Yes, there's good ol' spaghetti and meatballs ($7.95) on the Semolina menu (the restaurant's name comes from the ground durum wheat flour, called semolino in Italy, which is used to concoct most pasta recipes). But this isn't an Italian restaurant by any means. There's the surprisingly good, fresh-tasting pad thai ($9.95), a crunchy, sweet-and-spicy blend of rice noodles, shrimp, tofu, crushed peanuts, and cilantro, and a delicious Indian-inspired "tandoori" chicken pasta ($8.95), where the chicken isn't actually baked in a clay oven but is sautéed in a curry sauce with raisins, red onions, garlic, and coconut milk.
The food has far more appeal than the actual restaurant, which is only a few notches up from a diner, with its bustling open kitchen, plastic-top tables, and paper napkins. A couple of knickknacks here and there convey the place's "international" theme: An embroidered Mexican sombrero hangs near a gilded Oriental fan. A tiny wooden Hindu statue hangs on one wall, and a set of Mediterranean-style china plates sits on another.
But this halfhearted attempt at "around the world" decor is as phony as the giant papier-mâché fruits and vegetables that burst out of giant metal colanders in various corners of the Semolina dining room. More to the point are the glass Coca-Cola bottles on each table, part of a promotion for international collector bottles the restaurant is offering customers throughout the year (the Thai bottle of Coke is available for $1). No matter what language the Coca-Cola logo is printed in, those bottles still contain the all-American soda pop. And Semolina puts an equally American spin on the cuisine of Italy, Mexico, India, China, and Greece.
That's not to say that the food here isn't hearty, tasty, and reasonably priced. But Pasta Gyro ($7.95) is to traditional Greek cuisine what a frozen pizza roll is to the culinary traditions of Sicily. Not that the dish isn't appetizing -- a concoction of ground lamb, pork, and beef cooked with peppers, onions, and sun-dried tomatoes served on a bed of fat rigatoni noodles and topped with bits of salty feta cheese, whole olives, and dill-yogurt sauce (called "zitziki" here).
At least dishes such as Pasta Gyro and Chicken Enchilada Pasta ("in a tortilla cheese sauce"; $8.95) are not only recognizable but also edible. The same can't be said for the crusty ball of dried sponge that arrives with the salads, passing itself off as bread. When this restaurant first opened, dinners started with a little loaf of warm, mediocre bread and a plastic ramekin of garlicky herbed butter. The loaf has been replaced by something much worse, a tasteless roll with the consistency of Styrofoam. Not even the flavored butter can disguise the roll's sheer nothingness.
The house salad (which costs an additional $1.99 with each entrée) is hardly better. The Semolina Caesar is a bunch of nearly wilted, overdressed greens liberally dusted with grated Parmesan. Blah! A much better choice is the Malibleu Beach Salad, which blends green-apple slices, raisins, and walnuts with blue-cheese crumbles and sun-dried tomatoes in a piquant balsamic vinaigrette ($3.95 for a small version, $6.95 for the larger size).
The menu, a veritable United Nations of noodle dishes, is divided into "Land," "Sea," and "Old Country" sections, although it's easy to quibble with macaroni and cheese's or fettuccine Alfredo's falling into the "Old Country" category. Both are strictly American inventions and are no more "old country" than are hot dogs or deep-dish apple pie. At Semolina, though, the Macaroni and Cheese Cake ($5.75) is baked into a drum-shape pan, cut into wedges, heated up, and served with a thick, cheddary sauce. It's actually a very good variation on a familiar theme.
To Semolina's credit, the service and kitchen staff is willing to tread on unfamiliar themes if the customer proves demanding. The restaurant's Web page notes that each restaurant will "customize your selections to suit your individual taste or dietary need." That skill proved necessary on a recent visit, when a dining companion couldn't decide between chicken marsala ($10.95) and the Primo Veggie Pasta (with mushrooms, artichoke hearts, pesto, and black olives; $8.75).
"Could I get, instead, two chicken breasts cooked with artichoke hearts and mushrooms over fettuccine Alfredo?" he asked.
Although his request bore no resemblance to any listed dish on the Semolina menu, the server didn't bat an eyelash and wrote it down as directed. The customized dish arrived just as it had been ordered, and the fussy diner proclaimed it "absolutely delicious."
The food is better than average here, artfully presented by a team of young, chatty servers (on one visit we got, unsolicited, our student waitress' entire life story, which might have been tolerable if only it had been interesting). The eggplant Parmesan pasta ($8.75) was disappointing; the tiny "medallions" of fried eggplant (the size of an espresso saucer) were overcooked and chewy. But the New Orleans-style Pasta Jambalaya ($9.95), with spicy andouille sausage, chicken, and tart gouda cheese, was delicious.
Our server confessed that only one of the international desserts is made at the restaurant: a wedge of bread pudding served warm with a luscious buttery rum sauce ($4.25). It's the best of the lot, which includes a bland cheesecake ($4.25) and a tasty, but oddball, concoction called a Mont Blanc ($4.95). This dessert consists of a big ball of fat-free (and dull-tasting) chocolate gelato on a circle of "dark Swiss chocolate cake," which looked and tasted exactly like something created in an EZ-Bake oven. It was shrouded in a cloud of shiny "fresh" whipped cream that tasted remarkably like the canned stuff. According to the Semolina menu, this Mont Blanc is a Viennese confection. But then again, so is an old operetta called The Pink Lady, and it's just as sticky and sweet.
It's probably unkind, but not unfair, to call Semolina an "international house of pasta." The place lacks style, but the food, priced for value and served in generous portions, has some dazzle. Sure, it may not be a cosmopolitan experience, but as an international adventure, it's just as legitimate as a visit to the faux foreign lands at Walt Disney World's EPCOT -- and cheaper.
Contact Charles Ferruzza at 816-218-6925 or email@example.com.
Semolina International Pasta Restaurant7070 W. 105th St., OPKS, 913-381-7172.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat.