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Diner's Notebook

Restaurant-Go-Round

Be Afraid: You almost don't want to know what former governor Ann Richards has been up to lately. Not long ago, she and Hillary Rodham Clinton dropped in for dinner at Galileo, one of the best restaurants in Washington, D.C. It so happened that Roberto Donna, Galileo's owner and chef, was feeding a special meal to Julia Child in a private dining room that night, so he offered the same 12-course repast to Ann and Hillary. They sat at the restaurant's kitchen table -- the height of chic these days -- and feasted on (among other things) ravioli in a ragu of duck hearts and duck testicles.

Be Very Afraid: Kevin Rathbun, who once cooked at Brennan's with Rex Hale -- and then succeeded Hale as chef of Baby Routh, Stephan Pyles' junior restaurant in Dallas -- has surfaced in Atlanta. Rathbun is chef for a new, high-ticket Southwestern spot called Nava, where he'll be smoking with (get ready) "wood chips fermented from red wine barrels." That's according to the restaurant trade bible, Nation's Restaurant News, which unhappily gives no specifics about the process of fermenting wooden barrels. Must be an Atlanta thing.

Lights Out: Semolina, the young international pasta bar chain based in New Orleans, quietly closed its two Houston franchises over the Memorial Day weekend. "The timing was just not right for us," said Texas franchisee Rick Conway in a terse press release. With its Briargrove and FM 1960 locations gone, Semolina is left with 12 restaurants in Louisiana, Florida and Georgia -- and plans to look for other opportunities elsewhere in Texas. Why did a concept that's drawn crowds in New Orleans fizzle here in Houston? One very probable reason is the notorious strength of this city's own mid-scale Italian operators, from the prodigious Mandolas and Carrabbas even unto Tony Vallone, whose two casual Grottos are booming. Any outsider infringing on our noodle front has to go up against a bunch of guys who really understand both this market and the Houston palate.

However much I admired Semolina's pad Thai (which would have done honor to any Thai restaurant in town), I'm not sure its principals had that instinctive grasp of what works here. Houston has such a formidable range of ethnic restaurants that a simperingly sweet tandoori pasta or a Santa Fe-style dish without the requisite big Southwestern flavors may fail to convince the locals. They didn't convince me. And the fact that our successful home-grown pasta houses have the air of a nonstop party didn't help, either. For all its brightly colored accents and trying-hard-to-be-festive papier-mache ornaments, the Briargrove Semolina had a dim, moody feel that seemed at odds with its intended persona.

But these things are mysterious, and probably, at bottom, unknowable. Why does a California Pizza Kitchen bomb on FM 1960 and thrive on Post Oak? How many angels can dance on the head of a demographer's pin? However rough a go the Houston pasta-and-pizza market may be for out-of-towners, they keep on coming.

-- Alison Cook

 
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