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On my first visit to Bistro Calais, I walked in the front door of the historic cottage that houses the restaurant, took a look around the empty bar and dining room, and concluded the place was closed. If somebody in the back dining room hadn't chosen that moment to laugh, I might have left hungry.
A stroll to the rear of the house revealed a dozen people eating lunch in the "garden room," a cheerful dining room that looks out on an impressive backyard. Beyond the shrubs and rosebushes is a huge old-fashioned greenhouse, the sort of white frame and glass structure the English call a conservatory.
Both the greenhouse and the cottage that houses the restaurant are more than a century old. They were transplanted to the Bammel Lane property as part of a developer's plan to create an antique village. The interior of the restaurant has been painted with faux stonework and cracking paint to accentuate its advanced age.
2811 Bammel Lane
Houston, TX 77098-1105
Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby
Deli plate: $8
Onion soup: $5
Steak frites sandwich: $8
While I was initially annoyed by the lack of a greeter, by the time I had ordered lunch, I realized that this was the least of Bistro Calais's problems. Evidently, there's no waitstaff either. The owner, Roy Knapp, introduced himself and said he'd take our order. He and the manager, Phillip Mitchell, were waiting tables until business picked up.
I asked about the kitchen staff, and Knapp told me that his wife, Jane Knapp, and chef Francisco Luna were in charge. As the name Luna didn't sound French, I wondered about his experience. I found out Francisco Luna is a Mexican-American who cooked for many years at Carrabba's and briefly at La Strada.
I decided to test his mettle with ris de veau aux champignons, or veal sweetbreads in wild mushroom cream, a dish that's notoriously tricky to cook. My lunchmate ordered bouillabaisse, another final exam for French chefs. For an appetizer, we split the assiette de charcuterie, which the menu translated as "deli plate."
You don't expect anything exotic in the cured-meat assortment when they bill it as a deli plate, so I was a little shocked to see blood sausage on the assiette. My tablemate wrinkled his nose in disgust when I offered him some of the sweet and savory black pudding. I found it quite tasty, as were the salami and ham slices.
And to my surprise, the ris de veau turned out to be the most delectable I have had on this side of the Atlantic. The fluffy chunks of sweetbread melted in my mouth, and the creamy sauce coated each one with the earthy forest aroma of wild mushrooms. A glass of sturdy red wine from the Côtes du Rhône rounded out a splendid lunch.
While the bouillabaisse looked expertly executed, my sampling was ruined by a funky mussel. I don't know if it was old, poorly handled or just tasted that way, but the overwhelming flavor and aroma of the one smelly mussel I chose to put in my mouth made it impossible to appreciate the rest of the flavors in the soup.
My disappointment was particularly poignant since I'd just tasted a magnificent bouillabaisse at Bistro Moderne, another French restaurant that recently opened in Houston.
For most of the country, the "French boycott" amounted to little more than George Bush changing the name of his breakfast to "freedom toast." But Houston is not like the rest of the country. Here in the capital of the red states, anti-French fanatics launched a terrorism campaign reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany.
A Theater District restaurant called Papillon Bistro Français had its windows smashed and closed its doors in the face of telephoned threats promising more attacks. Similar threats to La Tour d'Argent on Ella caused that restaurant to close as well.
In a two-part series ("The War with Chirac," May 29, 2003, and "Le Fracas Français," June 5, 2003), I wrote about the chilling effects the boycott had on the Houston food and wine scene. Since then, Guerin's Bistro has gone out of business and Chez Nous has changed hands.
Bergerac native Cedric Guerin took some much-needed time off. And ironically, the boycott forced the heartbroken American couple who owned Chez Nous, Barbara and Kenneth Farrar, to turn the restaurant back over to its French founder, Gerard Brach.
Somebody must think that the political climate in Houston has changed lately, because French restaurants have started popping up around here like mudbugs after a flood.
Along with Bistro Calais, we now have Bistro Moderne in Hotel Derek with chef Philippe Schmit at the range, and La Tour d'Argent, where Cedric Guerin has found a new home as head chef. Given the drought of French food in the last few years, I thought it would be interesting to review all three of these restaurants as a series.
To start with an overview, Bistro Calais is an antique cottage where your fellow Americans serve authentic French country cooking. Bistro Moderne is a sleekly decorated world-class restaurant run by a top French chef. And La Tour d'Argent is an antique hunting lodge where a chef from the rural Dordogne region does rustic French classics.