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La Bonne Vie Outside the Loop

Bistro Le Cep offers up some very nice French cuisine in the Houston countryside.

I've never done this before," says the black-clad woman in the backseat as we slow down to pay the toll at the Westheimer exit on Beltway 8.

"Done what?" I ask from behind the wheel.

"Taken a trip outside of Houston just to have dinner."

Culture in the boondocks (left to right): Duck pâté, bass and mousse.
Troy Fields
Culture in the boondocks (left to right): Duck pâté, bass and mousse.

Location Info

Map

Bistro Le Cep

11112 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77042

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Memorial

Details

713-783-3985. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Duck pâté: $6.95
Escargots: $6.95
Canard à l'orange: $14.95
Coq au vin: $13.50
Calf's liver: $12.50
Tart tatin: $5.50
Fish soup: $5.95
Tomato salad: $5.95
Bass meunière: $14.50

11112 Westheimer

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"This place is worth it," says the black-clad woman in the front seat.

I didn't know exactly what I was getting into, taking two die-hard inner-city Houstonians beyond Beltway 8 -- it's a little like leading a tour of a foreign country.

"What do all these people do out here?" one woman asks in wonderment as we pull into the parking lot of Bistro Le Cep near the Westchase and Royal Oaks neighborhoods. A huge office tower stands a little beyond the restaurant. Across the street, there is a large shopping center complete with a Whole Foods store. My passengers are shocked that the trappings of civilization extend this far into the wilderness.

"You aren't going to believe this interior," says the front-seat woman as we walk inside. She and I dined at the bistro a couple of evenings ago, and she has been telling her friends in the Montrose about it with wonder and enthusiasm. "And they all say that if they ever get out this way, they'll have to try it," she giggles.

From the outside it looks like a typical shopping center restaurant. But inside, Bistro Le Cep has been charmingly finished with old-looking pine floors and decorated with Gaelic artwork and a collection of French ceramic roosters. A dividing wall of wooden shelves and wine racks separates the two dining rooms, which each have about ten tables. The cozy ambience brings to mind a little cafe in the French countryside. And so does the menu.

We start off with an order of escargots, a romaine salad and some duck pâté. I was prepared for a little of that rubbery texture that makes snails so much fun to chew, but the imported gastropods are as tender as any I have eaten. They go down without a fight. But it's the snail-flavored garlic butter left behind in the indentation of the escargot dish that is the real treat. We all take turns sopping it up with French bread.

The insipid salad comes straight out of the refrigerator; it is too cold and tastes watery. But the duck pâté is a knock-out. The plate is decorated with crunchy little cornichons, a carved radish, some radicchio leaves and a slice of orange. The flavorful pâté slices are surrounded by Cumberland sauce, a sweet and tart combination of red currants, port and lemon zest. The rectangular slices of pâté each have a red circle of duck breast meat in the center.

"Look, it's got a wiener in the middle. Ain't that cute?" I josh the ladies in black, who roll their eyes in chagrin. For our entrées, we have selected coq au vin, canard à l'orange and calf's liver with apples, onions and bacon.

I had my first coq au vin in a little French village cafe just a year and a half ago. In the authentic version of the dish, big pieces of rooster meat are cooked in a massively flavored combination of red wine and chicken blood. Le Cep's version is an inoffensive little chicken stew with carrots, celery, cocktail onions and pickled mushrooms.

"No cock, no blood -- there's nothing passionate about it anymore," says one of the downtowners.

"Now this duck with red cabbage, this is passionate," she says, waving her fork. I know what she means. The canard à l'orange, a broiled duck breast served with red cabbage, lentils and bigarade sauce, has a big rustic flavor that makes me think of barbecue. The orange-flavored "barbecue" sauce and sweet-and-sour red cabbage are a terrific counterpoint to the crispy duck skin and succulent red meat. But the calf's liver is even better. Topped with slow-cooked onions and thick bacon, the liver is so soft, you can cut it with a fork. The creamy texture of the liver contrasts with the crunchy bacon and nicely undercooked slices of baked apple on the side.

On our previous visit we sampled the tart tatin, an upside down caramelized apple tart that got a "Gee whiz!" from my dining companion, and a warm pear poached in red wine served over ice cream that got an "Omigod!" Tonight we sample three other desserts, cherries in kirsch over ice cream, Alsatian fromage blanc cheesecake and a chocolate mousse. The cheesecake is boring, the ice cream with cherries is pretty good, and the mousse is flat-out fantastic. Barely sweetened, with an intense wallop of bittersweet chocolate, it has a puddinglike consistency with none of the usual airiness. The parfait glass that once contained it is returned to the kitchen embarrassingly clean.

Fifteen years ago, at the height of the nouvelle cuisine revolution, French provincial dishes like those served at Le Cep would have provoked yawns from critics and foodies. But after enduring a decade and a half of ever wilder innovations, I have come to understand why these dishes have achieved classic status. There is a Sunday-dinner honesty about this kind of cooking that disarms you with its simplicity.

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