Lunching in downtown Houston is nothing if not a Darwinistic ordeal. You're competing with many fellow apes for a precious few sources of acceptable sustenance, rushing to, rushing through, rushing back to whatever odious treadmill you were on in the first place. Do much of this and you will experience a range of emotions remarkably similar to what those ambitious monkey troops must have felt after they first descended from the treetops and stood up. To wit:
* Frustration. How can a restaurant look as fetching as the historic Pillot Cafe and still manage to bore the pants off you? Nineteenth-century surroundings can't mitigate a hackneyed menu and such affronts to the system as a grilled-chicken Caesar salad with weary lettuce and a dressing that tastes like nothing. Cesar Cardini, may his anchovy-and-garlic-happy soul rest in peace, would be horrified, and so am I.
* Perplexity. What's missing from Vespucci's New World Pasta? This relatively new spot near the central library has sleek, contemporary looks and makes nods toward modern eating habits (read: the occasional black bean, lots of olive oil, chicken and more chicken). Unfortunately, the chicken involved turns out to be boneless, sauteed slices with a dryish, industrial texture that garlic and olive oil can't cure. It's a pity, because chicken Arrabiata is a lively idea, based on penne pasta quills tossed in more of that garlicky olive oil and plenty of feisty red pepper. A wreath of lush, skinless Roma tomatoes sits on top, their flavor released by a brief dose of heat. Your basic lasagna is far less compelling: its sprightly meat sauce was undermined on a recent noon by a ricotta filling that had assumed the texture of dry sponge. And why, in a town where great bread is rampant, would you bother to serve individual loaves of cotton batting? Best to try the soup du jour, perhaps a basil-laced cream of tomato, rather than the limp green salad with an overly aggressive vinaigrette. Bottom line: ambitious place with big lunchtime crowds and some puzzling shortcomings.
* Utter Desperation. You have 15 minutes in which to eat. Go directly to the Hot Tropics kiosk athwart the Harris County courthouses. Order a beef hot dog with mustard and relish. Try not to mind that the skin has the texture of an elderly iguana. Wonder what any of this, besides the iguana allusion, has to do with the tropics. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
-- Alison Cook
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Pillot Cafe, 1012 Congress, 222-9090; Vespucci's New World Pasta, 1120 Smith, 655-1120.