Ragazza (**½)

Posted on January 1st, 2004 in Houston,Restaurant Reviews by mynagirl

Ragazza

920 Studemont

Houston TX 77007

713 864 3700

We’ve been meaning to try this place since it originally opened as The Rivendell, but the Rivendell closed down so quickly we never got a chance. The new joint, Ragazza, shows the hallmarks of being a vulturous re-incarnation — the strategy is that you let the other guy pour all the money into the fixtures and furnishings and opening the place, then let him spend but not recover enough money to keep the place open, and you then swoop in and set up your own shop at rock-bottom prices without even having to hire a decorator.

The location is a bit odd and may have contributed to the Rivendell’s tough time of it — it’s in the new strip center at the Southeast corner of Montrose and Washington. The neighborhood is definitely going upscale, with the new townhomes and nice apartment houses, but the décor of the restaurant aims a bit too high for a strip center restaurant… even a nice, new, stucco strip center. Even in non-zoned Houston, where eclectic is the name of the game, a stand-alone structure is usually an easier sell than the corner shop at a non-established retail center next to an eyeglass place.

Although the place looked uninviting from the outside (the wood blinds are drawn against the late afternoon sunshine), once inside, Ragazza’s ambiance was very cozy and welcoming on a quiet Thursday evening after work. The ambiance is sort of James Bond ski lodge: pale yellow walls, exposed stone pillars, and really nice cushy half-moon booths for good conversation. As I mentioned, the place definitely aims for upscale: a baby grand piano is just inside the entrance, and waiter was crisply dressed and quite attentive.

After having eaten and paid for an entire meal there, however, I have to say that Ragazza has the feel like they swooped in to buy the upscale restaurant space but they’re not ready (or they don’t have the funding to be) a restaurant at the level that they or their prices aim to be. Please keep in mind that while I’ve worked in several restaurants throughout my life, they were places like “Goodall’s Country Restaurant” and “Goofy’s”… I’m no real expert on white linen cuisine, although a four-year stint in consulting and the fact that I do like to eat has turned me in to something of an aficionado of eating out. Engineerboy, however, has some experience with the business side of finer dining, and so my case before you is based on both our perceptions and conversation about the meal.

Our meal consisted of:

Italian bread with dipping sauce

Glass of Pinot Grigio (for me)

Shrimp bisque

Mushroom Ravioli with Grilled Shrimp

Meal total, before tip: $57

Sorry, I should be able to tell you we each ordered a different appetizer and main dish, but we didn’t; how boring is that?!

First off, the service was excellent; they’re definitely hitting the mark in that category. But the rest of the meal is where I feel they don’t live up to what they promise when you walk in the door and with the prices you see on the menu. The complimentary bread was tasty but served in a tiny bowl and not refilled unless asked. The dipping sauce was olive oil with spices — good but it would benefit it if they would go the extra step to use fresh garlic instead of garlic paste or garlic powder. We both agreed the bisque was ordinary, barely a notch above a canned soup. It wasn’t horrible, maybe a canned tomato soup base made with a heavy cream, and the shrimp chunks in it were of a decent size, definitely fresh grilled shrimp. But it was overly peppered, no more subtle flavors thrown in there. I definitely didn’t taste the sherry accent that was promised on the menu. The mushroom ravioli was tasty in a yummy cream sauce, but Scott didn’t think his pasta was quite hot enough (I didn’t notice anything wrong with mine, temperature-wise, so I guess mine were fine). And the mushrooms inside just seemed to be ordinary mushrooms, nothing more exotic or woodsy woven in the dish for extra flavor.

With all the dining choices in Houston, it seems to me that Ragazza, for $57 before tip, should have given their dishes that extra little bit of zip, love, creativity, spice, or whatever to live up to the fancy décor, the great waitstaff, and the mid-market prices. Otherwise they’re going to have trouble doing any better than Rivendell, and we might yet live to see their successor… The Ravenswood.

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