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A Pizza Puzzle

If it pulls the pieces together, The Strand Brewery could have a powerful pie

I knew better than to start writing my review of The Strand Brewery after a single visit. But the roasted garlic pizza at George Mitchell's new Galveston brewpub made me lose my head. The glazed, velvety toes of garlic came on like an exalted form of candy; the salty bite of feta energized the mozzarella; sweetly earthy sun-dried tomatoes and bitter spinach leaves swapped urbane dialogue. And the crust! By the time I'd cleared the causeway on the drive back home, I had already composed a lead guaranteed to annoy people at both ends of the Gulf Freeway: "The best pizza in Houston," it went, "is in Galveston."

Silly me. Four days later, I sat in the renovated Armour Meatpacking Plant over a second batch of pies, glumly revising. The crackly thin crust and vibrant combinations wrought by New Orleans' popular Louisiana Pizza Kitchen had flown south. In their stead, mushy shrimp, raw jalapeno slivers and unchopped cilantro sprawled across a crust that seemed to have been pulled from the wood-fired brick oven a crucial minute too soon. The pizza was still elegantly thin. It still puffed into high, thin layers at the edges. But those layers were timidly soft, not crisply singed. It was as if Hakeem had suddenly blown the Dream Shake, or Cindy Crawford had experienced a Courtney Love hair day.

That's what I get for expecting too much, too soon. The Strand Brewery raced to get open for the lucrative Memorial Day weekend, got swamped by a tidal wave of customers and promptly ran out of three of its four maiden beers. The menu was still in embryonic, mimeographed form. The waitstaff seemed unsure of its nuances -- unsure, even, of the nuances of its sole remaining specialty beer. "Which one is it?" we asked. "Medium!" a young man informed us cryptically. "Bring it," we said, feeling fatalistic.

We needn't have. The medium brew (which we were later to learn was Karankawa Gold, named after the ancient coastal cannibal tribe) turned out to be nicely hopped, with a dry, pleasantly bitterish finish -- stalwart, pilsener-style stuff. Cool and discreetly carbonated, with the barest trace of foam, it was balm for a hot summer day. It spoke well for Wolfram Koehler, the young Bavarian brewmaster recruited by the Mitchell organization as their beer consultant. After helping to pull Belize's beer industry up by its bootstraps, Koehler went on to co-found the Crescent City brewpub in New Orleans.

Which, not so coincidentally, is where the Mitchell organization hooked up with its restaurant operators, Michel Fredj and Vasken Kaltakdjian, proprietors of the fledgling Louisiana Pizza Kitchen chain. LPK's claim to fame at their five restaurants in Louisiana is inventive toppings with a regional bias: oysters and artichokes, say, or lump crab, alligator sausage and okra (the "Gumbo Ya Ya" pizza, if you please). Theirs is not a tomato-sauce aesthetic; we're talking Wolfgang Puck goes Gulf Coast.

Galveston isn't the first place LPK has subcontracted their food services. They also supply pizza expertise to Isaac Tigrett's high-profile House of Blues clubs in L.A., New Orleans and Boston. So these guys have a pedigree of sorts, and -- if my first visit is any indication -- a good product. Whether it will translate consistently here in Texas, though, remains to be seen.

If you order right, and The Strand Brewery is having a good oven day, you really do end up with some of the best pizza in the Greater Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area. The roasted garlic pizza can be brilliant, from the dialectic posed by its ingredients to the airy, cracker-bread crust produced by the 700-degree-plus temperatures of LPK's wood-burning furnace. "I haven't had pizza this good since I lived in Naples," announced one of my party on that first auspicious occasion. Not a shred of crust remained on our three plates -- a rare phenomenon in the annals of pizza-eating.

LPK's smoked salmon pizza (thank you, Mr. Puck) works extravagantly well, too, from its lush dabs of cream cheese and caviar to its exclamation points of capers and red onion. Tomato? Just a few ripe Roma wheels, half-melted by the oven. A preciously named "Four Amigos" pizza furnished with ricotta, feta, mozzarella and Parmesan -- plus a bare minimum of tomato sauce as intermediary -- triumphed over its inconvenient, bloblike construction and less-than-riveting flavors by virtue of that impeccable LPK crust.

On my initial visit, it was impossible to judge whether LPK's Caesar salad deserves its New Orleans reputation; its tart dressing was lively, but there was way too much of it, and the romaine involved had wilted into sorrowful rags. But my companions and I were too besotted with pizza and pilsener -- not to mention the view onto The Strand's intricate tenth-century warehouse facades -- to care.

Next time out, the beer and the view didn't help much. The crust had gone soft on us, perhaps due to a different cook or a less-than-fully-fired-up oven. And our choices were disastrous: on the one hand, overcooked shrimp and undercooked chiles, with cilantro begging to have its flavors released at knifepoint; on the other hand, tasteless Roma tomatoes, mozzarella and dried basil, an idea whose classic simplicity fell flat. In desperation, we poured on chile-flavored olive oil from an unwieldy, magnum-sized bottle that is an LPK signature item. It didn't help much.

Nor did a misleadingly named artichoke ravioli improve our humor. Instead of the seductive artichoke filling we had fantasized, we were presented with cheese ravioli of a genre familiar to those who shop grocery-store freezer cases; token processed artichoke hearts swam in the surrounding sea of thin cream sauce. If this dish represents what LPK does with pasta, I'll pass. The menu also includes a number of dishes to satisfy the Galveston tourist trade -- nachos, fried seafood poorboys, etc. -- but the examples I glimpsed on nearby tables looked thoroughly resistible.

Resistible, too, were what our waiter identified merely as the brewery's light beer (blah is the word) and extra-light beer (watery is the word). The dark Brown Pelican Ale was again missing in action. We clung to our Karankawa Gold as if it were the waters of life.

By now, the two giant Sysco trucks I'd seen parked next to the brewery when I walked in had begun to seem like harbingers of doom -- to say nothing of the giant Kraft truck that had pulled up a few minutes later. My friends, to whom I had promised great things, were regarding me with cautious pity. In a bid for redemption, I ordered one last roasted garlic pizza, and it came close to saving the day.

Our disenchantment gave us too much time to carp about what is basically a pleasant setting. One expects a classy renovation job from George Mitchell, Galveston's Medici prince, luxury hotelier and Mardi Gras patron extraordinaire. And The Strand Brewery is, in the end, pretty classy: full of Island daylight and exposed brick and open ductwork, with high old ceilings above and distressed concrete floors below. Too bad, we grinched, that they'd chosen a wan, pale yellow for the interior paint job; and where were the baseboards to offset all that old-fashioned detailing and beer bric-a-brac higher up?

Finally, during a self-guided tour of the two upper floors, our ungrateful grumblings were stilled. A splendidly situated terrace just off the poolroom-and-fermenting floor afforded a bird's-eye view of The Strand historic district and the Galveston docks -- or the harbor, as Mr. Mitchell prefers to call it. (He actually induced the city to rechristen the street running behind the brewery Harborside Drive, which sounds a good bit grander than its old name, Port Industrial Road.) Perched even farther up in the sharp, salt breeze of the rooftop biergarten, with its picnic tables and sweeping vistas, we felt as if we owned the Island -- huge freighters, colossal deep-sea drilling rigs and all.

For the moment, I was as giddy as I had been over that original roasted garlic pizza, two floors below. The otherworldly feeling that smites Houstonians on this curious, Gothic-tropical island settled over me. And I could see how, if the brewery's circumstances fell into place, I could grow to love the place.

The Strand Brewery, 101 23rd Street at Harborside Drive, Galveston, (409) 763-4500.

The Strand Brewery:
roasted garlic pizza, $6.25;
smoked salmon pizza, $6.95;
16-ounce Karankawa Gold lager, $2.75.

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