Calling All Night Owls

Houston needs another pasta joint the way it needs another parking lot on poor old Market Square. Nonetheless, I welcome the advent of Loulu's Spaghetti House for a compelling reason: they serve a truly great spinach lasagna, and they serve it late. Very late -- as in 4 a.m. on weekends or the civilized hour of midnight otherwise. In a city where the culinary sidewalks roll up aggravatingly early, that's big news.

There's enough comfort in knowing you can get something decent to eat after a concert, a play or a club set that Loulu's flaws seem readily forgivable. The reasonable prices help, too. So does the good-humored redo of this erstwhile Cliff's burgeria just south of Shepherd Square: with its curvy gold awnings, sleek glass blocks and vividly lacquered chairs, Loulu's efficient little space practically screams "prototype." Can replicas be far behind?

Not if Houston's CMC Restaurants -- the newly expansionist parent of Cliff's Hamburgers -- can help it; Loulu's is just one of four restaurant concepts they're trying out on the local market. Stuck with an unbreakable lease at their languishing Cliff's on Shepherd, CMC turned to Wilson/Zetty Associates (designers of the pending Houston Brewery) for an experimental restaurant package. Boom! Loulu's was born, its trim landscaping, butter-yellow walls and invitingly casual looks invoking a poor man's Carrabba's; its roomy booths, ceiling-mounted TV sets and sensibly priced, red-sauce-happy menu suggesting an urban spaghetti house for the '90s.

Some of the food still needs work. The Arctic air conditioning needs taming. The bustling young waitstaff in baseball caps, T-shirts and green aprons needs taming, too: the intrusive temperature-taking ("How's your iced tea?" "How's your salad?" "How's your coffee?") is so relentless as to be comical. But there's plenty to like here, from unusually thoughtful lighting to a vibrant, spunky tomato sauce that can make practically anything taste good -- even Loulu's stiffish, salty meatballs, which are hardly state-of-the-art.

They're fixable, however. So are unfortunate garlic-bread loaves with the texture of sodden kapok and dreary little icebergian house salads with a "Parmesan vinaigrette" that tastes unnervingly like bottled Italian. (Romaine in a tart, creamy Caesar dressing is far better, but substituting it for the house salad will cost you extra.)

Such annoyances pale beside the spinach lasagna, one of those rare specimens not imprisoned by a melted-cheese straitjacket. Its noodles are thin; its briefly sauteed spinach retains a leafy texture; its creamy filling of ricotta, provolone and two kinds of pungent Parmesan has an admirable bite. Crunchy bits of garlic give it a fresh lift, and a thin, graceful bechamel double-teams brilliantly with the house marinara, which is mined with explosive little bursts of licoricey fennel seed. It's the sort of dish that can make a restaurant's reputation.

And it has a provenance that students of Houston will find very tasty indeed. Loulu's lasagna happens to be the very recipe devised by CMC's Rick George when he was personal chef to homebuilder-turned-banker-turned-boom-icon Vince Kickerillo back in the mid-'80s, before the plummeting Texas economy turned Kickerillo into a homebuilder again. At least Vince was eating well during those uncertain times.

George left Kickerillo's employ, but he kept cooking the lasagna. It made an impression on his friend Don Christopher, an executive at Le Peep, when he came to dinner one night. In the fullness of time, Christopher became president of CMC and called George, insisting "I need that lasagna!"

Smart move. Now we groundlings can eat like Kickerillos for a mere $6.95, which would be an even better bargain if Loulu's would retool the salad and bread offered as standard lasagna accessories. (With Josh Graeber, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America -- and number two in the ill-starred Cattle Kings' string of four chefs -- overseeing Loulu's kitchen, improvements should not be too much to hope for.)

Loulu's spaghetti with meat sauce, however, is satisfying as is, atoning somewhat for the restaurant's meatball credibility gap. The ricotta-stuffed manicotti is respectable, too, thanks to the buoyant red and white sauces. But even the red sauce can't rescue the giant ravioli from their bland, mealy ricotta filling. Why not put the much livelier lasagna filling inside these pleasantly chewy, scalloped envelopes, which come two to a plate?

The baked eggplant would work better were it not so breaded; it's a wooden, layered slab compared to the loosely structured lasagna. And deliciously sauteed peppers and onions do their best to prop up a sandwich undermined by less-than-thrilling bread and meatballs. (Has there been a first-rate meatball in this town since Joe Matranga threw in the towel? I wonder.)

There is pizza in Loulu's arsenal (isn't there always these days?), fat-crusted and exceedingly crisp on the bottom. Do not be tempted by the pizza formaggi, though: the advertised Romano, Parmesan, fresh spinach and mushrooms can't elevate this pie from undistinguished gunkdom, and its sickly hue, the product of tomato sauce thoroughly beaten into a ricotta-cheese base, is extremely disconcerting. Pink pizza -- an idea whose time has not come. Make mine the bourgeois old red sauce, please, with some peppers, onions and anchovies.

And I'll pass on what the menu bills as "Loulu's Two Appetizers," a coy designation made coyer by the menu's ferociously cute ransom-note graphics. Alas, the cuteness continues. Appetizer One is called MYOMYO WYSIWYG, which translates as my-oh-my-oh what-you-see-is-what-you-get, a rather breathless title for regular old tomatoes and mozzarella. Pallid tomatoes, on one recent evening, with a texture so flannely that nice, spongy mozzarella and a minty pesto were to little avail. "Baked giant jumbo stuffers" proved to be no less (and no more) than ordinary mushrooms filled with a rich mush of spinach and bechamel.

Desserts are a happier menu category here. A classic, impeccable cheesecake -- not a shade too sweet -- won over a friend of mine who has never professed the slightest interest in the genre. A wide, shallow baking dish held creme brulee for the masses: a simple custard, more creamy than eggy, wearing a burnt-sugar crust far thinner and cracklier than you'd expect in a place where entrees cost six to eight bucks. Only the so-called chocolate bombe (bomb?), a sweet and stodgy layered mousse cake, failed to please.

You have to admire the perception of value that Loulu's labors so hard to create. The desserts are part of it. So are the full-bodied decaffeinated coffees -- both regular and cappuccino -- that emerge from its up-to-the-minute coffee bar. Likewise the bowls of fresh-grated cheese and the gauchely tall pepper mills wielded so eagerly by the staff. Even the pretty candles that mimic Italian mille-fiore glass seem to say, "Hey, you're getting a lot for your money."

Loulu's Inner-Loopy crowd seems to be getting the message. Already, the snug, sunny facade is luring budget-conscious representatives of Generations X and Y, along with West U-ish families and couples old enough to sing along to "Volare" when it warbles gently from the sound system. Solo diners, lugging hauls from the nearby Bookstop newsstand, duck in for a fast supper. Basketball and bowling flicker silently on the floating television screens. The darker it gets, the more Loulu's glass blocks fill with golden light, framing a severely deco view of Monarch Cleaners that seems borrowed from another city, another time. Then the homely Chicken-and-Egg-Roll sign across the street tugs you back, and you hear your very-'90s waitress chirping, "How's that cappuccino?"

You pay your bill. It hardly hurts at all. From out in the parking lot, the restaurant glows ocher in the night. Maybe, in the midst of their very '90s push to launch a grill, and a Southern-style place and a neo-Tex-Mex joint, the CMC boys will find time to get Loulu's right. You certainly hope so, because you're planning on having a long relationship with that spinach lasagna.

Loulu's Spaghetti House & Pizza, 2801 S. Shepherd, 526-8646.

spinach lasagna, $6.95;
spaghetti and meat sauce, $5.95;

creme brulee $2.95.

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