Plus Ca Change

I don't get it. Finally, after many, many months of hoopla about their recently imported high status chef and their freshly glammy look, the historically unexciting Birraporetti's has unveiled its new '90s-style menu -- which turns out to be remarkable for its lack of excitement. What, I wonder, is the point of snagging a creative talent like Jim Mills -- who made a name for himself in Dallas at such culinary meccas as the Hotel Crescent Court and the Mansion on Turtle Creek -- if he ends up limiting himself (for whatever reason) to dishes so safe that they don't even raise an expectant eyebrow?

The lineup now in effect at Birraporetti's River Oaks and Post Oak locations trudges through an all-too-familiar contempo-Italian drill. Grilled chicken here, there and everywhere. All the usual modern pasta suspects. ("There's not even an interesting ravioli!" groused a friend of mine who dubs the new menu "institutional.") Simple grill plates with scarcely an original spark. Pizzas we've mostly seen before. Sandwiches of the same old stripe. Sure, it's an improvement over the petrified Italian-Americana of Birraporetti Past, but didn't all the buzz about the restaurant's reincarnation promise considerably more?

For one thing, there were those tantalizing food-section hints of Mills creations to come. Warm bruschetta with white bean and basil pesto! Wild mushroom tart with herb salad and red wine vinaigrette! Buttermilk roast pheasant on corn puree with a tart basil pan sauce! Alas, none of these engaging ideas made it past the final menu edit.

For another thing, there was the startling makeover of the River Oaks location by hot interiors guy Randall Walker, who turned a tired space into one of the handsomest dining rooms in town -- all rich, warm woods and severe stone; all buttery ochers and yellows. Even the modern art that he hung on the walls is of a sort that can be looked upon with actual pleasure. As if to signal that a brave new day was at hand, the debut of the similar looking (if smaller and less grand) Post Oak restaurant drew a highfalutin Houston Grand Opera crowd that included her highness Lynn Wyatt, London dress designer Zandra Rhodes and U.S. Ambassador to Denmark John Loeb -- who also happens to be one of Birraporetti's new New York owners. Heady stuff for a red-sauce palace known heretofore mainly for its bar, and for keeping late hours at its downtown site.

But after the opening pizzazz, nothing. Or at least not much: the restaurant's new menu might triumph over its ordinariness if the food were uniformly well-executed, but it's not. There's a nagging tendency to overcook the oh-so-modern grill items at both locations, and the River Oaks restaurant in particular seems to be having problems with quality control. A Millsian Tuscan bean soup that was quite palatable at Post Oak emerged from the River Oaks kitchen as a turgid brown sludge wearing a wrinkly skin. "Bean dip!" scoffed my companion, poking unhappily at her purely perfunctory little dinner salad.

Far worse was a first course annoyingly titled "Our Awesome Spinach-Artichoke Dip." Sounds like a retro kick, but Birraporetti's could take some lessons from the Junior League gals who traffic in this New South classic: what materialized in our ceramic crock was rubbery cheese gunk. Granted, there's good gunk and there's bad gunk, but this was the kind of thick, sticky stuff you could use to caulk bathtubs. (It proved equally reprehensible at the Post Oak restaurant.) There was, though, some consolation in the crisp, garlicky flatbread served with it, fetchingly tucked into a pleated napkin pouch.

Rosemary grilled lamb chops sounded good -- and they might have been, had they not been charred medium-to-well-done instead of medium rare, the way the waiter claimed the kitchen did them (and the way we ordered them). The chops were accompanied by Parmesan-flavored mashed potatoes, too whipped for my taste, but sprightly nonetheless. But deliver me, oh lord, from yet another bouquet of those ubiquitous sauteed garden vegetables, the ones with an al dente broccoli floret here and an al dente carrot hunk there. And what, pray tell, was that heap of pimento-looking substance doing on the plate, besides lending color? Lushly grilled red pepper slices might have added something; this timid confetti did not.

On to "Our Signature Chicken Saltimbocca," a pleasant-enough dish that reminded me of hotel food, from its decent-but-unexciting marsala-mushroom sauce to its stuffing of thin prosciutto and film of creamy cheese. On the side? Mushy angel hair, that new modern plague, with a pedestrian tomato sauce that seemed unsuited to the task at hand. A simple garlic-and-oil-tossed pasta would have been more appropriate.

So disheartened had we become that we didn't even consider ordering dessert. Good thing: the young waiter who had showered us with such solicitous attention (not to mention gale-force bursts of personality) in the meal's early stages vanished for long, inexplicable intervals toward the end, even though the place was hardly crowded.

The phenomenon recurred a week later at Post Oak, where dinner began with service in spades and ended with ill-humored mutterings of "Where's that waiter?" (At lunch, however, a brisk, straight-talking waitress did the job right.) Yet at Post Oak the food was noticeably better than at the tonier River Oaks spot -- particularly a lunch plate that featured a perfectly grilled marinated pork chop, wonderfully tender and pink along the bone. No small accomplishment, that; good pork chops are notoriously hard to find.

Just as effective was a first course of tomato bruschetta, grilled focaccia bread bearing a fresh, lively heap of tartly dressed tomato and red onion, with celadon squiggles of pesto ribboning the top. It's a dish that could make an ideal summer lunch -- and that lives up to Mills' credentials. So, to a point, does a garlicky white pizza packed with punchy flavor and embellished with surprising asparagus tips. Watery processed artichoke hearts contribute nothing but pseudo-prestige to this hand-thrown pie, but an unusually robust blend of cheeses grabs your attention and keeps it.

The Caesar salad entails respectable quantities of garlic and anchovy, and the five-buck large size is plenty for two to share. Grilled tuna with an appealing fresh tomato and black olive salsa sounds swell, but overcooking can undercut it: mine emerged drearily well-done instead of on the rare side, the way I'd ordered it. Dinnertime pork chops were overdone as well. And I had to wonder how a lunchtime spinach fettuccine could end up in such boring condition. Its creamy Parmesan sauce showed body and restraint. Its fat, ropy noodles were nicely resilient. But its grilled chicken turned out to be wimpy nubbins, and its red peppers more of those pimento-style smidgens that contribute little in the way of texture or taste. This one should go back to the drawing board.

So, perhaps, should a strangely marshmallowy tiramisu that succumbs to entropy if it sits too long on the dessert tray. Our waitress seemed embarrassed by its oozy state of collapse. My companion seemed fascinated. "I often feel exactly like that!" she declared, giving it the fish eye. We settled on a less alarming-looking Italian cream cake that was moist and opulent and too sweetly frosted for its own good. We drank brackish coffee and ungenerous decaf cappuccino mounded with loose foam. We observed a young woman in the theatrical open kitchen holding aloft a floppy skein of noodles with her bare hands, as if engaged in some obscure rite. We speculated on what the "Proper Attire" sign by the door might signify.

Finally, escorted by a flurry of door-openers and well-wishers, we departed. "That wasn't bad," we told each other in the parking lot. "Not bad at all." But not exactly the effect Birraporetti's new management appeared to be shooting for, either. Still, in an odd way, Birraporetti's seems to have come full circle: if the old restaurant played it safe, '80s style, the new Birraporetti's has figured out how to play it safe, '90s style. At least now they serve dishes I would eat with good cheer, in surroundings I like to look at. But dishes I'd long for and return just to eat? Nope. Not yet, anyway.

Birraporetti's, 1997 West Gray, 529-9191, and 1650 Post Oak Boulevard, 621-2700.

Birraporetti's: tomato bruschetta, $3.95; marinated grilled pork chops, $13.95; asparagus and artichoke pizza bianca, $8.95.

The new menu might triumph over its ordinariness if the food were uniformly well-executed, but it's not.

The lineup trudges through a familiar contempo-Italian drill: grilled chicken here, there and everywhere.

Didn't the buzz about the restaurant's reincarnation promise considerably more?


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