By Kaitlin Steinberg
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By Brooke Viggiano
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By Eating Our Words
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.
My tablemates, a French artist named Bernard Brunon and his architect wife, Nancy Ganucheau, ordered Bistro Moderne's bouillabaisse, which was a bold move since both of them are familiar with the original. Their favorite is served at the famous Chez Michel in Marseilles.
I sampled theirs and thought it was stunning. The broth was intense, the red pepper mayonnaise thickener had just enough zest, and the saffron added a heady perfume. The seafood was excellent -- I especially loved the mussels, which were mild, pale in color and wonderfully tender. They pronounced it the best bouillabaisse they have ever encountered in the United States.
The mussels were so good, I came back and ordered the moules frites (mussels and french fries) for lunch one day. Given the choice between having the mussels served in a white-wine broth or a chorizo sauce, I went with the chorizo. And I was quite happy with that choice.
The mussels, which were a Mediterranean variety farm-raised in Washington State, were as delectable as before. The sauce is cooked with spicy sausage, which is then strained out. When we finished the mussels, the bottom of the bowl contained so much chorizo-and-mussel-flavored cream, we couldn't possibly get it all by dunking bread into it. I actually contemplated getting the rest of the cream sauce packaged to go, but then I envisioned myself drinking it in the parking lot. So I sadly let it go to waste.
Forty-two-year-old Philippe Schmit has a lot of experience with French seafood dishes. He was born in Roanne and apprenticed at several two-star restaurants in Paris before moving to New York in 1990 and taking a job as sous-chef at one of the best fish restaurants in the world, Le Bernardin. He went on to become executive chef at La Goulue in New York. Chef Schmit moved to Houston last year to work on opening Bistro Moderne.
If Schmit keeps up the quality of cooking that I encountered in my three visits to Bistro Moderne, this is bound to be the most sophisticated French restaurant in the city.
Bistro Moderne's grand-opening soiree was held just before the holidays last year. The event represented a symbolic new beginning for several different groups.
For the three cosmopolitan partners in the new venture, French chef Philippe Schmit, French restaurateur Jean Denoyer and Swedish investor Rick Wahlstedt, the party simply celebrated the launch of Houston's best French restaurant.
For the trendy Hotel Derek, the opening of Bistro Moderne hopefully will mark the end of a plague of culinary disasters. When the boutique hotel first opened, the food was served by the utterly awful Ling & Javier, a bad attempt at a Latin-Asian fusion restaurant. Then came Maverick, a high-end steak house with low-rent meat and not enough capital. Finally, in Bistro Moderne, the Derek seems to have found a restaurant with cutting-edge food and a decor fashionable enough to complement the boutique-hotel concept.
For French-food lovers, the opening of Bistro Moderne, along with two other new French restaurants, Bistro Calais and La Tour d'Argent, promises the end of a long drought. For too long, French restaurants in Houston have been going out of business or struggling for survival. Rouge, the stylish restaurant on Westheimer, even attempted to disguise its blatantly French fare by calling it New American cuisine. The news that French restaurants are opening again here is as refreshing as a cool front in late spring.
Last, for conservative Houstonians, the high-society bash signaled a change in the political climate. The gossip pages made it known that former commerce secretary Robert A. Mosbacher and his family and friends were prominent guests. And if Mosbacher and his gang of oil tycoons have found it in their hearts to forgive the French and eat bouillabaisse again, then surely the French boycott is over, once and for all.