Lotsa Pasta

On paper, Semolina is a great idea. Billing itself as an "international pasta bar," this hyper-eclectic world-o'-noodles operation has been a big hit in New Orleans; restaurant critic Gene Bourg of the city's Times Picayune says he has witnessed people virtually fighting to get into Semolina's Magazine Street restaurant, one of four locations there. The lure? Huge portions of moderately priced pastas ($9.95 tops) in a trendily multicultural mode -- Asian, Mediterranean, Neo-Creole, Neo-Midwestern, Southwestern -- all served up in amusing, resolutely casual surroundings. If somebody held a gun to my head and ordered me to describe the Semolina Look, I'd blurt out "Elvis-does-Milan-on-the-cheap."

Sounds like the restaurant of the '90s, right? That's exactly what lots of would-be entrepreneurs thought when they read in the restaurant trade journals about two-year-old Semolina's carbo-intensive profit margins. Now Semolina's three chef-owners (they call themselves the Taste Buds, I am sorry to say) have investors lining up to buy franchises. The Houston "store," as food-biz lingo labels such an outpost, opened quietly last month in Westheimer's Briargrove Center and is one of the first of 60-plus Semolinas due to colonize America in the next few years. They're riding the same expansionist pasta-chain wave caught by our own Carrabba's boys -- with a key difference.

So far, the Houston franchise makes the Semolina concept look less like a sure thing than like an interesting and iffy proposition. Some of the pastas are appealing -- and one is outright spectacular -- but others, too clever for their own good, seem pointlessly gimmicky. The few side dishes that flesh out the 21-pasta menu range from bad to adequate. Part of the problem may be the very nature of expansion via franchise: unlike Carrabba's, which is growing under corporate ownership and hands-on quality control by its creators, Semolina is selling off its concept, recipes and methodology; quality control is up to the individual franchisees. So it's hard to know whom to blame when a dish admired by New Orleans critics -- the Santa Fe pasta -- shows up in Houston acting wimpy.

This dish arrives at your table in Semolina's characteristically showy style. Coaxed into a vivid, sculptural mound that borrows from the voguish "Tall Food" school of presentation, the pasta inhabits expansive, colorful soup plates painted with scrawls of red-chile pure. It features Semolina's madcap "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to composition: red and green peppers, cilantro, chicken, tortilla strips, black beans, hominy, green chiles, red onion and sour cream decorate the pile of linguini. But once you toss this bazaar of ingredients together... nothing happens.

I thought immediately of Lloyd Bentsen. "I know Southwestern flavors," I wanted to chide the Santa Fe pasta, "and you're not Southwestern flavors." The dish lacked enough chile kick and cilantro spark; its allegedly cumin-spiked chicken came off as sad little poultry chunks; an excessively gentle masa lime cream sauce contributed only an intriguingly mealy corn texture. Perhaps the flaw lay in the concept, perhaps in the kitchen's execution; whatever the cause, this pasta will need retooling to satisfy a Houston audience.

Not so the pad Thai, a dish that captures Semolina at its best. I know pad Thai, and this is a terrific, contemporary riff on the real thing: alive with talkative flavors and textures; heaped into a hilarious garden tower bristling with bean sprouts, julienned carrot and cilantro; its boisterous red-pepper level countering a sweet-sour undercurrent that is further buffered by fresh lime. Its modernisms -- shiitake mushrooms, great rafts of velvety bean curd with a chewy, stir-fried crust -- actually improve the Thai rice-noodle classic. And unlike that Santa Fe chicken, the shrimp involved are respectable.

This may very well be the best pad Thai in the city. Certainly this one dish alone justifies putting Semolina on my restaurant rotation; and the restaurant's engaging counter, perfect for quick drop-ins and impromptu solo dining, makes it even more likely that I'll be back.

The only other Semolina production I can imagine myself actively craving is their Shrimp Bangkok, an angel-hair tangle of considerable subtlety and finesse. Basil ribbons and shreds of pickled ginger give it character; carrot batons and bean sprouts give it crunch; a broth infused with soy, garlic and chiles gives it quiet soul. Adding plain black beans instead of the salted Chinese variety works better than you might think. This is a dish that wears well.

A couple of Semolina's more rococo conceits, surprisingly good though they be, are harder to polish off in one sitting. Pasta Athena is a lively number in which small shells are goosed up with tart sun-dried tomatoes, sharp feta cheese, slivers of marinated peppers, two kinds of olives and two-count-'em-two sauces: a sprightly marinara and an even fresher tzatziki-type amalgam of yogurt, cucumber and garlic. It sounds frenetically busy, but somehow it works. Of course the scallops that supposedly form the centerpiece seem like afterthoughts, but then most of Semolina's featured proteins (always the most expensive component of a menu) play a subsidiary role.

Semolina's New Age Louisiana connection manifests itself in Pasta Jambalaya, corkscrews tossed with good, smoky andouille sausage and smoked tomatoes, which give the dish a rustic note; peppers, garlic and red onion fill out the big ingredient roster, along with more of those sorry chicken "morsels." I wondered what the hell cheese was doing on this pasta until I tasted the fluffy gouda-and-provolone curls strewn here and there; again, my skepticism to the contrary, it worked.

I must confess, however, to a horrified disinterest in two of Semolina's more silly-sounding Louisiana hybrids. Muffaletta Pasta with salami, ham, olive salad, olive oil and cheese? No thanks. Pasta Gumbo with a misbegotten supra-gumbo of shrimp and sausage and chicken? No thanks again. And the biggest no thanks of all to Semolina's Curry Chicken Linguini, a stickily sauced dish whose raisins and chutney make it taste unpleasantly candied, more like dessert than dinner.

Speaking of dessert -- don't. Semolina's apple "tort" (as the menu lists it, in the year's best Freudian slip) is stodgy and gruesomely sweet. The tiramisu is a ghastly sugar nightmare. Both entail the sort of "painted" plates that run amok through the modern food landscape: a messy storm of cocoa embellished the tiramisu; muddy little cocoa cat footprints decorated the "tort." Spare me.

Actually, all of Semolina's non-pasta dishes -- desserts, salads, appetizers -- have a perfunctory air. The plain romaine salad in a decent parmesan dressing is perfectly safe, and it's probably all you'll want, considering the gargantuan size of Semolina's pasta dishes (most could feed one-and-a-half to two normal humans).

Marinated side salads involving various pastas, beans, vegetables and cheese are okay but redundant, given that they repeat many of the pasta ingredients. A red pepper rolled around whipped feta to resemble black-peppered sushi tasted bitter and faintly moribund. Feta cheese baked in a marinara pool and served with garlic toast recalls a similarly goopy Carrabba's goat-cheese appetizer -- but the marinara here is lighter and fresher tasting. The bread is another matter; Semolina might just as well be serving foam rubber.

It seems curious that such a high-profile New Orleans restaurant would open with such a whimper here. So far Semolina is mostly empty at night, which gives you your pick of the abstract hand-painted tables and glittery bronze-vinyl booths set off by glass-block partitions. Want to eat at the counter? No competition.

Service? That's a dicier matter. Resign yourself to having a relationship with your waitperson, an experience that can be tolerable (one charming fellow decorated our Chinese-style takeout cartons with quirky cartoon faces) or not-so-tolerable (a certain Ms. Personality sat down with us to take our order, told us we had so much food we looked like pigs, and grilled us about our marital status). You may find yourself begging repeatedly for water or greeted at the front by an oblivious young person taking a personal phone call.

The question is whether New Orleans' bang-up success translates to a much different market -- especially one where there's already a surfeit of contemporary trattorias. Eventually Semolina's low prices and irreverent food and decor (giant papier-mache vegetables, colander sconces, industrial ceiling and hanging grids) may catch the fancy of the young white-collar neighborhood folks who are the obvious demographic targets. Until it does, I can eat my pad Thai in peace.

Semolina, 6100 Westheimer, Suite 154, 783-6198.

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