food -- and the new finesse -- is slipping a bit.

Meanwhile, over at Ruggles, Bruce Molzan keeps an eye peeled for a growth opportunity of his own. "I'd love to stamp out Ruggles Grills all over the United States," he recently told local food-newsletter writer Teresa Byrne-Dodge. For now, though, he finds himself in the curious position of having children right across town -- but kids that he never sees, and will have no hand in raising.

Auntie Pasto's, 3910-C Kirby and other locations, 528-2851.

Auntie Pasto's: warm goat cheese salad, $5.95;
spicy black bean pasta, $10.95; grilled chicken with blanched garlic and grappa butter, $9.95; Jack Daniels chocolate mousse pie, $4.25.

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