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The coarse-ground pork pâté looks like meat loaf studded with walnuts. We eat chunks of it on hot crisp bread that's fresh out of the pizza oven, each bite daubed with a little Dijon mustard. And we wash it down with a sturdy Delas Côtes du Rhône. The hearty pâté, unpretentious wines and elemental entrées at Guerin's Bistro, on Westheimer at Kirkwood, remind me of a restaurant I once visited in Bergerac.
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At that little eatery, which serves mostly hungry vineyard workers, they bring you a "pâté board" along with your bread and butter. On the plank, there are three huge crocks of duck, pork and goose pâté; a jar of pickles; a bowl of salt and another of mustard. Knives are stuck into each crock, and you simply help yourself to all you want. The wine is the straightforward claret of Bergerac, which tastes like Bordeaux without the pomposity.
Guerin's Bistro offers the same sort of hearty French country cooking and unfussy wine. Which makes sense, since owner Cedric Guerin comes from Bergerac himself. The roll-up-your-sleeves approach to food that you encounter in the French countryside is one thing I've always loved about France.
"First Iraq, Then Chirac," read a bumper sticker I saw the other day. I laughed at that one. I also laughed the first time I heard the French referred to as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," a nickname coined by Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons. Cracking jokes about the French because of their opposition to the war in Iraq is natural enough. But I stopped laughing when I realized the Bush administration is calling for the French to be punished. And I sobered up even more when I realized that French wine merchants and French restaurants in Houston are in serious trouble.
For a different perspective on the subject, I invited Joël Savary, the cultural attaché at Houston's French consulate, to lunch. Savary used to work in the vineyards of the Jura region before he became an art dealer and eventually an arts administrator. So he appreciates the simple wine-workers' fare at Guerin's. There is only one other party in the restaurant, and by the time we get our entrées, they've already left. Business is very slow these days, we're told.
Over lunch, Savary offers a few ideas about the long-standing love-hate relationship between France and America.
"First of all, it's because we are so much alike," he says. "France and the United States share the same love of democracy and free expression. We share the same goals and values. French people like to criticize America because most French people like the U.S. too much." Just as Americans need to tear down celebrities like Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart, he contends, the French need to belittle the United States in order to make it more approachable.
Could it be that Americans are doing the same thing because, deep down inside, we are so enamored with France? I wonder.
"The French fell in love with Texas when the television show Dallas was popular," Savary recalls. "We loved it, we were intoxicated by it. But then we had to kick you." It's now fashionable among French intellectuals to have a dim view of Texas because of the death penalty, he says.
"Food, wine and arguing are the favorite French pastimes," shrugs Savary. "It's just what we do."
True to form, we segue seamlessly from culture to confit.
The entrée, a roasted duck leg quarter, has been slow-cooked confit-style and then roasted until it's so tender it falls apart with a fork. It's covered with tomato sauce and surrounded by sautéed red potatoes, which are a little too moist. Potatoes cooked in duck fat until golden and crispy is one of my favorite memories of Bergerac. I wish Guerin would bring that tradition to Houston. The duck meat is delicious, but the sauce tastes a little odd with it. "I think tomato is a bad choice," says Savary. "It's too much sugar for the duck."
On another visit to Guerin's, I ordered rillettes from the blackboard specials. Rillettes are an appetizer made of meat cooked in seasoned fat and then pulverized into a paste. The duck-producing region of the Dordogne is famous for a poultry version, and I correctly suspected that this is what Guerin's would serve. The rich minced duck and pork spread is heavily spiced and served in a small crock. You eat it on the hot crusty bread. A beefsteak tomato salad was nicely dressed with blue cheese, but the tomatoes were nowhere close to ripe.
I tried two fish dishes for dinner that night along with a bottle of Louis Latour's Macon-Villages, an inexpensive white Burgundy that blows away the average overpriced California Chardonnay. The grilled red snapper served with a hash of fennel and leeks was wonderful, despite more of the extraneous tomato sauce. The fish was very moist, and the vegetables harmonized beautifully. The pepper-crusted tuna steak with pesto cream and lobster bisque sauce, on the other hand, had way too many flavors going on. The Parmesan in the pesto was all wrong with the lobster in the bisque, and the pepper overpowered everything.
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