A Fork in La Strada

It had been years since I'd eaten at La Strada. For quite some time, venturing east of Ruggles on lower Westheimer has seemed a bit too much like entering the DMZ. So I was surprised at how pleasantly urban and worldly La Strada felt one evening a couple of weeks ago: French doors flung open onto the street, kids lined up to see a show at next-door Numbers, the grim Westheimer sexual bazaar of yore nowhere in evidence. If only my dinner had measured up to the handsome room, the interesting crowd -- and to the splendid lunch I had eaten there recently, which had been good enough to make me kick myself for staying away so long.

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Everything that noon was lively and lavishly presented in La Strada's rococo style, from tomatoes Verano with fresh buffalo mozzarella and roasted peppers in a terrific vinaigrette, right down to the crusty, house-baked sourdough loaves that appear on your table like manna from heaven. Insalata Catarina of grilled eggplant, roasted peppers and basil-spiked vinaigrette was another jewel; and the day's special grilled vegetable platter was almost too beautiful to eat, painstakingly composed of bundles of scallion-wrapped asparagus and layered squares of custardy vegetable flan. It tasted swell enough to justify its hefty $10.95 price tag, too, which is saying something.

But the prize item that noon was a half order of sun-dried tomato fettuccine: extravagantly (perhaps too extravagantly) sauced with a rambunctious marinara and loaded with a delicious cargo of whole grilled mushroom caps, grilled red onion and semi-molten hunks of fresh mozzarella. In a world full of boring pasta dishes, this one stood out.

So it was hard to understand why a dinnertime order of ziti with goat cheese and brick oven-roasted chicken in what the menu called "spicy pomodoro" sauce proved so dreary: the goat cheese too invisible; the chicken too dry and ponderous; the tomato sauce too one-dimensionally hot. A broiled flounder fillet in an inventive balsamic-vinegar broth had a depressingly mushy texture that seemed to speak of the freezer; a topping of shaved leeks and over-the-hill scallops didn't help.

Even two appetizers I remembered fondly from La Strada's earlier years had fallen on hard times. Grilled mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto seemed stiff and overwhelmed by the salty ham, its sun-dried tomato vinaigrette notwithstanding. And a baroque dish of tender snails with a buttery sauce of capers, herbs and tomato went aground on shoals of greasy, over-fried polenta.

Great lunch, terrible dinner: that's what makes restaurant-going such a crapshoot. Will the real La Strada please stand up?

-- Alison Cook

La Strada, 322 Westheimer, 523-1014.

La Strada:
tomatoes Verano, $4.95;

sun-dried tomato fettuccine, $9.95 ($7.95 per half order).


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