Sunday, April 06, 2008
This photo is a rare sight at Cafe Rabelais -- an empty table.
The joy of neighborhood cafes
Houston needs more cafes, bistros, and trattorias -- unpretentious small restaurants that focus on wine, food, and atmosphere without cooking anything too fancy. These types of restaurants usually cater to a particular neighborhood, rather than drawing customers from across the city. The food preparations are usually simple, ingredient-based, and use traditional European techniques rather that cutting-edge cooking styles or ingredients.
In this category I include restaurants like DiVino, Bistro Calais, and Bistro Provence. They are affordable restaurants that are a perfect neighborhood hangout.
Recently, I ate at two good neighborhood French cafes: Cafe Rabelais in Rice Village and AURA Restaurant in Missouri City.
To eat at Cafe Rabelais, the biggest hurdle is the wait. This tiny French cafe in Rice Village does not take reservations. On prime nights, the wait can be over two hours. Is it worth it?
I have tried to eat at Rabelais many times, but have only secured a table about 5 times. The last was the Tuesday night of the primary elections. After caucusing, it was 9:15, and my wife and I thought that Rabelais surely would have an open table. Instead, we had to wait 20 minutes.
Rabelais' food is always competent, always authentic, but rarely challenging or inspiring. I suspect that the kitchen's philosophy is to re-create a high quality French cafe or bistro with simple preparations, quality ingredients, and nothing more. This is not a criticism. I always enjoy the food. But it is hardly special enough to inspire me to wait for two hours.
For instance, one dish on my last visit was characteristic -- a pistachio-crusted rack of lamb served with a plum wine sauce. Although I barely noticed the pistachio crust, the lamb was well prepared. The sauce was based on a traditional French red wine sauce, with bits of fruit added for texture, but not so much for flavor. The sauce was highly competent, but not very lively. It was, however, a perfect foil for red wine.
Wine may be the big selling point for Rabelais, and the reason why the wait is so long. Rabelais has the best French wine list in Houston. Sure, a few pricey Houston restaurants may have more bottles of high-dollar Bourdeaux. But no other list in Houston has the breadth and diversity of this one. It includes thousand-dollar wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, fantastic $40 Rhones from regions like Gigondas and Vacqueryas, and some decent $15 Bourgogne Rouge (These are a bargain now because you can still get 2005s, the best vintage in years).
The other selling point is atmosphere. The space is small. Tables are cramped. Lighting is low. Candles flicker. The walls are cluttered with hundreds of bottles of wine. If you were blindfolded and taken to Rabelais, you would think you were in Paris.
Rabelais may not be worth that two-hour wait, but I will continue to drop in about once a year, late on a Tuesday night, when I am looking for a good neighborhood French restaurant.
AURA is the new home of Chef Perrier, formerly of Cafe Perrier near Highland Village. Warning: It is so far out US59 that you have to drive beyond Sugar Land!
I first grew to love French food eating at Bistro Provence and Cafe Perrier. In 15 years, Chef Perrier's cooking has not changed much. That is not a bad thing. His food is reasonably priced, simple, and accessible.
At AURA, we tried two dishes that Perrier has been cooking for years: escargot; and steamed mussels. The recipes are traditional. The firm-textured escargot arrive in a special escargot plate, with a mini-bowl for each snail. They swim in butter with lots of minced garlic and herbs. The mussels arrive in a large bowl and are mixed with diced tomatoes and a flavorful white-wine broth. Although I liked both dishes, my wife thought the mussels were a little too gritty and had too much smell of ocean funk.
AURA's pork chop is a thick, French-cut chop with a horseradish crust, served with sides of haricot verts and mac'n cheese. I appreciated the quality of the chop, although it was cooked too well done for my taste. The green beans were very fresh, simply prepared, and tasty. But the macaroni side was not much of an improvement over the cafeteria version.
AURA has a well-chosen, mostly-American wine list. I was surprised to find so few French wines on the list, but maybe they are hard to sell out in Missouri City.
The blessing and curse of AURA is its location. On the one hand, it is probably the best restaurant for miles. If I lived in Missouri City, I might go once a month. On the other hand, it is hardly a destination restaurant -- one that justifies the time and expense of a long drive. Still, if you are a fan of Chef Perrier, as I am, it is worth at least one trip.