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A Tale of Two Critics

The coffee is strong and the pastries are excellent, but Le Bec Fin isn't your typical French cafe

"The french fries are awful," Alison Cook whispers. I pick one up off her plate and eat it. She's trying the chicken wings and french fries at Le Bec Fin, a tiny French cafe on Milam. I've had that dish before. The fried wings are flambéed in cognac, but they still taste naked, like buffalo wings that somebody forgot to dip in hot sauce. At least when I sampled the dish, the wings were served with skinny matchstick fries. The fries on Alison's plate are the thick-cut kind. But they're still hot and very crispy.

"What's wrong with them?" I ask her.

"They're frozen," she says.

French twist: Raymond Nguyen serves beef rock and 
roll flambé with fries.
Troy Fields
French twist: Raymond Nguyen serves beef rock and roll flambé with fries.

Details

Breakfast croissant: $4.95
Tomato-basil soup: $3.50
Salade niçoise: $6.25
Beef rock and roll flambé: $8.50
Chicken wings flambé: $7.50
Merguez sandwich: $5.50
Café au lait: $2.50
2801 Milam, 713-526-1110. Hours: Mondays through Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m

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"Not anymore," I point out. She rolls her eyes at my drollery.

"They taste like cotton in the middle," she says.

"What are you, some kind of critic?" I whisper. Alison is, of course, the restaurant critic at the Houston Chronicle. Unbeknownst to Le Bec Fin, she and I have both chosen to eat lunch there on the same afternoon. We sit at opposite sides of the seven-table restaurant with our respective dining companions. Her table is in front of the pastry case, and when I walk over to check out the desserts, I peek at what she's ordered. That's when we get into it about the french fries. Alison and I often disagree in print, but we've never held one of our debates in a restaurant before, so this is a first.

I get a cheeseburger, which is also terrible. The once-frozen patty is topped with an American cheese single and parked on an insipid white sesame-seed bun. But at least my french fries are good; they're the same matchstick fries I've had here before. And since my order came out just before the other critic's, I am afraid I got the last of them. Sorry, Alison.

My dining companion tries an adequate salade niçoise, made with romaine lettuce, canned tuna, artichoke hearts, quartered eggs, tomatoes and anchovy fillets. I like my salade niçoise in a large wooden bowl with chunks of potatoes, a stack of haricots verts and some savory surprises in the dressing, such as chopped roasted red peppers or capers. The rather skimpy salade niçoise at Le Bec Fin is served on a dinner plate with a thin vinaigrette.

All this complaining might lead you to believe that Le Bec Fin isn't a very good restaurant. In fact, I love the place. Standouts from previous visits include an excellent tomato-basil soup, made with creamed fresh tomatoes and plenty of herbs, served in a wonderfully hokey Provençal-style ceramic bowl that's decorated with colorful paintings of the French countryside. Civet de lapin, rabbit stewed in red wine, is a remarkable dish to find on the menu of a Little Saigon cafe. I think the French original is made with hare, but the rabbit here is tender and tasty. When I tried it, I soaked up the cooking liquid with slices of baguette. The merguez sandwich -- spicy lamb sausage on a roll with mustard, lettuce and tomato -- reminds me of a French hot dog. And the espresso-based coffee drinks I've had here have all been fabulous.

But the place certainly has its peculiarities. The location, the Asian clientele and the ownership make it clear that Le Bec Fin is a French cafe for the Vietnamese community. French and Vietnamese are both spoken here; English is a distant third. Proprietor Raymond Nguyen was born in Vietnam and then emigrated to Toulouse, France, where he spent the past 25 years. His two brothers own Le Bec Fin on Antoine, a patisserie and bakery that specializes in wedding cakes. Raymond has been in Houston for only seven months. He seems to have shipped everything in the cafe over when he moved; all the cute little decorations and restaurant equipment look distinctly French. But there are some American restaurant conventions that still elude Raymond.

Take, for example, Le Bec Fin's breakfast croissant. The menu offers scrambled eggs on a fresh-baked croissant with tomato slices, cheese and two strips of bacon. But when I tried to order it, I got a croissant on one side of the plate and eggs on the other. The dish's scrambled eggs with cheese are delicious and the bacon is thick and meaty, but unfortunately, the croissants are kind of rubbery. When I asked Raymond if the eggs were supposed to be inside the croissant, he looked at me like I'd taken leave of my senses. The breakfast croissant is, after all, an American fast food invention. We like our eggs inside a croissant so we can eat them while we're stuck in traffic. But a Frenchman would rather starve than eat in a car. And anyway, eggs aren't a breakfast food in either France or Vietnam. Maybe Raymond's brothers suggested this menu item, because he obviously has no idea what a breakfast croissant is.

The French colonization of Vietnam produced a lot of interesting French-Vietnamese fusion foods; Vietnamese baguettes and sandwiches, Vietnamese iced coffee and French pastries made with tropical Asian fruits are a few of my favorites. True to form, some of the best things to eat at Le Bec Fin are cultural crossovers.

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