Usually my problem is how to express what I have to say; seldom am I at a loss for what to say. But I've been floundering around for several days now--way past my deadline--trying to figure out what there is to say about Cafe Sierra, a new restaurant on Greenville Avenue.

There's simply not that much to tell you. It's a new restaurant, but there's nothing new about it. I can rationalize that--you can hardly expect a totally fresh approach; after all, there are only a few good restaurant ideas in the world, and they've all been used. (Just to be safe, Cafe Sierra uses a whole bunch of them.)

But restaurants are like people, though; none of them is completely unique. No two are exactly the same, either. You do expect something distinctive about a place. A restaurant requires some evident raison d'aller, needs to fill some niche besides the landlord's.

Speaking of which...Cafe Sierra is where By George used to be. So the landlord's happy. It's in an undecided block of Greenville; in a way, a very established part of the street--just up from the Grape and GBG, businesses you assume will be around as long as the city. But across the street is a block of more tentative ventures--"antique" and art stores, and a liquor store.

Inside, Cafe Sierra is a classic Lower Greenville space with that particular funky charm that endures and shows through the veneer of trend. Fifteen years ago, the pressed tin ceiling would have been painted black, not blue; the limestone columns would have been glass brick; there would have been neon instead of a painted Southwestern frieze on the wall. But the bones of the place would have been the same--high ceilings, several levels (up to the bar, down to the tables, up to the booths), two tall walls of windows. It's a comfortable, spacious room, a pleasant place to sit and sip, and I just wish the food provided a more compelling reason to go there. And made better copy, too.

Of course, there's no compelling reason not to go there, either. That wishy-washiness is precisely the problem.

Like most kitchens today, Cafe Sierra's is inspired by that mythical place, Santa-Fe-by-the-Sea. The menu is a combination of Mediterranean and Southwestern, which comes down to pasta and pizza topped with cilantro and infused with smoke. There are a couple versions of what I mentally file as "Greenville Avenue pasta," because so many cafs and ex-cafs on Greenville seem to make similar conglomerations of too many ingredients bound with gloppy cream. ("Smoked chicken tossed with fusilli, red onions, greens, and chili cream; prosciutto tossed with linguine, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, and goat cheese cream.") It's hard to tell what a dish is "about"; there are too many subplots, too many characters.

The kitchen here attempts to balance so many flavors that the end effect is to cancel them all out. A sandwich combined thin slices of deli turkey, laid on the grill for a minute, with sauted mushrooms, a nice assortment of greens, and sun-dried tomato mayonnaise which unfortunately soaked into the foccacia, sort of a mess with nothing distinctive about it. There's nothing wrong with this sandwich, exactly, but there's nothing right, either. It just tastes confused.

At dinner, we started with crostini and smoked salmon, and if we'd stopped there, or if the dinner had followed the appetizers' lead, I'd have a different attitude about Cafe Sierra. Crisp toast piled with slippery sauteed mushrooms and goat cheese married tartness with a satisfying meatiness. The smoked salmon, rosy ribbons of fish served with pita, more goat cheese, capers, and red onion, made a nice beginning, too. Both dishes had just enough substance to take the edge off the appetite, while at the same time their strong, teasing flavors made you want to eat more.

But after that little taste of excitement, nothing. The next best things we tried were the pizzas. Cafe Sierra has a wood-fired pizza oven, which every place but Jack In the Box has now (I wish I had a piece of the wood-fired oven business). But these ovens do turn out the best pizzas. And even though Cafe Sierra's were not the best pizzas, the ones we tried were fine, ranging from a standard margherita pie with sliced Roma tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, to the newly ubiquitous BBQ chicken pizza and the Sierra pizza--smoked chicken, black beans, colby-jack combo cheese, cilantro, and sour cream.

We liked our salad, too, with a house dressing called artichoke vinaigrette. The leaves were varied, dry, crisp and cool; the dressing herbal and lemony. Fish entrees were entirely disappointing. Salmon was sliced thin, nearly Japanese-style, which makes it almost impossible to cook without drying it out, and sure enough...it came with quartered artichoke hearts and overcooked orzo, relieved with fresh greens. Swordfish, naturally a dry fish anyway, suffered the same desiccating treatment, and it came with wild rice pilaf, which is nearly always a mistake.

At lunch, we tried the other two appetizers: blue cornmeal-crusted calamari with mild aioli and quesadillas. Blue corn grinds finer than yellow and doesn't get as hard when it's fried. This produced a cat-litter colored coating with a gravelly texture around the calamari, which had no taste whatsoever. The quesadillas, griddled in butter with little chicken bits and thin slivers of tomato inside, were served with pink sour cream that turned out to be blended with salsa. The pork chop plate brought more orzo, this time "Peloponnese," which seemed to mean that the little pasta bullets were flavored with oil and oregano. The three pork chops were striped black from the grill, but the meat was still juicy and pink. Altogether, a decent dish, but the best of Cafe Sierra's food was smack-dab middle of the road.

We were not an easy table to serve--one member of our party arrived late, after we'd already ordered. Then some had to leave early, so we ate in stages, a meal that would tax most waiters' attention spans and did ours.

We took a couple of desserts to go from our first visit, further confusing our waiter. Perhaps that's why he put the slice of chocolate cake in a box that had previously held fish, or at least that's the kindest explanation we could come up with for the incredibly unpleasant odor that hit the nose when we opened the styro clamshell. We tried the cake again on the later lunch visit and there was no similar problem, although the cake, several dry layers glued together with stiff buttercream, chilled as a cake never should be, reminded us more of Pepperidge Farm's frozen ones than anything else.

I don't know what to say. Put it in body language: Cafe Sierra inspires a shrug, a waggle of the hand, instead of a definite thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

Cafe Sierra, 2900 Greenville Ave., 827-1813. Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-11 p.m., open Friday 11 a.m.-midnight, open Saturday 10 a.m.-midnight, open Sunday 10 a.m.-11 p.m.

Cafe Sierra:

Crostini with wild mushrooms and goat cheese $3.95
Pan seared salmon on a bed of orzo with artichokes, capers, tomatoes, and fresh greens $13.25

BBQ chicken pizza $8.25
Smoked salmon with goat cheese, capers and thinly sliced mushrooms $5.95


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