La Strada Sunday brunch is not for everyone. To suggest that it is would be the biggest media snafu since, um, "The Miners Are Alive!"
Don't like noise? Don't go. Have a thing about people "invading your space"? Stay home. Homophobic? Hit up IHOP instead.
When in the mood, I find it a blast -- a fact I admit at my own peril.
322 Westheimer, 713-523-1014.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays; 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
Assortimento antipasti (small):
Tuna London: $18.95
Eggs Sardou: $12.95
Ultimate waffles: $10.95
Soup of the day: $5.95
Casa mista salad: $5.95
Fettuccine La Strada: $16.95
Angel-hair pasta with goat cheese: $10.95
What, me worry?
Let me tell you about the Über-Passion Chef. Work in kitchens long enough, and you'll eventually run into one -- a man or woman who prattles on endlessly about everything from fresh ingredients to the latest innovation in cutlery with the kind of heartfelt sincerity usually reserved for eulogies.
For these folks, working in the back of the house isn't just a job, it's a calling. They feel about food the way an English professor feels about Melville: exaggeratingly poetic and interminably romantic. Fresh sprigs of basil make them misty-eyed; bright red heirloom tomatoes get them all atwiddle; and properly aged balsamic vinegar brings them to their knees. And don't even get them started on fart-smelling cheese.
Yes, the new batch of Mission figs tastes great, but it shouldn't bring about an orgasm. Watch Über-Passion Chef huff the aroma of a truffle like it's the undergarment of a long-lost lover, and you'll begin to question his mental health.
The point is, Über-Passion Chef hates Sunday brunch at La Strada, and inevitably I'll find myself working for one again. To admit you have no problem with La Strada Sunday brunch, in some kitchens, is to brag about your own ignorance. You may as well say you prefer Chinese buffets to a steaming bowl of pho or McDonald's to Christian's Tailgate.
You're better off talking about the virtues of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to a room full of film-school grads.
"How can people disrespect food like that?" one Über-Passion Chef once asked me, failing to realize what most of us know: It's food, not the Shroud of Turin, you asshole! In essence, the eats at La Strada Sunday brunch are akin to the bag of Tostitos haphazardly thrown on a table at a party...not exactly the focal point.
It won't be the focal point here, either. Instead, I'll focus on the real La Strada Sunday brunch draw: the atmosphere!
The hostesses wear pajama bottoms and tight-fitting tank tops with kitschy phrases written across their lovely lady lumps: "What happens at Sunday Brunch, stays at Sunday Brunch!" and "You had me at Bellini!" So naturally the first thing we do is order a pitcher of the frozen peach concoction.
It's New Year's Day at noon. I'm joined by a chef who, with the help of Colombia's finest, has been up since 4:30 yesterday morning. He spent the last night of '05 making whoopee with a co-worker, a black girl who carries a pocketknife, a point he keeps reiterating loudly while our waiter pours us some much-needed hair of the dog.
My other guest, a brazen lesbian, is recovering from her own knock-down-drag-out NYE party, which the law broke up at 8 a.m. after a crack-addicted homeless man stole her neighbor's dog.
We order a platter of apps called "assortimento antipasti" that features cold mini-crab cakes, oddly smoky baked Brie (yes, smoky) rolled in nuts, passable calamari fritti with water-thin marinara and a spinach-artichoke dip that could make its home comfortably in any Bennigan's.
But we're not complaining. Instead we're chatting amicably at top volume about a couple Brazen Lez suspects had sex in her shower. Such is La Strada brunch.
After a bit, we order a few entrées: eggs Sardou, ultimate waffles, tuna London and migas (which the waiter mistakenly hears as "penis").
There are a few older couples here, and we're baffled by this. Can they really enjoy Cher's "Believe" at ear-popping pitch? We all hope aloud that we're that cool when we reach retirement.
Conversation drifts to a married couple we know who have an "arrangement" and then quickly shifts to a young man in SpongeBob SquarePants pajamas dancing his way up the stairs.
Oh, yeah, the food. All enthusiastically run-of-the-mill, the tuna steak is fresh/ frozen, the Sardou is accompanied by artichokes from a jar, the ultimate waffles are enveloped in enough Kahlúa whipped cream and syrup to throw a healthy horse into the most violent of diabetic seizures, and my penis, ahem, migas, are fine, save for the too-sweet "roasted ancho-chipotle sauce" I've made a game of keeping away from my eggs.
Brazen Lez is telling us a story about touching her first male member at La Strada Sunday brunch as a starry-eyed teen when our waiter asks, "Did you get enough penis?" while bussing our plates. "Can you really ever get enough?" I ask.
Cafe Annie it ain't.
After eating, we pour the last of our bellinis and head upstairs to make new acquaintances. Before we know it, we've been at La Strada for close to four hours.
At dinner a few nights later, I have come for the food. What's the place like when the kitchen's not mailing it in to keep up with the maddening Sunday volume?
For one thing, it's eerily quiet when the traffic out front isn't rumbling through huge open windows. The dining room is sparsely lit, and only a few tables are seated. There's a couple playing tonsil hockey at the bar -- obvious Sunday-brunch holdovers.
I have the soup of the day, tomato basil. There's nothing to distract from its overwhelming blandness.
A "casa mista" salad is served with slivers of Asiago cheese and what the menu calls "crumbled croutons," which would more accurately be described as "crouton dust." Imagine dumping the crushed contents from the bottom of a crouton bag on top of your greens, and you get the idea. The salad is dressed in a red wine vinaigrette. It's tasty enough.
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No pajama bottoms tonight.
My angel-hair pasta is overcooked. The thin strands of noodle are gumming together, and I begin to wonder why La Strada's dinner menu is so riddled with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts. The "goat cheese medallion" atop my pasta mush doesn't taste like goat cheese at all, more like low-grade ricotta...or chalk. It's a point that might go unnoticed if I were on bellini No. 3 with Kanye West's "Gold Digger" assaulting my eardrums.
The fettuccine La Strada is what I imagine 350-pound PTA moms in Lufkin would consider exquisite Italian. The fat, flat noodles are drowned in cream sauce with sausage meatballs and grilled chicken thrown in for good measure...and sun-dried tomatoes.
The whole meal would go down much easier with a dash of penis innuendo.