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Big Place. Big Mistakes.

At the new La Strada ... well, at least the bread is good

I received the fright of my life when I entered the new La Strada. (There are now two: the old one on Westheimer and this second version on the corner of Sage and San Felipe.) The place is huge! Not long huge, necessarily; and definitely not wide huge. I mean, high huge, so high you have to strain to see the ceiling. I tell you, Shakespeare's "majestical roof fretted with golden fire" pales by comparison. It looks like the Air and Space Museum. "There's room up there for the Spirit of St. Louis," said my companion, known in some circles as She Who Brooks No Nonsense. And, for once, I was forced to agree. The Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo 13 command module and Sputnik and the space station Mir.

I found it all most unnerving. "I hope to God there isn't a meteor shower," I said.

"That's the least of my worries," said She Who Brooks No Nonsense. "My agoraphobia is acting up. Let's eat and get out of here."

Easier said than done, it turned out. La Strada seems woefully understaffed. When we arrived, we waited by the door in the expectation that someone would come to seat us. But no one did, forcing me finally to go looking for the host. And that was just the beginning. Seated, we were left to cool our heels again. Which would have been understandable if the place had been jam-packed. But it wasn't. In addition to ourselves, the others lunching here made a grand total of six.

La Strada is a nice-looking place, and the food, though it can vary, is often very good. But the service is appalling. Have any of these people received any training at all? Only one of our waiters gave any indication that he knew what he was doing. The others were hopeless. We ate here twice and had to ask for water; we had to ask for additional bread; we had to ask for sugar. It was also necessary to appeal to one waiter to bring us a drink and to remind a second that we'd ordered a dessert. The only thing we didn't have to ask for was the check. It arrived seconds after the coffee. The implication was obvious: The restaurant was finished with us and was showing us the door.

The two La Stradas share the same menu and, thankfully, serve the same bread -- small loaves that are warm and moist and smack of yeast. They make me so giddy with happiness, it's all I can do to resist burying my face in one. You know that famous quandary, don't you? You're in a burning house and have to choose which you'll save: your van Gogh -- everyone has a van Gogh, don't they? -- or the family dog. I'd save the dog -- if I were confident he'd fetch $20 million at Sotheby's. But what if the problem were posed in slightly different terms? What if you had to choose between the van Gogh and one of La Strada's loaves? I wouldn't have to think about it. The bread would win every time.

While not everything on La Strada's menu quite matches those loaves, you can eat very well here. Among the appetizers, the sirloin steak salad ($10.95) is especially impressive. Perfectly seasoned and perfectly grilled, the meat is served on a bed of mixed greens with Bosc pears and pieces of Gorgonzola -- the cheese and fruit providing a point/ counterpoint that's almost musical.

Just as good are the crab claws and mussels ($7.95), which are sauteed in garlic, wine and tomatoes and made additionally robust by the addition of Pernod and lots of capers. The sauce is wonderful -- perfect with that terrific bread. The smoked duck and polenta tamales ($6.95) are another well-considered combination. (I especially liked the roasted-corn and tomato relish.) But the crab cakes ($6.95) fell short. A month earlier, I'd eaten crab cakes at La Strada's other location -- where, incidentally, the service is excellent -- and had liked them very much. But these were bland: brown, dispirited-looking things in a brown, dispirited-looking sauce. Most sauces mutate when they hit the tongue. All this one did was drone. It was all I could do not to fall asleep.

The pasta known as orecchiette ($9.95 at dinner; $8.95 at lunch) comes with several things: beans, tomatoes, escarole and a very salty pancetta. One expects pancetta to have some salt. This was excessive. A little blanching would improve the taste immeasurably. Orecchiette -- the word means "little ears" -- have a nice chewy texture for the reason that they're eggless. (Or, as She Who Brooks No Nonsense put it, they don't have an egg to stand on.)

The cannelloni ($11.95 at dinner; $9.95 at lunch) -- pasta stuffed with veal and sausage and finished with tomato sauce -- were outstanding. Not, though, the penne with oak-roasted wild mushrooms, asparagus and tomatoes ($10.95 at dinner; $8.95 at lunch). The mushrooms -- dark and sonorous -- were so overpowering, they managed to cow everything else on the plate. The grilled sausage and chicken in a garlic and green-onion cream sauce ($10.95) was another mess -- a great clamor of flavors that, instead of enhancing one another, engaged in a free-for-all. It isn't enough to throw things in a pan and leave them to duke it out. Cooking requires an element of judgment.

For dessert, we shared a spectacular apple tart ($5.95) that resembled a castle the crusaders might have built. It even had a moat -- a pool of caramel sauce, actually. And a sprig of mint did service as a flag. The desserts here are as big as pillows. You could hide a small dog in one of them. And two would feed an army.

La Strada, 5161 San Felipe, 850-9999.

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