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The Silver Tower Meets The Shining

Liberté, égalité and fraternité in a log cabin on White Oak Bayou

The three of us were seated at a table overlooking part of the first floor roof at La Tour d'Argent on Ella. Four or five raccoons were eating table scraps out there under the glare of a spotlight. Since the restaurant looks like a hunting lodge, the wildlife seemed weirdly appropriate.

After an appetizer of foie gras terrine with shallot marmalade, I sampled a salty duck confit and dreamed I was back in Bergerac. In its latest incarnation, La Tour d'Argent is serving the hearty cuisine of the Dordogne. Bergerac is the capital city of that poultry-producing region and the hometown of La Tour's new chef, Cedric Guerin.

The Dordogne is my favorite part of France and over the years I've befriended a duck farmer there named Armel Barthe, who offers table d'hĂ´te dinners (dinners for guests) at his 13th-century farmhouse. The Barthes simply sit guests down at the family dinner table to eat along with them.

Cedric Guerin's rustic yet refined cuisine: Duck confit 
(front) with salade maison and foie 
gras-stuffed quail.
Troy Fields
Cedric Guerin's rustic yet refined cuisine: Duck confit (front) with salade maison and foie gras-stuffed quail.

Details

Salade maison: $7.50
Foie gras-stuffed quail: $23
Confit and duck breast: $24
Filet au poivre: $32
Veal tenderloin and sweetbreads: $27

Hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

2011 Ella Boulevard, 713-864-9864.

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Although he cans foie gras pâté; on the premises, Barthe never serves it at his own table. It's his cash crop -- he can't afford to eat the stuff. His dinner menu for guests is always the same: sturdy red wine, garlic soup, a simple salad, an appetizer of cold duck-meat rillettes and pâtés, and an entrée of hot duck confit with potatoes cooked in duck fat.

At La Tour, Cedric Guerin serves a more refined version of this provincial cuisine, which means no garlic soup, lots of foie gras and more variations in the entrées. You can eat light by ordering salads and fish dishes, or you can savor the hearty, rustic flavors of Southwestern France by ordering the poultry.

Guerin's falling-apart tender, long-cooked duck confit was served with pink slices of quickly grilled duck breast. The chef gave the combination of duck cooked two ways a tropical twist with a garnish of tomatoes and tomatillos and a sweet mango sauce. We also tried a medium-rare filet au poivre, which came to the table cooked to perfection. Steak au poivre seems as dated as "veal Oscar" to me, but at least the steak was juicy and the peppercorn sauce didn't overwhelm the flavor.

A third entrée of soft slices of veal tenderloin served with a thick porcini cream sauce and a mound of veal sweetbreads was absolutely delectable, though impossibly rich. The sweetbreads were so tender they fell apart in my mouth before I could chew them. The asparagus risotto on the side was, perhaps, one rich and gooey texture too many.

We accompanied dinner with a bottle of Cotes de Beaune Villages, a comparatively affordable Burgundy. With food like this, red wine is essential. It serves as a solvent to keep the cream and duck fat from clogging your palate.

As we passed around our entrées, I found myself nearly sticking my face in the plates to see what I was eating. The only light was the one outside, so the table was dimly lit. It was like eating in a darkened theater. I guess the raccoons were supposed to be the stars of the show. But they seemed a little skanky.

These shabby critters live under the bridges on the White Oak Bayou, after all. While we perused the dessert menu, one of them mounted another. I asked my companions if they wanted to order after-dinner drinks and stay for the porn show.


About a hundred years ago, a French-Canadian carpenter built a log cabin on White Oak Bayou. Various residents since have expanded the building using logs and other rough-hewn materials to maintain the rustic look.

Today, that old building houses La Tour d'Argent. The name means "tower of silver" in French; it's also the name of one of the most famous restaurants in Paris. The Paris original is a legendary haute cuisine restaurant with posh dining rooms overlooking the Seine.

The Houston Tour d'Argent overlooks a ravine in White Oak Bayou. The original hundred-year-old log cabin serves as the central dining room; it's decorated with an unbelievable number of antlers, horns and other hunting and fishing souvenirs. The restaurant also houses a large collection of antiques.

This dense accumulation of dead animal parts and old furniture, along with the musty summer-camp aroma of the log cabin, gives the restaurant the atmosphere of an ancient hunting lodge. Whether that's a selling point or a problem depends on how you feel about old hunting lodges.

"It's creepy," a female companion commented over dinner during a second visit. There were few customers, and the emptiness and silence made each creak of the floorboards sound ominous. "It reminds me of the hotel in The Shining. I expect to see Jack Nicholson with an ax outside the window," she said with a shiver.

It's an intriguing metaphor. The character played by Jack Nicholson in The Shiningwas no match for the forces that haunted the Overlook Hotel. And as I looked around the dining room of La Tour d'Argent, I wondered if Cedric Guerin's cooking could stand up to the overbearing spirits that dominate this old place.

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