Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ruggles Revisited

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

Emerson did not distinguish between a foolish consistency and a wise consistency. So how do we judge consistency and lack of change in a restaurant?

In 1988, I thought the best restaurant in Houston might be Ruggles Grill on Westheimer. Ruggles had a signature style. Chef Bruce Molzan's dishes incorporated southwestern, Californian, and Metiterranean cuisine into a bistro concept. They frequently used staple ingredients -- sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese, grilled vegetables. Plus you could always identify a Ruggles dish against a dish from any other restaurant because of dinstinctive features: the portion size, the distinctive flakes of parmesan or parsley around the edge of the plate, and the ubiquitous grilled vegetables as a side. Equally identifiable were the desserts -- always over the top and bigger than your head.

Ruggles was about fresh ingredients, minimizing the use of sauces, and a signature style.

Then my romance with Ruggles wained. By the mid 1990s, the food was not evolving, portions were too big, and the staff -- particularly at the hostess desk -- was terribly rude and obnoxious. After finally walking out because of a downright nasty hostess, I decided not to return.

Recently I did return. Thankfully, the waistaff and the hostesses are much nicer. But nothing else has changed. The decor, the loud volume, the huge portions, remain the same. The menu looks the same too. All of the signature ingredients are still there: lots of sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and those grilled vegetables.

On one recent visit, I ordered a special -- grilled rack of lamb. The lamb was simply grilled with rosemary. It came with a huge side of all the usual Ruggles grilled vegetables. This dish was good, classic Ruggles, but not innovative or interesting. An appetizer of seared tuna sashimi was very tasty, but it gave me deja vu. Plus, the name of the dish is contradictory. In 2006 diners are educated enough to know that a dish cannot be both "sashimi" (raw) and "seared."

On another visit, I ordered a Moroccan Grilled chicken breast. There was little about it that was "Moroccan." It came with garlic, olives, goat cheese, and sun dried tomatoes in a very light butter sauce. Although it was served with a little couscous on the side, the dish did not taste like Morocco, but like classic late 80s cooking from California. Which means it tasted like Ruggles in 1988. A wild mushroom soup was also excellent, but it had not changed from the last time I tried it over a decade ago.

On one hand, I do not get how a restaurant can have such a flash of uniqueness and creativity in a short period, and then remain the same for 20 years. Surely Chef Bruce must have had some new ideas about cooking in the past 20 years.

On the other hand, there is something quaint and nostalgic about a restaurant that freezes in time -- like Yale Street Grill is frozen in 1924, Barbecue Inn is frozen in 1946, and Ruggles Grill is frozen in 1988. It is comforting to know that, in our lifetimes, Ruggles may never change. We can always have the 1980s, and eat them too.

In 2006, Ruggles is not the best restaurant in Houston. Not even close. But it is consistent.

So is that foolish or wise?

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