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Duck Soup

The fancy French food or the fizzy water? What to trust at Papillon.

We're heaping spoonfuls of tuna tartare onto slices of baguette like a sushi spread and washing it down with crisp Roederer Estate sparkling wine. The raw tuna melts in your mouth like butter. It's the ideal consistency: chopped into tiny cubes, not minced into mush. And the Asian-French accent of the soy sauce and truffle juice drizzled over the top is a touch of genius, bringing out the flavor of the fish and adding a sweet and salty sheen of its own. There isn't a speck of fish on the plate when the waitress clears the appetizer away.

But there is a crumb of tuna left behind on the tablecloth. My dining companion, Red, is studiously avoiding brushing the little fish nugget with her arm. Being the gentleman that I am, I take it upon myself to remove the stray morsel, carefully positioning my right forefinger and flicking it off the table.

Red is my ex-girlfriend, who now occasionally volunteers to join me for dinner, especially when the food is French. And Papillon Bistro Français is described as "French with a twist." Co-owner Youssef Nafaa, who also owns Mi Luna and Mia Bella, is the chef; Zack Ateyea, who owns Café Elegante, is his partner.

The tower of chow: Potato-crusted salmon over a pile of sweet-and-sour cabbage, with asparagus and green beans.
Deron Neblett
The tower of chow: Potato-crusted salmon over a pile of sweet-and-sour cabbage, with asparagus and green beans.

Details

713-222-6583. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Water in blue bottle: $6
Salad with fruit and Roquefort: $6
Tuna tartare: $8
Sweetbreads: $10
Salmon: $19
Duck breast: $25
Lamb loin: $25
Joe Phelps "Le Mistral" 1998: $48

401 Louisiana

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The restaurant is in the Hogg Building, around the corner from the Alley Theatre. It's a great example of how an old building can give a new restaurant instant character. The exposed ductwork, concrete pillars and raw brick walls of the original space are softened by the refinished wood floor and the green and purple chiffon drapes that hang in the huge windows. The antique chandelier brings the ceiling down to a more intimate level, and track lighting focuses on the linen-clad tabletops. The contrasts are inviting, like a dressy dinner party held in a warehouse.

Red and I are seated on a banquette along the front window. From our vantage, the long, dark wood bar and the cleverly refitted dining room spread out before us. This would be a great spot to people-watch -- if there were any people. On this Wednesday night, there aren't more than 20 patrons.

I'm thinking about ordering the roasted free-range chicken with potatoes lyonnaise, but the waitress grimaces. "It's very basic," she says. I figure that's waitspeak for "boring."

Red orders the poisson du jour, today's catch being mahimahi with a crabmeat stuffing. The stuffing has that old-fashioned bread-crumb-dressing flavor -- tasty, but together with a large pile of lemon-infused risotto, it's an awful lot of starch. The mahimahi is as oily and full-flavored and wonderfully fresh as it should be. Mahimahi, by the way, is an imported name for a local fish. The English name, dolphin, is seldom used, because so many people confuse the fish with the mammal. Known in Spanish as dorado, the dolphinfish is a large deep-water fish that runs from yellow to metallic green to dark blue. When Hawaiian mahimahi dishes became popular in California some years ago, restaurants and fishmongers across the country started calling dolphin by its Hawaiian name, regardless of where it was caught. But the fish is common to the Gulf of Mexico.

I order the salmon, and it's not quite what I imagine -- thank goodness. From the menu description (salmon with a golden tomato-chardonnay coulis), I figure I'll get a tiny piece of fish beside a precious little pool of sauce. Instead, the huge fillet of potato-crusted salmon comes bent over a pile of sweet-and-sour red cabbage, with spears of asparagus and a bunch of green beans sticking out each side. I can't find the tomato coulis, but I don't miss it; the red cabbage has been slow-cooked with honey and red wine, and it tastes terrific with the moist salmon. The vertical pile-up presentation, with the starches and vegetables on the bottom and the fish on top, makes the dishes look neatly composed without getting too fussy. The tower of chow also emphasizes the size of the portions. You get a lot of food for your money at Papillon.

We're sitting back, relaxing with the last of the champagne, when Red suddenly starts giggling. "Look," she says, pointing at the empty table directly in front of us. I can't figure out what she's laughing about. The table is empty; there's nothing to look at but a spotless white tablecloth. Then I see it: A tiny red cube of tuna sits right in the middle of the table, dramatically lit by the overhead spotlight. I don't know whether I should tell the waitress or not. We decide to make a run for it.

I'm sitting at the bar waiting for Red, who's running late for our second visit to Papillon. "I'll have a Perrier or something," I tell the bartender. He disappears to the far end of the bar, then reappears with a stemmed cocktail glass full of fizzy water and a blue tear-shaped bottle that's already been opened. The water costs six bucks -- I could have had a Scotch! Maybe they're trying to get even with me for my tuna-flicking high jinks.

I wouldn't be so mad if I hadn't just read an article in The Wall Street Journal about how restaurants are training their staffs to run up your bill with expensive bottled water. Substituting designer waters you've never heard of for Perrier and San Pellegrino is one tactic. (They deliver them already open so you won't send them back.) Other tricks, like refilling your glass without asking, are used to add more bottles to your bill without your noticing. Red arrives just in time to hear my fancy-water tirade. By the time I calm down, we're seated at a booth along the back wall.

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