Reinvention, that rampant cliche of American pop culture, has lately spread like a virus among Houston restaurants. From highbrow Anthony's to middlebrow Birraporetti's to humble Swan Den (now Neo China), veteran eating establishments are shedding their tired old wardrobes and menu repertoires to emerge as sleeker, trendier (and occasionally unrecognizable) creatures. Often these metamorphoses are for the better. But such wholesale transformation does not come without a pang or two.
"It's just not Ari's anymore," said my friend Jerry regretfully, surveying the Inner Loop reincarnation of this ersatz-French institution, which debuted 25 years ago as Ari's Grenouille. Gone was the funky charm of the ancient Montrose original and its Memorial-area successor: the dark wooden sideboards, the cozy warren of irregular rooms, the gloriously daffy tinsel garlands and Tivoli lights that marked the holidays. Gone, too, were such Ari's talismans as green-pea soup (always comforting) and old-fashioned coquilles St. Jacques in a scallop shell (never any better than it had to be). In their place were a conventional prettiness in the peachy, Provencal style and the Italianate pastas from which there seems to be no escape anymore. It wasn't bad -- indeed, the food seemed better than it used to be -- yet neither of us could escape the uneasy sensation that we had lost something.
But what? Weeks later, I am inclined to think we were mourning not just the vanished potage St. Germain, but also the innocence that the early-period Ari's represents. Back in 1969, when Ari Varoutsos arrived by way of Greece, Montreal and San Antonio's Hemisfair to seek his fortune here, Houston was still in the first flush of its long boom -- hungry for anything that smacked of sophistication, feeling the stirrings that blossomed into the city's craving to be thought world-class. Why, in those heady days, when office workers flocked to lunch at the new sidewalk cafes and restaurants along lower Westheimer and everyone from students to suburbanites just had to make the weekend dinner scene, it was still possible to believe that this shady, somewhat dreamy neartown strip could become our own little piece of Montmartre.
Certainly that was the effect Ari Varoutsos strove for at his rambling, wood-frame house on Westheimer at Mandell. Because Houston had little experience with French food back then, Ari's snails and frog legs and garlicky, Frenchified plate-lunch-style meals caused a buzz. So what if the food wasn't that great? It gave Houstonians an approximate taste of Europe at a time when savoir-faire was starting to matter. Even Ari's pencil-thin mustache and his corny, strolling accordionist seemed wonderfully foreign and strange.
Lower Westheimer, as we know to our sorrow, turned seedy and dangerous instead of turning into Montmartre. In l976, Ari retreated to the more predictable environs of Memorial, where he remained -- plying his ever-more-old-fashioned menu to an increasingly knowledgeable and jaded public -- until last month.
Now, having shut his old place, he's busy reinventing it at the former Mariscos site on Shepherd at Fairview, hoping to ride the current Inner Loop restaurant boomlet by pulling in a new breed of diner. Coq au vin has given way to osso buco; Ari's trademark beans and rice to noodles and more noodles; tinselly trappings to big, warm, neo-impressionist oil paintings by Houston artist Ardeshir Arjang. In keeping with his budding internationalism, Ari has even permitted himself to go a little Hellenic: the roasted Greek potatoes and glossy, garlicky spinach that accompany some dishes may be the best things on his pan-Continental menu.
Although it's possible to go wrong here, you're safe with most of the restaurant's light, lemony garlic sauces, whether they're based on butter or '90s-friendly olive oil. The calamari appetizer sauteed (not fried!) with olive oil and a little cognac is terrific stuff: the squid tender and resilient (not overcooked!), the sauce citrus-brisk and redolent of garlic. If only Ari's cottony French bread could stand up to this dish. "Bread this bad is a scandal with Whole Foods only a few blocks away," huffed my companion.
He poked disapprovingly at a couple of stiff, desert-dry discs masquerading as croutons. They did nothing to assist the escargots they escorted, and the snails had their own problems -- too chewy, too salty. Have Ari's snails devolved, or have our tastes evolved? It's probably a little of both. Ari's modernized version of the garlicky mushrooms that were once such a treat seemed oddly flavorless and unfinished in their tart garlic-and-olive-oil bath -- whole caps served legs up, like capsized critters, they practically begged to be sliced and sauteed, the way they were in the good old days.
A fine, rustic pate deserves better than the miserable croutons Ari's provides -- and better than the sliced dill pickles that sub for the infinitely preferable little French cornichons. Easy fixes, these, and ones that ought to be made. As for the listless marinated salmon appetizer, more of the advertised lemon and lime might make this quasi-gravlax worth eating. Forget about ordering the carpaccio; three weeks after the restaurant's September 8 opening, the special beef-slicer still hadn't arrived.
It's hard to take salads seriously at a place that solemnly lists something called "Chill of Alaska -- fresh crab meat on a bed of lettuce coated with thousand island dressing, garnished with tomatoes, cucumbers, celery and parsley." Modern is as modern does, and all the sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts in the world don't make Ari's into the '90s kinda place it wants to be.
Still, it has its moments. One of them is a good house salad with a tart Parmesan dressing; another is a very pleasant pommery-mustard chicken in a sauce barely sweetened with honey and punctuated with those modish sun-dried tomatoes. The promised roasted potatoes would have served this chicken better than the bland fettuccine Alfredo that arrived with it, but the briefly cooked spinach was pure and perfect.
Angel hair pasta with grilled garlic shrimp was a pure puzzlement -- one of those dishes that one loves in defiance of all reason. Strike one: regrettably withered grilled shrimp. Strike two: a faintly gummy texture. Strike three: canned peas. But the pasta itself was unaccountably delicious, buoyant with red pepper, sun-dried tomatoes and good-quality olive oil; if the kitchen gets its grilled-shrimp act together, this dish could be a winner.
Some of the more expensive entrees arouse similar ambivalence. A trio of lamb chops in a lively, herbal marinade was hopelessly muttony and over-grilled -- sins exacerbated by the $17.95 price tag. Osso buco proved agreeable enough, but its very tomatoey sauce made it hard to detect any of the promised fresh herbs and red wine; and the 20 buck tab fostered unfortunate comparisons with the stellar versions at Brennan's and Anthony's.
The serious Gulf fisherman I dined with one night loved his thick red-snapper fillet sauteed in a graceful white wine sauce; rare-fish person that I am, I thought it a shade overcooked, and I marveled -- as always -- at the impulse to pile artichokes, crab meat, mushrooms and lord knows what else on top of a nice piece of fish.
I wish I could be more sanguine about the Italian cream cake that graced the un-tempting dessert tray, but I can't. Flat, textureless and icky-sweet are the adjectives that come to mind. I also wish I could be more sanguine about the dreary wine list, but a watery $40 bottle of Gavi di Gavi jaundiced my view.
As to the waiter who actually kissed my hand in an effort to enhance his tip, don't ask. You know you're in the Land of the Walking Obsequious when the words "You are smart, you are pretty, you are rich" issue from your server's lips. Beyond blarney -- but hey, that's Continental! Cartoon version, anyway.
What's not too Continental (but ever so Houstonian) are valet parkers you must pay to stash your car in a small, self-contained parking lot. One view is that this is insurance against being bopped on the head by a mugger; another is that it's extortion. Nor is an outdoor terrace lit by the harsh, white glare of the Ari's sign a worldly touch; alas, it is all too typical of this city, where lighting is often the furthest thing from a restaurateur's mind.
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These objections notwithstanding, Ari's lives. And I'm glad. The food's half-promising (something the old Ari's never was, however perversely I loved it). The place looks good. The 19th-century wooden bar rescued from the Memorial site is a reminder that though what's lost is lost, it isn't necessarily all gone. Ari's, in whatever form it has re-created itself, is part of our collective past. And if it will just fix that bread, it may have a chance of working its way into our collective future.
Ari's European Cafe, 2411 Shepherd, 521-3240.
mustard chicken, $10.95;
osso buco, $19.95.