"To La Belle France whose peasants, fishermen, housewives, and Princes -- not to mention her chefs -- through generations of inventive and loving concentration have created one of the world's great arts."
--Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
For a while, the French had it bad in Houston. Houstonians were gung ho for war. The French were not. So Houstonians boycotted everything French. One by one, many French restaurants closed their doors. Now that the war seems to have been a poor idea, and the French don't seem so bad. The bistros have come back.
Last night, we ate at Cafe Laurier. I like it better than when it first opened. When it first opened several years ago, reservations had to be made days in advance. The steak and frites was mediocre -- the steak was tough and the frites were uninspired. I could grill a far better, more flavorful steak at home for about $20 less. Worse, there were almost no French wines on the list. What is a bistro without Cotes du Rhone or Chateauneuf du Pape? I decided not to return.
But we did return. I can report great improvement.
Two weeks ago, the braised lamb shank had wonderful broth. It had been cooked a long time and was very tender. A baby beet salad was very petite and cute -- perhaps a bit too precious. The salad did not have much flavor apart from the beets, but the small white beets were wonderful -- al dente and sweet. My wife had a salad involving shaved fennel. TRENDY FOOD ALERT! -- everyone is serving raw shaved fennel suddenly. Why? Fennel is a wonderful vegetable, but it has much more flavor grilled than raw.
Last night we started with mussels with aoli (let's be honest and call it mayo) and french fries piled on top. The key to mussels is a good broth, and the broth was very flavorful. The french fries and mayo created an interesting texture contrast. My wife had a goat cheese salad. It was not terribly inventive, but it had very tasty sherry vinaigrette and candied pecans. I had a shitake and chanterelle risotto that was possibly the best mushroom risotto I have had outside of Italy. So many chefs do risotto wrong. Risotto is not rice pilaf. The rice should retain its texture, but should marry the broth, with the texture of the rice beginning to bleed into the broth. By this standard, this risotto was perfect. The broth is the key to flavor in a risotto and this broth was creamy, salty, and wonderful.
Wine. The wine list is bigger, but it still has very few Fench wines. That makes no sense. When I think of bistro food, I can taste a Rhone wine. Laurier had almost no rhone wines, but they did have a lot of California syrahs, Australia shiraz, and other rhone-style wines like California Mouvedre. California and the Ausies do a good job with Rhone varietals, but it just doesn't have that same herby, earthy rhone taste. We settled for a Bethel Heights Pinot Noir from the Williamette Valley in Oregon. In the $40 range, it was a bargain. I hear that the Williamette Valley is the next big thing for Pinot Noir. The wines I have had from Williamette are consistently interesting, earthy, fruity, and a great value. I have bad luck with Burgundian pinots. They have too much character and usually not enough fruit. I have the opposite problem with pinots from Napa and Sonoma -- fruity, but lacking in character, overly alcoholic, and monolithic. Williamette Valley pinots strike a nice balance.
The crowd and Julia Child. The crowd at Laurier was in the 45 - 65 range. Apart from two 20-somethings eating with Mom and Dad, we were the only people under 40. Why does that middle aged generation so love French bistros? I speculate that it is because of Julia Child. Growing up in the late Fifties and Sixties, their mothers believed and taught the family that Julia Child was high cuisine. And Julia was high cuisine -- compared to the mass produced crap that Americans began to eat in the Fifties. That generation thinks of a cold December day, they think of missing the comforts of Mom and home, they think of Julia-inspired food, and they head for their nearest bistro.
Music and dining. In both recent visits, Laurier was playing Bebel Gilberto. I like Bebel Gilberto. But I worry that she will become the next Gypsy Kings. In 1993, every restaurant in Houston played all-Gypsy Kings, all the time. Now it is poor Bebel. What a shame. Such a pretty voice.
Other bistros. Cafe Laurier is not the best bistro in Houston. There are several other bistros that compete for that title:
-Le Mistral is my favorite. The menu changes seasonally, and every dish I have had in 8 - 10 visits has been flavorful and very innovative, yet still French. This is not Julia Child fare. The wine list is predominantly French and may be the second best French list in town. The proprietors are brothers from southern France and one of them turned me on to the wonderful wines of Bandol, made from the Mouvedre grape. My only complaint -- Le Mistral is far outside the beltway on the west side. Outside the loop is for mass-produced chains. Really good restaurants should be required to move inside the Loop.
-Cafe Rabelais is almost as good as Le Mistral. Their French-only wine list is even better. The food is perhaps more traditional. The ingredients are outstanding. My only complaint -- the small dining room and the lack of reservations makes this one of the hardest tables to get in Houston. You can wait in their wine bar -- but it is two blocks from the restaurant. And it's December. It's not like we are in Boston, but it is still cold.
-Bistro Moderne is so chic and modern that it really is not a bistro. The chef is very creative. His crab and avocado bombe -- a lime green dome of avocado filled with fresh crab -- is one of the most unusual and wonderful dishes in town. The wine list is interesting and ecclectic, but it does not have enough French wines. Moderne has great bistro-inspired food, but the trendy hip vibe and the California wines don't make it feel like a real bistro.
-Gravitas bills itself as something like an American Bistro (a hint of Francophobia?). It is new, and it might become one of the best bistros in Houston. The chef -- Scott Tycer of Aries -- is one of the two or three best chefs in town. This is his casual restaurant. At this point, the service is spotty. The volume is deafening. The wine list is global and not very French. The food is somewhat precious -- lots of shaved fennel. But the beef bourguignonne may be the best in town. It is slow cooked in a great broth and topped with small diced vegetables and some fried onions. The fried onions put it over the top.
-Bistro Le Cep is as good as it gets for the Julia Child crowd. This is the place to take mom. I would describe the food as country French -- the style that La Madeline massacred. The proprietor used to run Rotisserie for Beef and Bird, so he knows how to please the greying crowd. I had the best Coq au Vin I have had in Houston there. When I first visited, the wine list had about 10 wines. Then they brought in much of the cellar from Rotisserie, which was one of the best in Hosuton. I have not visited Le Cep for the past year, but I am hoping they have taken over many of allocations from Rotisserie. WARNING -- outside the Loop.
-Bistro Provence. This was one of the few bistros that weathered the anti-French craze in Houston. Although not terribly innovative, the food is country French, very traditional, and very good. Bistro Provence plays well with the Julia Child crowd. They have the best escargot in Houston. They also have the most authentic bistro atmosphere in Houston. Too bad they had to close their location inside the loop. WARNING -- outside the Loop.