Saturday, June 13, 2009
What's wrong with French food in Houston
So often, Houston French restaurants feel like American restaurants using French recipes. It is hard to find food that actually tastes like France.
You can't fault the restaurants. It is the entire American food distribution system. Our producers focus on scale, not quality. Ingredients here are rarely as good as in France.
Even the local, organic movement in America cannot compete with the quality as the French farmer. We lack the tradition, the culture, and the years of practice in perfecting the quality ingredient.
So when a restaurant pulls off a real French experience -- even just the experience of eating at a small Parisian bistro -- it is remarkable.
Au Petit Paris is almost a little bit of Paris
Au Petit Paris almost feels like a French bistro. It is located in an old converted house on a residential street. Each dining room is small, and a little cramped, like Paris. The walls are filled with Parisian photos. The restaurant tries hard to invoke Paris.
Yet this is not quite Paris. At one table a West U woman cackles loudly with a Texas accent. She has had a little too much white burgundy. At another table, two doctors are competing to dominate the conversation. On a busy night, the tiny restaurant is so noisy with loud Americans, that it can be hard to hear yourself.
A front patio offers outdoor seating. Yet Houston weather would destroy any illusion that you might actually be in Paris.
High quality ingredients, simple presentation, and a touch of innovation
The menu looks a bit dull. Most of the dishes are what you would expect from a bistro -- French Onion soup, escargot, mussels, duck confit, rack of lamb. And the kitchen sticks to traditional French preparations.
Yet the strength of this food is in the high quality of ingredients, simply prepared, with just enough innovation to impress.
Consider the signature dish, sautéed sea scallops. On one corner of the plate are three deliciously fresh (but not particularly large) scallops, each accented with a sliver of bacon wedged in the middle. In another corner are unadorned asparagus. And in the third corner is a puree of cauliflower, curry, and mustard. The flavors of the scallop, bacon, and asparagus are pure and simple, emphasizing the quality of each ingredient. The spiced puree adds an exotic note that sends your imagination off in another direction.
Just as good are the Burgundian escargots. Most American French restaurants serve escargot drowning in butter. Here, they served in tiny pastry shells designed to barely fit the snail. The genius of the dish is a garlic and herb broth that gets drawn up into the pastry shell.
Similarly, goat cheese salads appear too often on Houston menus. Yet here, the goat cheese is toasted on French bread, giving it a delightful crunch. It is served with a mesclun salad and a delicious rosemary honey dressing.
The kitchen is especially good with desserts. A light and fluffy chocolate mousse is infused with grand marnier and served with rich pieces of chocolate and tangy pieces of candied orange zest.
The real strength of this restaurant is its skill in buying ingredients. Many Houston chefs would kill to product this good.
A note on prices and the wine list
The menu prices may seem high, especially given the refreshingly small portions.
Fortunately, the food price is offset somewhat with a reasonably-priced French wine list. The list lacks the high-dollar wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy that distinguish some other French wine lists in Houston. But it does have a good variety of commonly available wines from those regions that are under $100, many under $40. It also has a decent selection of wines from the Rhone, Alsace, Champagne, and Languedoc. It is not a wine-destination restaurant. But it is nice to see one Houston restaurant with a decent selection of inexpensive French wines.