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See. Be Seen. Don't Eat.

As a jazz club, Sambuca is so-so. As a restaurant don't ask.

We had consistently better luck with seafood entrees than with beef or chicken. The Zebra Pasta ($15.95) is one of the best of the bunch, a dramatically striped black-and-white pasta folder stuffed with bits of lobster, shrimp and scallops, awash in a lobster cream sauce. Though it tastes tamer than it looks, it's blessedly lighter on garlic, and the seafood and pasta are both capably cooked. The capellini with shrimp ($15.95) is also competently prepared but suffers proportional difficulties, with far too few shrimp and sun-dried tomatoes, too little marinara and much too much angel hair pasta.

So let's be generous and say Sambuca is more about music than food. The combined Dallas/Atlanta/Houston clubs form an attractive minicircuit for traditional, swing and Latin jazz booking, drawing one national act a month; this month's calendar, for example, stars New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard. "At Sambuca, the stage is the focal point of the restaurant," explains the press kit. But it isn't really, at least not in the Houston incarnation. From the main dining floor, a forest of columns and high-backed banquettes block most sight lines; the best views are from the ultrasmoky cigar loft. True, Sambuca's 9,000 square feet of seating is a nice fit for Houston's music venues; it's neither too small, like Cezanne, nor too big, like the Aerial Theater but a just-right-sized forum for the aging Chuck Mangione, say, or the between-labels Julianna Sheffield of 8-1/2 Souvenirs. But, my God, the noise; how can a dedicated music fan possibly abide the ambient din at Sambuca? The room's racket is so deafening that the melody is clearer from the sidewalk outside.

All of which leaves us with fashion and marketing to account for Sambuca's success, sands more shifting than those of St. Bart. So one last word of warning: What you look like or, more important, what you wear, is crucial in getting a seat and service at Sambuca. One visit with a dapper silver-haired businessman in tow rated attentive service I'd describe as downright fawning. On another occasion, the company of two casually dressed college kids earned us all a markedly chillier greeting from the staff and seats in outer Siberia, where we languished, offhandedly ignored for the majority of our meal despite the plenitude of waitstaff and shortfall of afternoon customers.

The final paradox is this: If you purchase one of the club's logo-branded T-shirts ($16), sweatshirts ($24) or even top-of-the-line golf shirts ($28), you might be only grudgingly admitted to Sambuca wearing it.

Holly Forsythe is right. You'll know you're in a Sambuca. But will you know why?

Sambuca Jazz Cafe, 900 Texas, (713)224-5299.

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