A Little History
Chef Joe Mannke was born before WWII in the land of Pomerania. Pomerania is a lost country, now divided between Germany and Poland.
In 1978, Mannke opened Rotisserie for Beef and Bird -- a game-based restaurant that many considered to be one of Houston's best restaurants. For the past 8 or so years, he has been the chef/owner of Bistro Le Cep, a French-style cafe on Westheimer at Wilcrest.
The food at Le Cep is high quality and well prepared. It is also very old school. To me, it tastes less like a bistro in France than a French restaurant in America in the 1970s.
But that description doesn't begin to capture the unique cultural experience of eating at Bistro Le Cep on a Saturday night.
A mature crowd?
Over the last four or five years, Le Cep's customers have aged -- a lot. Last night, my wife and I noticed that we were 35 years younger than the average customer. We're 39.
During the course of the evening, we began to wonder whether these customers were mature. On one side of us, a 50-ish man was dining with his father, who was turning 72. The son was a regular. The Depression-era father was shocked by the prices. "Fourteen dollars for chicken!?" He special-ordered a plain grilled chicken breast and French fries. When the son tried to get the restaurant to bring Dad a birthday cake, the older man had a fit. Too much excess. As they left, the father exclaimed that he could not believe the son had paid "forty dollars!" for the meal.
On the other side were five women. The oldest was a dead ringer for Dr. Ruth Westheimer -- except she was Catholic. She talked a lot about her priest. She also talked a lot about Hilary Clinton. Loudly, she called her a "prostitute" and a "whore." It was her birthday. She let the restaurant bring a cake and sing "Happy Birthday."
Speaking of music, a restaurant can't be elegant unless it has an accordion player.
Le Cep's accordionist wasn't the type to hang back in a corner and play quiet gypsy tunes. He was more the stalker-type accordionist. He would go table-to-table and look with great passion at the diners while he played. For some reason, Le Cep's customers all seemed to like that.
The music he played was not the sort of music you would hear in a bistro in France. Instead, it was the kitschy sort of music you might expect to hear in a 70s-era French restaurant in America. He segued from "La Vie en Rose" to "Frere Jacuqes (Brother John)" to "Somewhere My Love" -- the Russian theme song to Doctor Zhivago.
My wife suddenly looked at me in fear. "Oh my God, he's coming to our table!" Apparently, as he approached, the accordionist saw her look of sheer terror. As I glanced over my sholder, I saw him carefully backing away to the next room, never to return.
Old School Food
Le Cep begins each meal with a rustic hors d'oeuvre of duck liver pate with small toast crisps. My wife -- no pate fan -- thought it tasted like tuna salad.
Our first course was stuffed cherrystone clams. The old-style stuffing reminded me of a cross between Thanksgiving dressing, and the stuffed crab still served at some old-school restaurants, like Barbecue Inn and Gaido's. Although I could taste a hint of clam, the dominant flavor was high-quality chicken broth.
My wife's mussels were a classic preparation with wine broth and tomatoes. In the broth, I detected an unusual alcohol flavor. Although a dry white wine is standard in most mussel preparations, my guess is that this kitchen used vermouth or some other fortified wine. The broth was excellent, but the mussels were of mixed quality.
When walked in the restaurant, I read out loud the catch-of-the-day on the specials board. "Groper." I started to grab my wife, but she didn't appreciate the joke. Still, because of the misspelling, I had to order the grouper, which was oven roasted and served with a simple, light lemon/butter/caper sauce. The good-quality fish was the highlight of the night.
Why I Like Le Cep
Le Cep's food is far from the cutting edge. The atmosphere isn't cool. It isn't even successfully rustic. It is an adorable,uniquely American kitsch.
Le Cep is where we've been. It captures the cliche of American "Continental" dining in the 1970s.
Yet Le Cep is also where we are going. Hopefully, when I'm 77, I will go to my favorite restaurant. My daughter will laugh gently at me for ordering seared tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes. And she will smile at me for listening to the guy walking around the restaurant with a portable synthesizer, belting out Michael Jackson tunes . . . with passion.