"Big B" Benjy Levit, owner of "little b" benjy's in the Village [2424 Dunstan, (713)522-7602], will soon be jumping onto the comfort-food bandwagon with a second restaurant, near River Oaks. Levit is building out the space that formerly housed Armando's at 2300 Westheimer between Kirby and Shepherd.

"We're going to have a completely different look than Armando [Palacios] had," says Levit. "We're demolishing most of what's there to start with a fresh face, more open and modern."

Whereas Armando's bar dominated the central space of the room, Levit plans to move his bar off to a room of its own and cozy up the dining area with sleek booths and banquettes. "And we're going to open up from the inside to the front patio more, which I think is a really, really nice space," says Levit.

This time around Levit has a bigger budget to play with; while benjy's exposed brick and beams made a fashionably minimalist statement, inexpensively, this new room will have a "more finished, more refined" look, he says, with polished hardwood floors and warm earth tones on the walls.

The new cafe will have a different name, possibly a different chef -- neither as yet decided upon -- and a different concept from the original benjy's. The theme at the new place will be "American comfort classics," Levit explains. He's tossing around ideas now for the new menu, including baby back ribs "with an Asian twist," wild mushroom turnovers and pistachio-crusted chicken, plus "updated-retro-throwback stuff" like shrimp cocktail, macaroni and cheese, even baked Alaska.

"We're thinking it'll take four months or so to get all this work done," says Levit cautiously. So look for a soft opening, dinner only, sometime in April; then perhaps in May, Levit will add weekday lunch service and weekend brunches.

Sweet Home, Corelli's

The irrepressible Richard Pignetti was welcomed with open arms by his former compadres at Corelli's Italian Cafe, just in time for the Christmas opening of the third Corelli's [3401 Kirby, (713)807-7004], in the building that last housed a lackluster Pizzeria Uno.

Last September Pignetti abruptly dropped out of the restaurant scene because of health problems that followed hard on the heels of the closing of the chef's self-named restaurant, Pignetti's, on West Gray. Around Thanksgiving the unsinkable Pignetti resurfaced as corporate chef for the privately owned local Corelli's chain, whose opening menu he'd designed in the first place.

"We've added a whole new part to the [dinner] menu for Richard, called the Chef's Special section," says Ben Pryor, one of Corelli's managers. Expect to see a seasonal lineup of new seafood and pasta dishes from the chef, such as tuna a la panna, a tuna steak grilled medium rare and topped with roasted sweet onions and a sun-dried tomato cream reduction, and a lightly battered orange roughy, sautéed with a lemon caper butter sauce and topped with grilled Gulf shrimp.

And look for two or three more Corelli's Italian Cafes to crop up in the Houston area during the coming year. After that, Pryor describes ambitious expansion plans to go statewide -- and perhaps even farther. "I've heard rumors that we'll someday be opening stores on the East Coast," he says, "but for the foreseeable future we'll probably stick with Texas."


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