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The battlefield of the volatile, ego-ridden restaurant world is littered with sundered partnerships. Add to the casualty list the short-lived collaboration between Bruce Molzan (whose Ruggles Grill was recently rated by the people's-choice Zagat Guide as Houston's most popular restaurant) and Tom Dietrich (whose three Auntie Pasto's Italian spots were, by his reckoning, not popular enough).
The two tennis buddies cut a deal for Molzan to transmute Auntie Pasto's garden-variety image into something more distinctive in exchange for company stock. So late last fall, amid bullish talk of expanding the mini-chain regionally and even nationally, a Molzanized Auntie Pasto's dawned around the corner from Miyako on Kirby near the Southwest Freeway.
The menu was full of Ruggles-esque flourishes: the lush, towering salads; the Southwesternized pastas and grills; the rococo dessert tray; the signature ingredients, from wild mushrooms and caramelized onions to grilled chicken with everything. The austere exposed-brick interior was warmed with color and punky Ruggles-style graphics and faux-aged-stucco. The kitchen staff was retrained. The wait staff was made over, too, in modern-brasserie style, with long, white half-aprons cinched around their blue button-down shirts.
Suddenly Auntie Pasto's was a vastly more interesting place to dine -- a veritable Ruggles Jr., minus the Ruggles hassle of perpetual lines and weekend crowds only slightly smaller than the turnout for a Rockets' playoff game.
Today, you can walk into the Kirby Auntie Pasto's and acquire, with minimal fuss, a splendid salad of warmed goat cheese and trendy field greens, the cheese swathed in a rich pecan crust, the lettuces blessed with an irresistible, faintly sweet-sour dressing, the whole coaxed into a vertical pile with crisp, delicate matchsticks of green apple standing in sheaves. On a Saturday night, after a very modest wait, you can sit down to one of the creamy, updated-comfort-food pastas that are a Molzan signature, or to one of the better grilled chicken plates in town. (The secret: gentle double-blanched cloves of garlic and a subtle, seductive butter sauce infused with grappa, the Italian cognac.)
But these days there is no more excited staff buzz about Molzan's participation; he has become the culinary equivalent of the ghost in the machine. "He's a silent partner," says a waiter hastily when Molzan's name is broached. Neither Dietrich nor Molzan talks comfortably about the chef's abrupt transition from active to passive partner; their vague explanations about what went wrong are filled with awkward silences and the echo of things left unsaid.
Dietrich prefers to paint the split as a consultancy that reached its natural end. "Part of it is that Bruce has a whole lot going on outside," offers Dietrich. "I definitely want to give him credit as a collaborator and as the driving force behind getting the menu going." Was there a clash? Dietrich laughs. And pauses. And says, "It would be difficult for me at this point to revisit issues that Bruce and I have resolved."
Molzan still holds his Auntie Pasto's stock and speaks diplomatically of the brief association. ("If it does well, I'll participate in the profits," he points out sensibly.) "We're all friends," he insists. Yes, he saw the deal as a possible vehicle for the national-level expansion that he -- along with half the high-profile restaurateurs in town -- covets. But no, "this one just didn't work out for me." As to why, he'll only hint. "Any deal I do in the future I'm going to have control of," he says pointedly. "So that if there's something I think needs taking care of, then I'll make the decisions."
It doesn't take a genius to see the potential for conflict when a successful chef-owner makes the leap into chaindom. "At Ruggles, I can oversee everything," says Molzan. "It drives me crazy when things are not perfect." He's not always the easiest guy to work with, Molzan admits. "I'm very demanding," he says. "I tell it the way it is, and sometimes people get upset."
Auntie Pasto's, as it happens, is not perfect. But it is a far better restaurant than it was; Molzan's ghost is a benevolent one. Perhaps this shade would clank its chains upon sampling a house salad in which the life has gone out of the lettuces, or a mountainous Caesar in similarly limp condition and a dressing that lacks conviction. Perhaps it would moan ominously over a loaf that is a poor excuse for bread in a town where the baker's art is at an all-time high, or at the bland taste of watery winter tomatoes on an otherwise pleasant slab of herby gorgonzola bread.
But it doubtless would recognize the classy shrimp quesadilla with wild mushrooms and mellow fontina cheese as its very own progeny, right down to the sprightly, finely minced pico de gallo alongside. And while the pasta inventory has undergone tinkering by chef Craig Thome (recruited by Dietrich from the University Club), many dishes remain utterly Molzanian in spirit. Take the black bean pasta with grilled chicken: lavished with salty goat cheese and punctuated with apple-smoked bacon, it has the rich, soothing quality of sophisticated nursery food.
Even richer is a bowl of cheese ravioli in a robust, buttery tomato cream that is heady with garlic and alive with curled crawfish tails. Wildly excessive? Well, yes; but split among two or three salad-eating diners, it has charm.
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.