French Food Sans Frenchmen

Lazy lunching in a River Oaks hideaway

Except for the funky mussel, the bouillabaisse at Bistro Calais was similar to the one I tried at Bistro Moderne. Of course, the fact that Bistro Moderne used better seafood made a huge difference. But the biggest contrast was in ambience. As much as I enjoy Bistro Moderne, it's too formal to ever become a hangout.

The casual Bistro Calais, on the other hand, inspires epic laziness. A late lunch eaten outside on the front porch one sunny afternoon started with a wonderful glass of floral-scented white Côtes du Rhône wine and a salad of crispy greens and buttery avocado with shrimp, smoked salmon, pineapple and mango, which was called salad l'exotique. The house-smoked salmon was tasty, but cooked through rather than silky and raw like cold-smoked salmon.

My companion had a light, fruity Beaujolais and a steak frite sandwich featuring a tasty, if slightly chewy, flatiron steak, blue cheese, tomato slaw and oversize skin-on fried potatoes.

The veal sweetbreads in wild mushroom cream, 
shown with the deli plate, are delectable.
Troy Fields
The veal sweetbreads in wild mushroom cream, shown with the deli plate, are delectable.

Location Info


Bistro Calais

2811 Bammel Lane
Houston, TX 77098-1105

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Lower Shepherd-Kirby


Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.

Deli plate: $8
Onion soup: $5
Steak frites sandwich: $8
Sweetbreads: $19
Rabbit: $17
Bouillabaisse: $18

2811 Bammel Lane, 713-529-1314

Dessert was an assortment of sorbets served in what looked like a giant sugar bowl. We had fun puzzling out the flavors, which included raspberry and a pale yellow one that turned out to be champagne-lemon.

One cup of coffee led to another, and then it was four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the most endearing things about Bistro Calais is that it is open continuously, so you can eat lunch as late as you like and sit there unmolested all afternoon. I asked my lunchmate if she wanted to stay for dinner, but she had an errand to run.

On my last visit to Bistro Calais, we arrived at seven thirty on a Wednesday night and had an awkward dinner. My dining companion and I were chagrined to discover we were the only customers in the entire restaurant.

There was no music playing in the dining room, but it sounded like a party was going on in the kitchen. Somebody had a boombox blaring in there, and the workers had to talk loudly to be heard over the music. We wanted to pick up our plates and go eat with the chef and the dishwashers. It sounded like they were having a lot more fun than we were.

As the only customers in a restaurant, you'd expect the service to be stellar. But unfortunately, quite the opposite was true. With no other reason to check the dining room, the staff didn't give us a lot of attention.

My companion ordered French onion soup as an appetizer, and she was looking forward to those long, gooey strands of melted cheese. Unfortunately, the soup came to the table so cold the cheese was just a clump. She sent it back to be warmed up.

My foie gras terrine appetizer was quite good. It was supposed to be served with pearl onions and a compote of figs. There was so much fig jam on my plate, I figured the chef was trying to get rid of the stuff.

My dining companion's salmon was perfectly cooked with a nice crust on the outside and a moist interior. It came with buttery mashed potatoes and sautéed squash.

I had the rabbit ragout, which consists of large pieces of meat served on the bone in a pot with the braising liquids. The stewpot also contained pearl onions and mushrooms that were cooked with the rabbit, along with some roast potato quarters. The meat was extremely tender, but a little dry and not terribly flavorful.

For dessert we split an order of profiteroles, which I like to think of as French ice cream sandwiches. Crunchy puff-pastry rounds are cut in half, filled with vanilla ice cream and then topped with chocolate sauce. We paid the bill a little after nine o'clock, and we were still the only customers in the place.

Bistro Calais's problems are those of a restaurant that hasn't found its audience yet. Of course, it hasn't been open very long. But hopefully the lack of business isn't due to the reluctance of hidebound River Oaks residents to give up on the French boycott.

After all, Bistro Calais is a French boycotter's dream come true: a French restaurant that doesn't employ any Frenchmen. ,

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