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Return of the Hunchback

Almost 20 years ago, George Jacobson opened a Montrose neighborhood restaurant he dubbed Quasimodo's Sanctuary and Tavern, after the famous denizen of Notre Dame's bell tower. Quasimodo's started as a beer-and-burger joint and sort of grew on folks; the quirky quasi-Gothic decor seemed to balance the quasi-Continental turn the food eventually took. It became a popular spot for dating couples who wanted a dimly lit nook for quiet conversation but weren't quite ready for the make-out couches at Marfreless.

Then, in the summer of 1989, a fire began in the washateria next door -- isn't there always a fire in these Montrose restaurant stories? -- and poor Quasimodo's expired from smoke and water damage.

Jacobson spent the intervening decade slowly bootstrapping his way back to solvency and combing auction houses for any fixture that looked remotely medieval. Last November, he was finally able to reopen. Quasimodo's Restaurant is back, bigger and more fantastically decorated than ever, with a new Peruvian chef who promises food at least more interesting than the previous incarnation's -- even if it doesn't exactly live up to the "Haute Cuisine" claim posted over the front door. ("Haut Wash," on the other hand, is billed at the next-door washateria, which Jacobson also owns.)

Jacobson stripped down the old brick building on the corner of Welch and McDuffie to its underlying good "bones." Quasimodo's almost-cathedral ceiling reaches a full two stories, the warm brick supported by new steel and concrete underpinnings -- "I hope it's bombproof," jokes Jacobson -- with double rows of casement and transom windows to admit plenty of light. Piles of new brick outside the front door hint at Jacobson's ambitious plan to erect medieval turrets and towers and parapets above the parking lot sweetly scented with fabric softener. "The whole thing's going to look like a little castle when I'm done," he promises -- or threatens, depending upon how the viewer feels about miniature Disney World installations in the inner city.

Inside, though, it's a bizarre bazaar, stuffed with a loosely medieval mishmash of European attic kitsch. The uncomfortable church pews are gone, thank goodness, and, yes, there's the old wooden statue of Quasi bearing a tray, cheek-by-jowl with his new good buddy, St. Francis of Assisi. Faux Tiffany lamps dangle between the ornate brass chandeliers that used to grace Sonny Look's dining room on South Main, in front of a portrait of the child King Edward VI. Artificial Japanese cherry trees in full fake bloom perch in the upper windows across from a heavily carved door and frame worthy of the haughtiest hacienda. A blaring soundtrack alternates 1950-ish Italian gondola songs with the pulsing oompahs of polka music. The net effect is dizzying, like Mr. Peabody's Way Back Machine meets the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Fortunately the menu doesn't attempt to straddle quite as much of the globe as does the decor. Just close your eyes to ward off vertigo, and you'll be rewarded with some decent, predominantly Italian food. My favorite dish, though, is Peruvian-style: the ceviche appetizer ($7) that shows off chef Domingo Minuta's gentle hand with squid. Tenderly poached rings of calamari, pinky-sized shrimp and firm chunks of lime-marinated snapper are heaped on a plate ringed with circlets of boiled potato and corn on the cob. I'd love to see more authentic examples of the chef's homeland heritage, but for now this is it. "We're not going to go 'ethnic'," says Jacobson firmly. "Italian-Continental has always worked best for us."

(That said, Quasi's departs the Middle Ages for the Middle East one night a month, with a special by-reservation-only Moroccan dinner. A guest chef, friend of the gregarious Moroccan waitstaff and known to Jacobson only as "Mohammed the Moroccan guy," cooks up a Casbah menu complete with couscous, spicy lamb and live entertainment from two authentic American belly dancers.)

The "Quasi Sampler" plate ($8) offers a more traditional fried seafood selection of calamari and crab fingers, both the respective batter and breading pleasingly light and crispy, along with mushroom caps stuffed with a lightly spicy cream cheese mixture. Alongside is a modest marinara sauce for dipping. Two could easily share the big platter to defray the price tag, or the cost-conscious could make do with the complimentary basket of fresh bread -- quite good -- swabbing it in a shallow saucer of fruity olive oil, fresh oregano and garlic.

Chef Minuta's competence with seafood also makes for several good entree bets. The grilled red snapper ($16) was lightly seasoned and nicely cooked -- no mean feat for the thin, delicate filet -- even if the waiter seemed unsure of its provenance. Whether it hailed from the Gulf of Mexico or a Gulf Coast farm tank, it was plenty fresh and quite tasty. The capellini di mare ($15) is a monstrous portion of angel hair pasta topped with gobs of seafood -- again, calamari and crab and shrimp and snapper -- in a fresh tomato sauce studded with garlic and onions. Three of us whittled away at the mountain to little avail; I happily took the rest home in a box. The seafood cannelloni ($8) took us by surprise: Its menu description made no mention of the spinach with which it was generously stuffed, along with the squid and shrimp. The spinach was lovely and moist with cream sauce, and the whole was topped with melted cheese. My friend pronounced herself quite satisfied with it, despite the institutionally bland side of steamed carrots and zucchini. Straying from seafood momentarily, we also enjoyed the bowtie zidane ($10), toothsome pasta tossed with bright green peas and slivers of sun-dried tomatoes, topped with nuggets of goat cheese.

We didn't fare as well with salads, sad to say. It should be a simple matter to make a simple salad, you'd think, but Quasimodo's salads suffer from either deluge or drought. The dressing on the Caesar salad ($4) was tangy with garlic and Parmesan, but you can have too much of a good thing: Each dripping forkful of drenched lettuce splattered the tablecloth or the unwary diner. The spinach salad ($5), on the other hand, was stingily underdressed despite its generous load of real bacon crumbles and slivers of boiled egg. With the tomato salad ($4) the pendulum swung back to overkill; pale, under-ripe tomato slices were camouflaged by a thick green thatch of minced basil that bore an unfortunate resemblance to lawn clippings. (Who'd have thought you could ever have too much basil?) Of course, these errors in judgment are mostly fixable. Just ask for salad dressing on the side, administer it more judiciously and shovel excess basil to the side of the plate.

Those watching their wallets would be wise to visit Quasimodo's at lunchtime, when plates of pasta are bargain-priced at $6 to $7 instead of $10 to $15. The high end of Quasi's menu is a little pricey for its neighborhood; competent but risk-averse, it suffers by comparison to its Montrose competitors. But if you stick to the budget end of the tariff, the friendly, eccentric eatery could grow on you. There's a lot to be said for a plate of good pasta, a fresh loaf of bread and an inexpensive bottle of California red -- or the novelty value of quaffing a cup of foamy cappuccino in a castle.

Quasimodo's Restaurant, 1985 Welch,(713)522-3809.


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