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My first visit to Rouge was a champagne lunch a few weeks ago. I remember what we ate much more clearly than what we were celebrating. After an appetizer of smoked salmon, served with extra-thick buckwheat pancakes (blini), my lunch mate had the creamy salmon confit over soft-cooked leeks cut to resemble fettuccine strands. The dish came with another plate of toast points and some tapenade, which chef Gonçalves encourages you to spread on anything you like.
I ordered the lobster tagine, which may be the best dish on the menu. A tagine is a Moroccan terra-cotta cooking vessel with a domed lid. The custom in Morocco is to prepare a stew in it in the morning, then drop off the vessel at a bakery or other establishment that has a fire burning, so you can park your tagine in the coals. Later that day, you return and haul the slow-cooked stew back home. The vessel absorbs some of the flavors. It is said that a well-seasoned tagine will impart a flavor of its own to the food cooked in it.
812 Westheimer Road
Houston, TX 77006
When you order the lobster tagine at Rouge, your waiter brings the lobster to your table in the cooking vessel so that you can experience the full blast of aroma when it's opened for the first time. I didn't see the point of stewing lobster in a slow cooker until I tasted it. The dish was stunning. The white meat was soft, with none of the rubbery texture that a quick boil so often produces, and the Moroccan spice mix had permeated the flesh to create one of the tastiest lobster dishes I've had in ages. The accompanying tiny baby cabbages and artfully layered vegetable slices made for a bold presentation.
The dish brings up a much-debated question: What kind of food is served at Rouge?
The word rouge is French for red. The restaurant first opened right around the time that the war in Iraq began. Perhaps the owners did seek to mitigate the anti-French backlash by calling the food New American cuisine, as has been reported. And it's quite true that chef Gonçalves was born and raised in Paris and trained in the French cooking style. But Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a French chef too, and nobody calls his famous fusion cuisine French. Granted, there are a lot of French words on the menu at Rouge. But there's also couscous, pasta and Moroccan spices. So is Rouge a French restaurant in disguise?
The lobster tagine in North African spices argues otherwise. Rouge isn't the only restaurant in the state that serves shellfish in a tagine. Chef Stephen Pyles makes an excellent seafood tagine at Dragonfly, the restaurant in the trendy Hotel ZaZa in Dallas. When I ate there last month, Pyles told me he got his tagine crockery at Casbah Imports here in Houston, the same place Gonçalves gets his. Pyles also told me that he calls the food at Dragonfly a Mediterranean/North African/Asian fusion. He came up with the concept to complement the fantasy atmosphere of the exotically decorated boutique hotel.
The food at Rouge is certainly more French than what Pyles is doing in Dallas, but the approach is similar. If Pyles and Vongerichten get credit for boldly innovative fusion food, then let's give Gonçalves his due for creativity at Rouge. The menu is cosmopolitan and the craftsmanship is stellar. If the French-trained chef says the food is New American, then I, for one, am willing to go along with him.
While we finish our cheeses, a couple making out on their bar stools becomes so ardent that the bartender is forced to ask them to cool it. Meanwhile, the man in mink has taken a table outdoors, where he and his party sip cocktails alfresco and banter with patrons waiting for the valet. The late-night dining crowd has just begun to make its entrance.
Rouge is the hottest spot in town this season. If you're planning to celebrate a special occasion there, ask for a quiet table in the dining room when you make your reservation. And if you're planning to arrive late and eat in the bar, wear something flamboyant.