Sneak Preview

Birraporetti's is in the process of reinventing itself -- a notion to which many who have endured the conveniently located restaurant's exceedingly average food and decor over the years will say "amen." They've junked that schizoid motto, "A Great Italian Restaurant, A Heck of an Irish Bar." They've snared a Dallas chef, Jim Mills, with cutting-edge bona fides from the Mansion on Turtle Creek. They've secured the services of Randall Walker -- the Kirksey-Meyers interiors whiz whose work, from Lagniappe to Mesa, is newly hot -- to revamp the tired River Oaks Shopping Center location and design a brave new restaurant on the corner of Post Oak and San Felipe.

The results -- or the beginnings thereof -- are on display every Sunday at the River Oaks site, where the brunch buffet serves as the culinary version of a movie sneak preview: "over 40 feet of specialties," as the ads say with a straight face, many of them in tryouts for chef Mills' future menu. A graze through the line confirms that the food will be more interesting under the Mills regime (how could it be less interesting?), but the buffet format's inherent drawbacks make it hard to say just how good the new incarnation will turn out to be.

Certainly it will be handsome: Walker's sleek bar, zoomy lighting and pared-down palette make Birraporetti's vanished advertising signs and stained glass seem but a distant nightmare. "No murals!" a sensitive soul of my acquaintance breathed thankfully; the richly buttery walls are hung instead with respectable modern art and an austere stone-block frieze.

The buffet spread, however, labors under the usual buffet burdens: the inevitability of desiccation and the necessity of providing inexpensive filler. Breads and Danishes are strictly mediocre (this in a city where the art of baking has soared). Grilled fish with a precious garnish of fried linguini proved bland and dry; ricotta-laced macaroni casserole sported an asbestos-tough crust and a ham-handed seasoning of pepperoni.

That's the bad news. The good news is that you can put together a pleasant meal of salads, fresh fruit, thin little flipped-to-order omelets and exceptionally nice custom-made pasta dishes. Linguini with bacon and egg is platonic brunch fare; and capellini sauted on the spot with anchovy paste, garlic and diced tomato is all purity and flavor. A Caesary toss of romaine, radicchio and shaved Parmesan; mozzarella and tomatoes vinaigrette; and marinated black-eyed peas and pintos all get good marks. So do peppery, Parmesan-spiked mashed potatoes and a grilled chicken dish graced with earthy mushrooms and a light Parmesan bechamel. High, soft waffles wilt in chafing-dish captivity, but some pretty decent desserts form a petit four mosaic: tiny carrot cakes, thumb-sized tartlets, caramel-drizzled cream puffs filled with luxurious mascarpone cream.

Chef Mills should be working on an improved tiramisu recipe, though. His new menu is still under construction; until November l, when the Post Oak Birraporetti's is set to open, the jury

s out.

-- Alison Cook

Birraporetti's, 1997 West Gray, 529-9191.

Sunday buffet brunch, $10.95.


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