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.
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?
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-- Alison Cook
La Strada, 322 Westheimer, 523-1014.
tomatoes Verano, $4.95;
sun-dried tomato fettuccine, $9.95 ($7.95 per half order).