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For an appetizer, Red orders a fabulous, fresh-tasting salad made with baby greens, apples, oranges, slivered almonds and Roquefort. And I get the worst sweetbreads I've ever had. Evidently, the chef in charge of cleaning the sweetbreads is having an off day. The pieces are connected by springy bits of mucilage that look like rubber bands, and taste like them, too. The caramelized corn-and-plum-tomato chowder underneath the rubbery organ meat is lovely, but who cares? Between the water scam and the sweetbreads, I'm rapidly losing confidence in Papillon. But a great bottle of wine and two exceptional entrées completely change my mind.
Poitrine de canard et son foie gras is French for duck breast with foie gras. Take a bite, and you won't care how to pronounce it. The duck is served in a bowl, with sun-dried cherries in a broth of rich reduction sauce at the bottom. The cherries have plumped up in the liquid so that they're easily mistaken for the smallest of dozens of tiny whole mushrooms popping up all over the place. Next comes a layer of green squash slices and green beans. On top of that are thin slices of meaty Muscovy duck breast cooked medium rare, then bigger whole mushrooms. Off to one side is a flat, wristwatch-sized slice of seared foie gras.
"This is the way to eat foie gras," I say out loud as I jam a piece into my mouth with some duck breast, mushrooms and cherries. What a pleasure to eat the unctuous liver with some simple ingredients and a glass of red wine instead of as a course by itself with a lot of pretentious accompaniments. When most of the juicy duck slices and the foie gras are gone, I figure the rest of the bowl will be pretty boring. But the duck soup that's left in the bottom is full of cherries, mushrooms and vegetables -- it's so good I want to pick up the bowl and drink it.
Water in blue bottle: $6
Salad with fruit and Roquefort: $6
Tuna tartare: $8
Duck breast: $25
Lamb loin: $25
Joe Phelps "Le Mistral" 1998: $48
Red gets mushroom-crusted lamb loin with truffled potatoes. The presentation looks like an ogre with a face made out of mashed potatoes: The slices of lamb are the giant teeth, and there are three carrot horns, two button squash eyes and a lamb-bone nose that sticks straight up out of the mashers. The lamb slices are coated with mushroom powder that has turned black in the cooking. Neither the mushroom dust on the lamb nor the truffles in the potatoes add noticeable flavors, but the dish is delicious all the same. The tender lamb is done medium rare, and the slices sit on top of a rich demi-glace sauce that gives them even more meaty flavor. The serving of lamb is enormous, and there are more mashed potatoes than anyone can eat. More little round button squash lurk behind the ogre's ears.
We finish with a sinfully sweet apple tart. The apples are gooey with brown sugar, and the tart sits in a pool of vanilla cream drizzled with blueberry sauce. Topping it all is a scoop of vanilla ice cream encrusted with caramelized sugar. What fun it must be to blowtorch ice cream. We leave the restaurant as an after-theater party begins to fill it up.
Simple but sturdy French bistro fare has become exceedingly popular in Houston lately, and the menu at Papillon features lots of the classics (steak frites, roasted chicken and mussels in broth). But few restaurants that call themselves bistros offer dishes as ambitious as Papillon's duck breast with foie gras or tuna tartare with truffled soy sauce. These are the kinds of dishes you don't want to miss here.
So when your waiter steers you away from the basic roasted chicken and toward something more elaborate, you can trust him. It's when he approaches your table with a blue bottle that you have to watch out.
Joe Phelps "Le Mistral" 1998
They call this a "Rhône-inspired" California wine. What's inspired is that Phelps doesn't bother to stick with the usual Rhône varietals. Instead, the winery has ingeniously blended syrah, a Rhone grape, with zinfandel, a variety that doesn't come from the Rhône but tastes like it does. The result is a stunning bottle of wine with an intense ruby color, a concentrated flavor and a velvety finish that will put a similarly priced Châteauneuf-du-Pape to shame. This is just the thing to drink with Papillon's "French-inspired" cuisine.