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French Utopia

Lunch with Joan Patrick

In France, having a salad for lunch doesn't necessarily mean you are on a diet. For instance, the plate of greens with sautéed chicken livers and a poached egg that Joan Patrick is eating is not your typical "ladies who lunch" low-fat selection. Joan offers me a bite, and I take a huge one. I love the way the egg yolk and creamy chicken-liver bits coat the fuzzy, bitter frisée and combine with the vinegar to form a warm and sticky salad dressing. The first time I encountered this combination was in a ferme auberge (a restaurant in a farmhouse) in southern Burgundy. It sounded like an odd combination to my American ear, but it was served automatically as part of the prix fixe deal, so I ate it. That salad also included thick fried bacon chunks and sliced potatoes, and was served as a multilayered pile covering a huge platter. Although I never would have ordered it, it proved to be one of the best salads I have ever eaten. My only regret was that after I polished off the entire mound, I was informed that the next course was hen in cream sauce.

Compared to those farmhouse inns, Café Rabelais in the Rice Village serves virtuously dainty portions. But otherwise, the new restaurant has done a faithful job of re-creating lovable peasant dishes from the French countryside. I thank Joan, executive director of L'Alliance Française de Houston, for bringing me to this remarkable place. It is owned by Joan's old friend Laurence Paul, whose parents, Georges and Monique Guy, are the proprietors of the beloved Chez Georges[11920-J Westheimer, (281)558-5095] and Bistro Provence[13616 Memorial Drive, (713)827-8008]. Laurence once taught French classes at the Alliance Française. She owns Café Rabelais in partnership with her husband, Christophe Paul.

"So what is the Alliance Française?" I ask Joan, a lively blond with sparkling eyes, pouty lips and a taut athletic physique. It's a nonprofit organization that was founded in Paris in 1883, she tells me. The Houston office opened in 1923. Its mission is to promote French language and culture around the world by teaching French classes and sponsoring lectures and cultural events. "But what really works best are wine tastings and French cooking classes," Joan says with a sly grin, as she watches me wolf my grilled salmon and oiled potato salad.

Joan Patrick: The executive director of L'Alliance Française de Houston is a fifth-generation Texan who first learned foreign languages in Tokyo.
Deron Neblett
Joan Patrick: The executive director of L'Alliance Française de Houston is a fifth-generation Texan who first learned foreign languages in Tokyo.
Joan Patrick: The executive director of L'Alliance Française de Houston is a fifth-generation Texan who first learned foreign languages in Tokyo.
Deron Neblett
Joan Patrick: The executive director of L'Alliance Française de Houston is a fifth-generation Texan who first learned foreign languages in Tokyo.

Details

(713)526-6841. Hours: Tuesday and Wednesday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Salad maison with salmon: $8.50
Sautéed chicken liver and poached egg salad: $6.50
Merguez et frites: $5.25
Poached pear in wine and chocolate : $4.50

2462 Bolsover

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Joan certainly has my number. But I am too busy chewing to ask about the details. I suspect this salad is inspired by the traditional French harengs pommes à l'huile, a salad of pickled herring and potato slices with oil. Café Rabelais's salad has a moist slice of salmon fillet cooked in parchment paper on top of greens and potato slices. It isn't as salty and oily as the old-fashioned dish. Of course, if you love those old-fashioned flavors (I do), Café Rabelais has lots of other variations on that theme -- like a Bayonne ham-and-butter sandwich, merguez et frites (lamb sausage and french fries) or a goat-cheese-and-olive tart. Today at lunch the blackboard menu also includes steak salad, warm goat cheese salad and a blue cheese, apple and walnut salad. If you're in the mood for a salad, it's a little overwhelming.

The mottled cream-colored walls at Café Rabelais resemble old plaster, and somehow the rural look is absolutely charming, despite the inevitable shopping-center parking lot outside the window. I suspect the French rustic thing works so well because the employees barely seem to speak English. On the front window there is a likeness of the namesake French writer with an accompanying slogan, which Joan tells me is old French for "Do whatever you like." This was the phrase on the archway over the entrance to L'Abbaye de Thélème, the utopian community that François Rabelais created in his writings. Thélème was an inspiration for some of the utopian societies in Texas.

"Rabelais's writings were known for combining earthy humor and sophisticated themes," Joan tells me. Sounds like a cool guy, although I have to confess I have never read anything he wrote. Joan has. In fact, she earned an advanced degree in French literature at the University of Houston.

"Are you French?" I ask her.

"No, fifth-generation Texan," she says.

"So where did you learn French," I ask.

"Tokyo," she giggles.

In response to my give-me-a-break expression, she explains that she did start learning languages in the expat community of Tokyo, where she lived as a kid. But mostly she learned French during her undergraduate studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. The decision to make French a career came on a visit to Paris.

"I saw these people sitting in a cafe, drinking wine, and I decided that what I really wanted was a job that allowed me to sit in the cafe every day, just like they did."

"Well, here we are," I say with a laugh. "All that's missing is the wine."

The people at the next table are drinking Beaucastel Chäteauneuf-du-Pape, one of my very favorite Rhônes. But when I ask for the wine list, the waitress apologizes. Unfortunately the cafe doesn't have its liquor license yet -- the people at the next table brought their own. (Café Rabelais has since received a beer and wine license.)

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