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There are plenty of restaurants in Houston that call themselves bistros, but most of them do so simply because they think the word adds a certain Continental sheen to the same old fare. But when folks refer to Europa, a hidden gem near Rice Village, by that Left Bank term, they're simply being accurate. No cafe in town more authentically exemplifies the spirit of the traditional French neighborhood place than Europa (which doesn't even claim the bistro title in its name). Located in a converted West U bungalow, the small, unpretentious place with no more than 45 spots for diners at its tiny, forest-green-granite topped tables truly seems from another land.
Europa's modest menu features the same kind of uncomplicated yet filling dishes that make a genuine French bistro its regular patrons' home away from home. In France, locals used the corner bistro as an extension of their own flats, hosting meals there and even keeping their own napkins in special holders. There was a practical reason for that -- until recently, many French apartments lacked kitchen facilities -- but there was a convivial reason as well. It helped create a sense of community.
Americans don't share this tradition, but Europa's owners, Elena Majnach D'Elia and her husband Orlando, do. The D'Elias are natives of Argentina, and in Argentina, as Elena explains, "we have many, many immigrants from Europe" from whom certain customs were learned. At Europa, she's decided not just to carry on the customs, but also to adopt dishes from many of the transplants. Married to an Italian-Argentine, and herself the daughter of a Belorussian deli owner from Buenos Aires and the niece of cooks from the former Yugoslavia, D'Elia always wanted to explore her pan-European culinary connections. When her chemical engineer husband was hired by a Houston-based oil company in the early '90s, she got her chance. "I am too hyperactive to stay at home," she says. So the couple found the yellow-brick house on Nottingham, and in September 1992 Elena opened her bistro.
In the manner of a true neighborhood cafe, Europa features home-style cooking and basic, traditional recipes that require no special equipment or expertise. The dishes rely on consistency and good-quality ingredients for their success. Since this midrange palette of tastes runs counter to the prevailing culinary trend, which emphasizes the so-called "Big Flavors," some adventurous diners might find Europa's preparations less than satisfying. But the less daring, or trendy, tired of finding their taste buds in a losing struggle with incendiary chiles or obscure herbs, will probably find Europa's simplicity a welcome relief.
For starters the homemade lentil soup ($3.25), one of the rotating daily specials, is a much appreciated light version of an often too-substantial cottage favorite. Here the clear broth allows the basic tastes of the lentils, onion and celery to carry the dish. And even the somewhat bacon-y Italian minestrone ($3.25), with its unusual combination of celery, carrots, cabbage and black-eyed peas made just pungent enough with bay leaves, follows the same pattern. But what works with the hot soups is a drawback when it comes to the gazpacho ($3.25). Although served with a little side dish of diced fresh tomato, onion and green bell pepper suitable for mixing, the cold tomato and vegetable puree is too bland to make much of an impression one way or the other. The same can be said of the red sauce on several otherwise perfectly acceptable Italian entrees: The lasagna a la Padana ($7.65) and both the chicken and corn cannelloni ($7.95 each) could use a bit of spicing up.
Both the green-and-red cabbage cole slaw ($2.75), which accompanies a number of dishes even when not mentioned on the menu, and the Dutch egg salad ($5.25) -- fresh tomato rounds, slices of hard-boiled egg, dime-size dill pickle bits, a sprinkle of capers and a pentagon of anchovies -- labor under what I found to be a too-generous helping of tame, Northern European-style mayonnaise, though I have to admit that a companion less enamored of strong flavors considered the soothing blanket of dressing just right.
There was no difference of opinion about the downy-light yet satisfyingly crispy crust on the appetizer empanadas ($2.35). This often deep-fried south-of-the-border specialty was here brushed with egg white then baked to golden perfection. The pastry pockets, filled with shreds of chicken or beef mixed with onion and green olive and accompanied by a vinegary basil dipping sauce, were simple and savory. The chicken flamenco, at $11.75 by far the most expensive item on the menu, adapts European cutlet-preparation style to the Americas by flattening a chicken breast, breading it and then lightly pan frying the meat until it's tender throughout. Served with small boiled potatoes, marinated carrots and a small cup of an unusual bechamel-type sauce studded with kernels of corn, it's well worth a try.
And the full-flavored onion quiche ($5.75) is a hands-down winner. Although listed as an appetizer and served with a side order of the cole slaw, this deceptively uncomplicated country-French staple would make a fine entree if accompanied by a green salad. It's rich enough with eggs and cream to make it filling, but the bonus points come from the wealth of precisely caramelized onions and the still-crisp pie crust beneath; they make it a joy to consume. The chicken Marbella ($7.95), too, is special. It's the kind of dish that gives bistro food its loyal following, and is worth going back to Europa for again and again and again. A leg-quarter of chicken, skin perfectly roasted until it's the color of old gold, is finished with a meltingly sweet and simultaneously savory prune, caper and brown sugar demi-glace. The accompanying carrots are a surprise: Cold and vinegary, these lightly blanched spears are a perfect foil for the chicken's rich sweetness.