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Heaven, or Hell?

Given the duality behind the theme of the new Saints & Sinners, maybe it's appropriate that I'm of two minds about the place. At times, the angel-and-devil-themed decor strikes me as engagingly goofy; at other times, it simply seems cheesy. The halos and pitchforks that are sprinkled throughout the menu like an effluence of grace notes (halos next to dishes that are low-fat; pitchforks beside dishes that are "sinful") can be both informative and irritating. Even the servers have two faces, sometimes ingratiating and solicitous, other times uninformed and forgetful.

None of this would matter much if I could state with conviction that the food is definitely good or definitely bad, but I can't. It's both. On my first visit, I ordered the wild mushroom pizza and was served an excellent version that came out on a crisp, wafer-like crust smeared with the thinnest layer of herby tomato sauce. It didn't matter that my waiter had to return to the kitchen to get an answer to my question about what kind of mushrooms were on top (even after the backroom prepping, he erroneously said shiitake; they were actually a medley of shiitake, portobello and crimini), and it didn't matter that the generous amount of cheese heaped on the pizza caused me to question the double halo rating the menu gave this dish (one halo is supposed to signify that less than 30 percent of the dish's calories come from fat, while two halos mean less than 20 percent are from fat; chef Gregory Webb insists the low-fat cheese used makes the saintly billing correct). All that mattered was that I really enjoyed the pizza, finding it on the mark in terms of flavor and texture. I even liked the oversized red and white splattered pottery plate it was served on.

On the other hand, in the pasta dish dreadfully titled Penne from Heaven, the low-fat translated into low-excitement. The day I sampled it, this bowlful of pasta tubes tossed with pureed tomatoes, spinach, garlic and lemon was woefully tasteless. Even adding grilled chicken breast -- which changes the dish's name to (groan) Henny Penne from Heaven -- didn't help, given how bland and boring the beige strips of meat were. Goosing the dish with a shower of black pepper added a little flavor, but only that of the pepper.

The two-halo buffalo burger didn't thrill me either. While I can live with the fact that buffalo, being the lowest-fat red meat around, isn't going to fry up into a gratifyingly greasy burger, the thick and flavorful patty on this version was smaller than its bun by about an inch all around. It also lacked any hint that I could see of the promised serrano-charon sauce. That sauce might have added a little life to what was a boring burger on a boring onion roll -- one that was devoid of the taste of onions, to boot. The whole was not helped by a spicy house ketchup that tasted more like cocktail sauce.

If the food were consistently outstanding, the little things that aren't quite right -- such as the perpetually weak espresso a friend was served one night that didn't improve even when he sent it back and asked for a replacement cup, the chalky undertaste of a yogurt-based spread that comes gratis with a plate of premeal focaccia, the sadly wilted miniature herb trees that are utilized as garnish and the fact that on one visit, the tap water tasted so bad that even the glass it was in seemed tainted -- wouldn't seem so glaring. The idea of trying to offer menu selections that are heart-healthy is, obviously, no longer a new idea. Indeed, many of our best restaurants indicate on their menus which of their dishes are designed to please those who monitor the fat levels crossing their lips. But as one of the still-few restaurants outside of a spa setting that bases its entire existence on heart- and health-conscious dining, Saints & Sinners must answer to a more rigorous set of standards. In such a case, a potential customer not only wants to know how satisfying the food, ambiance and service is, but also how gracefully the restaurant incorporates its philosophy of the virtues of restraint.

In its attempt to be inventive and fun instead of dry and fact-based, Saints & Sinners has employed a concept that's off the wall enough to have devolved into the kitschy. Besides the overarching Divine Comedy-esque theme, the restaurant's decor is a case in point. A not particularly appealing mural of medieval-era revelers sitting at a long table in the manner of Da Vinci's The Last Supper occupies an entire 35-foot wall. Faux marble columns and faux brick walls support the loft-inspired black ceiling, and each indoor table is guarded by a statuette of either a cherub or a gargoyle. Shiny red vinyl seats on black chair frames underscore the Hades-inspired color scheme. The whole effect is harmlessly amateurish and rather cheap-looking, but, at the risk of sounding humorless, what I found truly grating was the stereotypic illustrations on the rest room doors: the women's room portal sports a golden-haired angel, while on the men's room door lurks -- you guessed it -- a red devil.

Executive chef Gregory Webb, most recently executive chef at La Griglia, has, however, developed a few recipes that work well. The menu's oddest item, a rattlesnake taco appetizer, is pleasantly surprising. Bathed in a sweet-tart mango and papaya marinade that also serves to tenderize the inherently tough meat, the cubes of rattlesnake had sort of an amphibious-chicken taste. The tacos' accompaniments mostly worked well: a biting pico de gallo, a virtuously small scoop of chunky guacamole, a jiggerful of the spicy, yummy serrano-charon sauce I'd missed on my buffalo burger. I didn't care much for the "glorified cabbage," however -- a too-vinegary cole slaw -- or the fat-free sour cream, which tasted of cardboard. The appetizer of quesadillas was also delightful: the folded flour tortilla, striped from the grill, stayed gently crispy despite its moist, smoky filling of chicken and cheese. I would have liked to try the tortilla soup, but didn't get a chance to. Although I ordered it, it never reached my table.

A feisty relish of wilted red onions whose breathtaking hotness snuck up on me within a few bites was an unexpected but welcome accompaniment to another fine appetizer: the St. Lawrence venison tenderloin wafers. Served cool and infused with tarragon, these herb-crusted, red-on-the-inside miniature fillets were dished up prettily with a bundle of barely blanched haricots verts and yellow wax beans. A toss of salad greens supported the red onion relish.

Another saintly dish that pleased was the seafood ciappino, a generously sized stew of angel hair pasta stratified with fresh, braised bright red crawfish tails, fat melon-colored shrimp, multi-layered oysters, in-shell clams and flaky, white tilapia. The broth, other than being somewhat watery, was a perfect meld of the various fishy elements.

Chef Webb and the restaurant's owner, Mari Papadakis, daughter-in-law of the family that founded James Coney Island, decided that offering only guiltless foods on their menu would alienate more than a few customers; hence the inclusion of some pitchfork-footnoted options. One of these, the roast quail entree, sports a crispy browned skin and is bathed in a sweet, sorrel port-fig sauce. On the night I tried it, the advertised spinach accompaniment was replaced with a tangle of spaghetti squash and a puff of sweet potato souffle. My only complaints? The enjoyably gamy quail meat suffered from an occasional tough bite, and the sweet potato souffle was adulterated by a bit of that fat-free, joy-free sour cream.

Despite my disappointments, I can't help but root for Saints & Sinners. Here's hoping that Chef Webb will keep fiddling with his recipes, stay on top of his kitchen help -- and get someone to paint over those restroom doors. After all, a place that can satisfy both my craving for pizza and my occasional need to feel righteous has a least a touch of heaven about it.

Saints & Sinners, 6100 Westheimer (Briargrove Shopping Center), 781-2665.

Saints & Sinners:
St. Patrick's rattlesnake taco, $4.95; roast quail, $12.95; Henny Penne from Heaven, $6.95; wild mushroom pizza, $5.75.


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