By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Domaine de Mourchon is a Côtes du Rhône village red with an inky color and the sort of concentrated fruit and intense flavor you'd expect from a more expensive Rhône, like a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a Gigondas. Yet a bottle of the 2000 vintage sells for a mere $36 at Chez Nous, the famous French restaurant in the suburban village of Humble.
Located in a modest house in a tree-lined residential area, Chez Nous has been cited as one of America's best restaurants by Zagat, Gourmet magazine, Wine Spectator and the Mobil Travel Guide, among others. The ambience is a French tug-of-war between formality and informality. The tablecloths are white linen with a fleur-de-lis design, but the funky little lamps on each table are made out of Grand Marnier bottles. The tables are set out in regimental rows, but the green wainscot and cream-colored walls of the interior make the old house feel as cozy as Grandma's.
A French chef named Gerard Brach founded the restaurant. When Brach retired a few years ago, his sous-chef, Barbara Farrar, and her husband, Kenneth, bought the place. Once upon a time, you needed to reserve a table far in advance. But tonight the place is quiet. The boycott of French wines and French restaurants is taking its toll.
217 S. Ave. G
Humble, TX 77338
Dinner begins with cream of asparagus soup. In the center of the bowl, an island of white Parmesan flan floats in a sea of bright green. The miniature island is forested with tiny baby asparagus tips. Barbara Farrar is offering the soup as a special tonight. The elegant vegetable puree has a remarkably fresh flavor, and a little bite of the Parmesan pudding accents it with a sharp tang.
Actually, I didn't order the soup. Two bowls were sent to my table, compliments of the chef. Normally if this happened, I would assume my cover had been blown. But the chef is actually trying to impress my dining companion, Douglas Skopp, one of the restaurant's wine purveyors.
Skopp is president of Dionysus Imports Inc., a company that specializes in wines from France's Rhône valley. In fact, the Côtes du Rhône we're drinking is one of his wines. Domaine de Mourchon is a highly allocated wine, which means wine buyers start fighting over it before it's even released. It was in great demand all over town until a few months ago. But now all bets are off.
"Sales of all French wines are way down in Houston," Skopp tells me.
"By how much?" I wonder.
"As much as a third at some Houston liquor stores," he says as our second course arrives.
I get an unusual salad of baby greens and roasted fruits including apricots and grapes, with Parmesan shavings in a vanilla-lime vinaigrette. It sounded intriguing, but it's too sweet for my palate. I look longingly at Skopp's plate.
He ordered seared foie gras served over a wild mushroom bread pudding with asparagus and white truffle oil. He cuts me a little piece. I close my eyes and a dream bubble of the greatest Thanksgiving turkey stuffing ever invented floats through my mind. Then it pops and my little portion is all gone.
With this full-bodied wine, I am craving a steak. Luckily Chez Nous is one of the few Houston restaurants that serves USDA Prime, dry-aged beef. Skopp orders a rib eye marchand de vin, which means, appropriately enough, "wine merchant-style" and consists of steak in red wine sauce. I order steak au poivre, a New York strip coated in cracked peppercorns and served with a touch of cream. The rib eye in wine sauce is magnificent, but toward the end of my New York strip, the volume of black pepper overwhelms me.
"The boycott makes no economic sense," Skopp seethes as he cuts his beefsteak. "The punishment is hurting us more than the people we are supposed to be punishing."
"How so?" I ask.
"Take this bottle of wine," he says, holding up the Domaine de Mourchon Côtes du Rhône. "You pay the restaurant $36 for it, but only about $5 of that actually goes to France." The rest is the restaurant's markup, the American importer's profit, the Texas distributor's cut, shipping charges of an American trucking company, and United States customs and duties.
"And besides, this particular winery is owned by a British guy!" he rails. "The French make nothing on it!
"Meanwhile, how many California wineries are owned by the French?" he asks. "Opus One, Windham Estates, Chandon -- they are all French." The French have also invested in wineries in Chile and Australia. And as I learned by reading French boycott lists making the rounds on the Internet, the French entertainment conglomerate Vivende owns many of my favorite single-malt Scotch brands, as well as all of my favorite Irish whiskeys.
Houston has gone beyond boycotts. Our own local terrorists are employing threats of violence and vandalism against French restaurant owners. The restaurants are reluctant to speak up for fear of further reprisals. But one confirmed casualty was the Theater District restaurant formerly known as Papillon Bistro Français.