Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Chez Roux - elegance in an inelegant land

A beautiful restaurant on Lake Conroe?

When I think of Lake Conroe, I think of beer joints and all-you-can-eat buffets. The last thing I think is fine dining.

Perhaps that is why it took me a year to go to Chez Roux - a restaurant full of contradictions and surprises. The restaurant is in a gorgeous new structure next to the La Torretta Del Lago Resort.

The design is contemporary -- and focused on the product. The first thing you see in the center of the room is a giant, glass-enclased room with floor-to-ceiling wine racks, filled with wine. The next thing you notice is all the activity in the open kitchen. You can see parts of the kitchen from almost anywhere in the restaurant.

It feels like a high-end restaurant in London or New York. It feels like the last thing you would ever find on Lake Conroe.

Minimalist preparation, concentrated flavors

The food is contemporary, simple, and ingredient-focused. Most impressive is the concentration of flavors. The kitchen must have a Wonkavision device that shrinks big dishes to tiny bites, concentrating the flavor.

Consider this tiny pork belly beignet with grain mustard ice cream and turnip salad:

The cylinder of pork was about the size of a silver dollar. Yet the pork flavor was intense and accentuated -- not overcome -- by cumin. Similarly concentrated was the mustard flavor of the ice cream.

My wife passed me her Peeky Toe Maine stone crab with an asparagus and pea salad. She wanted to see if the crab "tasted ok." It was some of the most flavorful crab I have tried. She was concerned because it had a strong sea flavor -- and so much of the crab we have in Houston is bland and flavorless.

She was tasting the real flavor of crab for the first time.

Despite a few dabs of foam and chives, the crab was served without any accents. It didn't need them. Nor did these beautifully seared Massachusetts sea scallops:

Sea bass was nicely prepared with flaky flesh and crispy skin. But the flavor star of the dish was a "fondue" of green olives and vanilla gastric. The simple, punget flavors married well with the interesting textures of the fish.

Where the heck are we?

As I ate these dishes, I kept having to pinch myself as a reminder that we were still on Lake Conroe -- not transported by magic to London or Paris.

Yet there were reminders of Lake Conroe.

As we entered the restaurant, a noticeably drunk group stumbled in behind us. They carried plastic cups full of beer. Their shirts were untucked and they were red-faced from a day of golfing, boating and drinking Bud on the Lake. They slurred their words with boozy Texas accents. Then the bedraggled group was seated at the best seat in the house -- the Chef's table ($800 minimum).

Our charming waitress had a thick Texas twang, which she tried to cover with some faux European pronunciations. I thought she might be from Louisiana. It turns out that she was from Montgommery, Texas -- a small town on the banks of Lank Conroe.

The tables near us weren't ordering the same delicate dishes of crab and sea bass. No, they ordered the $96 Black Angus rib eye, more than 2 lbs. of thick meat.

It fit the stereotype: rich Texans without taste who love a giant steak.

I'm no snob. A giant steak can be glorious. It just isn't what I would order here.

The only thing wrong is the place

Chez Roux is one of the best restaurants in the Houston area. But it doesn't fit. It belongs in the middle of one of the world's great cities. It appeals to the sensibilities of that audience.

But these fancy ingredients cooked in French style ain't ever gonna appeal to the Lake Conroe crowd. And it is hard to see the restaurant changing the crowd that goes to Lake Conroe.

I only hope that time proves me wrong.


Rubiao said...

That is exactly the impression I got after reading the name/location/idea. I'm sure its wonderful, but it still seems like a strange setting. In Europe, people travel to special restaurants in the countryside. In Texas, things are kind of far apart, and the passion is for bold flavors (not to feed the stereotype or anything) like bbq and Mexican rather than subtle accents and fancy techniques. Hopefully we will grow into it.

The one thing that surprised me was the scoring of that fish. Either that is some classic technique that has eluded me thus far, or the chef has an hilarious sense of humor. Reminds me of an old bugs bunny episode.

anonymouseater said...

Rubiao - That's funny. Somehow I didn't notice that the fish is XXX rated.

When I score fish skin, I usually make something like X marks, but usually not so explicitly.

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