Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bistro Le Cep -- Old School

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."

Accordion Crimes

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.


plinio said...

haha! i can just imagine it. a seranade with a romantic rendition of "take my breath away" (berlin) on the key-tar!

anonymouseater said...

The thought makes me shudder.

But I could handle Berlin's "The Metro" or "Sex (I'm a...)." Those were cool songs.

Am I showing my age there?

Anonymous said...

Wait...I like "The Metro" as much as the next person. In fact, I like it much more than the next person, probably. But "The Metro" on a key-tar? Unforgiveable.

Anyway, I think it's funny that you and I had such different experiences at Bistro Le Cep. I've never encountered accordians in my many times there (thank God!). Then again, it's the kind of hokey, comforting place that appeals to me for a family dinner with the folks. The food is wonderful as long as you stick with the classic French fare (their calf's liver and rabbit are great), and the servers are very warm and professional.

It's not gonna change your world or anything, but it's a nice little place. :-)

Anonymous said...

well written review. i've considered making the trek out to try BLC, but then i decide to drive another 10 mins to le mistral instead. after reading this, i feel like i've been there, so i'll just mark it off my list now. (i fear the accordion)

Anonymous said...

I think this is the best review I've read from you. Good story, and it was well connected to a larger meaning I think people can connect with.

AmyEmilia said...

I've wondered about this place for a while, and am glad to read a review. Maybe it's time to make a trip there... could be an intriguing experience!

Melina said...

Well, I do not actually believe it is likely to have success.

About A Girl said...

I enjoyed reading your poost