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The bombe d'avocat au crabe at Bistro Moderne is a dome of creamy avocado puree formed around a core of tomato, lump crabmeat and cilantro salsa dressed with vinaigrette and garnished with cilantro and jalapeños. The combination of luscious crab and creamy avocado is an old Gulf Coast classic that contemporary Houston chefs love to put their signature on.
At Cafe Annie, chef Robert Del Grande builds a base of avocado, adds a tower of crabmeat bound with slaw, garnishes it all with graceful fried tortilla wings and calls it a crab-and-avocado tostada. The dish has become the very definition of Southwestern cuisine in Houston.
Avocado-crab bombe: $12
Brie and duck Tatin: $11
Bison napoleon :$11
Braised lamb shank: $25
Basque chicken: $19
In the world of cuisine, a bombe is a frozen dessert, generally consisting of ice cream layers molded in a spherical shape around a fruit custard center (and resembling a cartoon bomb). The salad cross-dressing as an old-fashioned French dessert promises a capricious approach to classical French cuisine.
The restaurant's decor is a tip-off to its hipness. There aren't any ceramic roosters, Ricard pitchers or other French-restaurant clichés here, unless you count a four-foot model of the Eiffel Tower sculpted out of chocolate.
Bistro Moderne's ceiling and upholstery are all an extremely dark chocolate-brown with cream trim. (Brown is the new black, if you haven't heard.) The extensive banquettes are accented with brilliant blue and green cushions. The effect is deliciously unconventional, and extremely comfortable.
Philippe Schmit is my kind of bombe-thrower. And the bombe d'avocat au crabe is one of three appetizers on Bistro Moderne's menu that are named for desserts. Just to play along, on my first visit to the restaurant, we ordered all three.
Tatin de Brie et canard fuméis fashioned after a dessert named for the spinster Tatin sisters who made a living selling their namesake pastries in the Loire Valley. The original tarte Tatin is an apple upside-down cake. To make it, butter and sugar are spread in the bottom of a baking dish, a layer of thin apple slices is added, and finally it's all sealed in a pastry crust. You bake it and then invert the dish, so the caramelized fruit ends up on the top and the crisp crust is on the bottom.
A variation called tomato tarte Tatin, invented by Daniel Boulud, one of America's top French chefs, started the trend of reinterpreting the Tatin as a savory dish. The red onion tarte Tatin, the goat cheese tarte Tatin and so many other variations followed that it has become difficult to remember the dish was once a dessert.
Philippe Schmit's delectable improvisation would have baffled the Tatin sisters. He replaces the apple slices with potato slices and adds smoked duck and Brie cheese. The result resembles the inverted dish of crispy potato slices called pommesAnna atop a pile of smoky barbecued duck and rich gooey Brie. It's a sensational appetizer.
Le napoleon de bison was not quite as exciting. In Schmit's rendition, the layers of puff pastry and cream filling that make up the original napoleon are replaced by a salad layered with thin slices of marinated and seared bison meat and a big handmade potato chip.
It's a nice salad of arugula leaves, shaved celery root, carrots and pears with a ginger-soy dressing, but the meat and potatoes are minimalistic. Three of us tried to share the dish, and by the time it got to me, there was no potato chip and very little meat left. Of course, this may be because I was so engrossed in the smoked duck, potatoes and cheese that I forgot all about the napoleon.
One of the entrées we ordered was the jarret d'agneau, a soulful braised lamb shank with rustic oven-roasted potatoes and an exotic sauce infused with tonka beans, which smell a bit like vanilla. The caveman in me was delighted by the presentation: A naked bone is laid across the plate as a prop, and the tender lamb, which has fallen away from it during several hours of cooking, is decoratively arrayed on top.
We also had the poulet Basquaise, which was a roasted chicken served in a bowl over barley and roasted peppers with onions and garlic. The onion and pepper sauce was spiked with espelette jus, which is the juice of the espelette pepper.
Piment d'espelette is a fancy chile pepper, the only one I know of with an AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) designation, the same legal protection given regional products such as Champagne and Roquefort. The pepper is grown exclusively in the French Nive Valley, a Basque region, and the peppers are dried on ristras in much the same process used to preserve long red chiles in New Mexico. The pepper cultivar is reputed to come from a Spanish strain introduced to Europe in 1523. As a practical matter, importing French chile peppers to Texas is shipping sand to the beach. But in terms of culinary symbolism, you've gotta love it. A chef who insists on his favorite strain of chile peppers is already halfway to being a naturalized Texan. But to get the rest of the way there, Schmit is going to have to start using those peppers a little more freely. The Basque chicken wasn't nearly piquant enough.