Out with the New
Yes, Virginia, there is a New Renata's. While the "old" Renata's offered continental cuisine with an Italian accent, the "new" one offers continental cuisine with an Asian accent, courtesy of chef Zumm Escudier. Yet underneath this mostly cosmetic makeover remains one sad, unavoidable blemish: It's still a place where fawning waiters take precedence over quality food. Renata's, in fact, may have perfected the art of obsequious service.
I do admit enjoying three dishes. The appetizer New Orleans crab cakes ($6.95) were quite good, crusty on the outside, loaded with lumps of crab, sitting in a pool of a nicely spicy sweet red pepper sauce. Two of the fish dishes were tasty too: the halibut Acapulco ($20.95) with a flavorful shiitake crust, garnished with prawns, avocado and galangal butter, and the potato-crusted Chilean sea bass ($19.25), the long strands of potato flavored by sautéed mushrooms and an extremely buttery ginger-lime sauce. With the exception of these three dishes, though, I found Renata's an extremely unpleasant experience, and I herewith present my Ten Reasons Why Renata's Will Never Be My Favorite Restaurant.
10. "Renata's is Romance": It actually says this on the menu. Now, reasonable people will differ on a definition of romance, but I fail to see how a restaurant decorated with oversize wine bottles and old plastic vines stapled to wooden latticework conjures up feelings of love.
9. Fusion cuisine: Even though the restaurant boasts a new Asian twist, the menu has very little Eastern accent. Sure, there are three lunchtime salads with an "Asian flair," and ginger does spice up a couple of the dinner entrées. But, hell, even McDonald's serves up a Chinese dipping sauce with its McNuggets, and you don't hear it boasting of "fusion cuisine."
8. Two-foot-long pepper mills: I thought these were a dying breed, but not at Renata's. When I was presented my salad, the owner bounded over, pepper mill in hand, exclaiming, "Let me kick that up a notch for you." Now that's romance (see number ten above).
7. Nondescript bread: Served warm and crusty, the bread nonetheless was bland and tasteless. On a subsequent visit, it was so dry that a companion asked, "Why are they dumping their five-day-old bread on us?"
6. Petites ocean rolls ($5.95): When I tried to order these as an appetizer, the waiter told me, "No, don't." When I asked him why, he replied, "They're not very good. Nobody's liked them." While he gets points for honesty, it does raise a question: If they're not any good and nobody likes them, why are they on the menu?
5. Bella mar fritti ($6.45): After putting the kibosh on the ocean rolls, the waiter suggested the fried calamari. "They'll be the best you've ever tasted!" he promised. That turned out to be a bit of an overstatement. The calamari were wonderfully tender, but the poor things were coated with a breading so thick that the squid might as well have been cheese. All I could taste was breading. (In all fairness, I must say the accompanying basil marinara sauce was terrific, chunky and flavorful, probably a leftover from Renata's old Italian days.)
4. Double tails Normandy ($24.95): The presence of lobster bisque on the menu ($4.75, and not bad at all) lulled me into a false sense of security. So I ordered the lobster tails, a dish I tend to avoid. I regret my error. Instead of firm, sweet lobster meat, my first bite offered mushy, off-tasting lobster, coated with a weak, pasty calvados beurre blanc. (Or was it the lobster that was pasty? It was so hard to tell.) Astonished at how bad it was, I forced myself to try another bite. The same. I decided to try the other tail, hoping against hope that the foul taste hadn't rubbed off on its partner. Alas, it had. I know that I should have summoned the waiter over and sent it back, but the dish was so wretched, I couldn't stand the thought of ordering another entrée, so I buried the remaining lobster underneath the shells and busied myself with eating the roasted potato garnish.
3. Lackluster desserts: I tried a tiramisu, a raspberry crème brûlée, and one so dull I can't even remember what it was ($5 each). The tiramisu had a definite refrigerator taste, and the crème brûlée was, well, unusual. It consisted of a layer of chunky fruits, a thin layer of custard and a sliver of caramelized coating, the whole surrounded by a pastry crust. Lacking the sensuous simplicity of a true crème brûlée, the dessert wasn't awful, just a bit too busy.
2. Philosophy: On the back of the menu is a one-page signed statement of philosophy from the chef. It was bad enough when chefs started leaving the kitchen to talk to customers; then they started writing cookbooks, appearing on television and becoming celebrities. Now they're penning philosophical statements, dripping with self-important words such as "Cuisine" with a capital C. Remember when chefs were content to let the food speak for itself?
1. According to the latest figures from the Houston Visitors and Convention Bureau, there are more than 8,000 other restaurants in the greater Houston area. That's good to know.
The New Renata's Restaurant and Piano Bar, 2006 Lexington, (713)523-2428.
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