By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
The pâté de campagne sandwich at French Riviera Bakery on Chimney Rock comes thickly spread with coarse, country-style pork pâté on your choice of breads. Go with the popcorn-crunchy baguette, lightly dressed with Dijon mustard and decorated with lettuce, tomato and pickles, and sink your teeth into one of the best sandwiches in the city.
A friend of mine created another outstanding sandwich from French Riviera's mix-and-match menu the other day. He got one layer of thick-sliced mortadella and a second layer of thin-sliced Italian hard salami on a baguette with mustard and mayo, lettuce, tomato and pickles. It tasted sort of like a French muffaletta.
The baguettes are incredible, but you can also get your sandwich on wheat, white, sesame-crusted semolina, a country boule, a soft bun, a croissant or focaccia. French Riviera also offers a whole farmhouse loaf to take home, which, along with the baguette and the croissant, is served at other restaurants around the city.
3032 Chimney Rock Road
Houston, TX 77056
Pâté sandwich: $6.25
Tuna salad sandwich: $6
Double espresso: $3.25
In fact, I was prompted to visit French Riviera Bakery because of the sandwiches I had tried on their baguettes and croissants at French House on Westheimer. The bread was so good, I guessed that the bakery might serve a helluva breakfast and lunch. And I guessed right.
I stopped by early one morning when it was still cool and had an espresso at one of the chic little aluminum tables that line the front sidewalk. There is a veritable jungle of potted plants lining the sidewalk under a canvas awning out there. I love the cartoon of a baguette wearing sunglasses with its arms behind its head reclining under a beach umbrella that appears beside the name of the place on the awning.
The interior is dominated by four huge bakery cases. The walls are painted lemon custard yellow and decorated with a map of France, photos of women drinking coffee and French food advertisements. There are around a dozen wooden tables arranged French-style — right on top of each other. And given the multinational crowd of Asians, Latin Americans, Europeans and locals, hanging out there is like eavesdropping at the United Nations.
The breakfasts at French Riviera Bakery are stellar. On my second breakfast visit, a companion and I tried some scrambled eggs with ham, cheese, mushrooms and onions. I was delighted by the moist, fluffy consistency. An omelet was thin and elegantly folded. The flaky croissants served on the side were sliced in half and toasted. I even liked the butter.
But the best breakfast offerings at French Riviera Bakery are the sweet things — Danishes, brioches and filled croissants. The almond croissant, which contains a thick layer of almond paste, was my favorite. I also fell in love with the pain chocolat studded with chunks of bittersweet dark chocolate.
And to top it off, the bakery serves top-quality Segafredo Italian espresso, properly made with lots of foamy crema, in a Segafredo logo cup.
It surprised me to discover that the owners of French Riviera Bakery were Chinese. Of course, Asians are no strangers to the French bakery business. There are probably more Vietnamese Americans running French bakeries in Houston than there are people of French descent. And since Vietnam spent so many years as a French colony, that seems pretty normal.
But Vietnamese-French bakeries, like Parisian on Gessner and Parisian II on Wilcrest, are famous for Vietnamese sandwiches made with fish sauce and spicy chile peppers. Their shelves are stocked with Vietnamese favorites like rice cakes and dim sum dumplings.
At French Riviera Bakery, the offerings are pure French. You can even find such favorite European products as Bonne Maman Chestnut Spread, Nutella and imported Dijon mustard for sale. One morning I approached one of the owners to see if I could figure out what was going on.
"Are you Taiwanese?" I asked a man who was mixing some batter behind the counter. His name was Louis Wu, and he said that his Chinese ancestors were from Hong Kong. But I noticed that he spoke English with a French accent.
It turned out that Louis and his brother Robert, who have owned French Riviera Bakery since the mid-1980s, grew up on the island of Madagascar. Madagascar was a French colony from 1895 until it became independent in 1960. French remains one of the island's two official languages.
Louis and Robert Wu both grew up speaking French and working in French-style kitchens from an early age. Louis went on to study cooking in Paris and worked as an apprentice and then as a baker there for many years before he came to Houston.
I was so amazed by the story of the French-speaking Chinese Wu brothers from Madagascar that I got carried away telling the story to my dining mates, John Bebout and Jim Herd, over lunch at the restaurant. I went on to describe the colonial history of Madagascar. Maybe I was droning on a bit.
"What a coincidence," Bebout suddenly interrupted in a loud voice. "Did I ever tell you that I have a birthmark in the shape of Madagascar on my left hip?"
I guessed Bebout was harassing me because I was being pedantic. But I'm never quite sure when an Aggie is pulling my leg. So I made the mistake of calling him on it.