A Tale of Two Critics
"The french fries are awful," Alison Cook whispers. I pick one up off her plate and eat it. She's trying the chicken wings and french fries at Le Bec Fin, a tiny French cafe on Milam. I've had that dish before. The fried wings are flambéed in cognac, but they still taste naked, like buffalo wings that somebody forgot to dip in hot sauce. At least when I sampled the dish, the wings were served with skinny matchstick fries. The fries on Alison's plate are the thick-cut kind. But they're still hot and very crispy.
"What's wrong with them?" I ask her.
"They're frozen," she says.
"Not anymore," I point out. She rolls her eyes at my drollery.
"They taste like cotton in the middle," she says.
"What are you, some kind of critic?" I whisper. Alison is, of course, the restaurant critic at the Houston Chronicle. Unbeknownst to Le Bec Fin, she and I have both chosen to eat lunch there on the same afternoon. We sit at opposite sides of the seven-table restaurant with our respective dining companions. Her table is in front of the pastry case, and when I walk over to check out the desserts, I peek at what she's ordered. That's when we get into it about the french fries. Alison and I often disagree in print, but we've never held one of our debates in a restaurant before, so this is a first.
I get a cheeseburger, which is also terrible. The once-frozen patty is topped with an American cheese single and parked on an insipid white sesame-seed bun. But at least my french fries are good; they're the same matchstick fries I've had here before. And since my order came out just before the other critic's, I am afraid I got the last of them. Sorry, Alison.
My dining companion tries an adequate salade niçoise, made with romaine lettuce, canned tuna, artichoke hearts, quartered eggs, tomatoes and anchovy fillets. I like my salade niçoise in a large wooden bowl with chunks of potatoes, a stack of haricots verts and some savory surprises in the dressing, such as chopped roasted red peppers or capers. The rather skimpy salade niçoise at Le Bec Fin is served on a dinner plate with a thin vinaigrette.
All this complaining might lead you to believe that Le Bec Fin isn't a very good restaurant. In fact, I love the place. Standouts from previous visits include an excellent tomato-basil soup, made with creamed fresh tomatoes and plenty of herbs, served in a wonderfully hokey Provençal-style ceramic bowl that's decorated with colorful paintings of the French countryside. Civet de lapin, rabbit stewed in red wine, is a remarkable dish to find on the menu of a Little Saigon cafe. I think the French original is made with hare, but the rabbit here is tender and tasty. When I tried it, I soaked up the cooking liquid with slices of baguette. The merguez sandwich -- spicy lamb sausage on a roll with mustard, lettuce and tomato -- reminds me of a French hot dog. And the espresso-based coffee drinks I've had here have all been fabulous.
But the place certainly has its peculiarities. The location, the Asian clientele and the ownership make it clear that Le Bec Fin is a French cafe for the Vietnamese community. French and Vietnamese are both spoken here; English is a distant third. Proprietor Raymond Nguyen was born in Vietnam and then emigrated to Toulouse, France, where he spent the past 25 years. His two brothers own Le Bec Fin on Antoine, a patisserie and bakery that specializes in wedding cakes. Raymond has been in Houston for only seven months. He seems to have shipped everything in the cafe over when he moved; all the cute little decorations and restaurant equipment look distinctly French. But there are some American restaurant conventions that still elude Raymond.
Take, for example, Le Bec Fin's breakfast croissant. The menu offers scrambled eggs on a fresh-baked croissant with tomato slices, cheese and two strips of bacon. But when I tried to order it, I got a croissant on one side of the plate and eggs on the other. The dish's scrambled eggs with cheese are delicious and the bacon is thick and meaty, but unfortunately, the croissants are kind of rubbery. When I asked Raymond if the eggs were supposed to be inside the croissant, he looked at me like I'd taken leave of my senses. The breakfast croissant is, after all, an American fast food invention. We like our eggs inside a croissant so we can eat them while we're stuck in traffic. But a Frenchman would rather starve than eat in a car. And anyway, eggs aren't a breakfast food in either France or Vietnam. Maybe Raymond's brothers suggested this menu item, because he obviously has no idea what a breakfast croissant is.
The French colonization of Vietnam produced a lot of interesting French-Vietnamese fusion foods; Vietnamese baguettes and sandwiches, Vietnamese iced coffee and French pastries made with tropical Asian fruits are a few of my favorites. True to form, some of the best things to eat at Le Bec Fin are cultural crossovers.
Beef rock and roll flambé with french fries is my favorite dish here. Beef rock and roll is the English nickname for bo luc lac, one of the most popular offerings at Houston Vietnamese restaurants. In the usual version of the dish, you get chunks of beef filet stir-fried with garlic and served with fresh herbs and romaine lettuce so you can roll the meat up in lettuce-leaf tacos. Here, the filet mignon chunks are flambéed with cognac after being fried with the garlic. And they're served with french fries, like the French bistro classic, steak frites. I like to think of the dish as "bo luc lac frites."
The most outrageous Vietnamese-French fusion creation at Le Bec Fin is found in the bakery case. Alongside such formal French pastries as the "opera cake," a decadent multilayer nut cake with cream filling and bittersweet chocolate on top, sits an innocuous-looking cream cake labeled "durian."
Known in Dutch as stinkvrucht, the Asian fruit called durian is extremely odiferous. While the ivory-colored compartments inside the thorny hedgehog-size fruit actually taste like creamy custard, its aroma is closer to that of rotten eggs. Scientists report that the complex sulfur compounds in durian are very close to the chemical that gives skunks their scent.
A Thai once explained to me that Asians develop a taste for durian in the same way Westerners learn to love blue cheese. If you relied on your sense of smell, you would never try either food. But once you begin eating them, the obnoxious aroma becomes part of the appeal. I've eaten enough durian to be used to it, but I can't say I love it.
In fact, the little round durian pastry at Le Bec Fin is charming. I had one for dessert after my breakfast-sandwich fiasco with a big cup of café au lait. "Are you sure you want that?" Raymond asked when he saw it delivered to my table. "It's a very special taste."
I assured him I knew what I was getting into. The pastry tasted like a cream cake with a tropical custard filling. There was a faint sulfur taste, but nothing too alarming. If you wanted to work your way up to fresh durian slowly, this would be an easy first step.
"Durian is one thing I never eat," Alison says when I point the pastry out to her. By way of a challenge, I tell her I've already tried one, and it was quite good. I look forward to reading her review to see if she goes for it. Le bec fin means "a fine beak" in French, an idiomatic expression for "a good nose" or "a discriminating palate." Alison obviously has a more discriminating nose than I do. But I'm willing to bet I could kick her ass on Fear Factor.
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