An Aging French Romantic
My medium-rare filet mignon at Chez Georges on Westheimer came with foie gras on top and a truffle sauce underneath, so I got to sample all of those old French standards in one over-the-top entre. Maybe it was just nostalgia, but on that cold winter night, the "coeur de filet de boeuf 'Rossini,'" as the dish was formally titled, and the glass of second-growth Bordeaux I had with it made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
The wine was a Durfort Vivens, a second-growth Margaux. It had a leathery aroma and a flavor that was a complex tangle of mellowed tannins and faded fruit. Wine expert Jancis Robinson described a recent vintage of this unassuming Bordeaux as "worthy but not exciting ... slightly flabby." At $75, the 1999 Durfort Vivens was about $200 cheaper than the first-growth Chateau Margaux. I thought it was a lovely wine for a weekend in January. But then again, I have a lot of sympathy for worthy, but slightly flabby.
My dining companion, a striking young woman in a sleeveless black dress, wasn't knocked out by the wine or her "civet de lapin, sauce poivrade." Unfortunately, the thicker parts of the rabbit in mustard cream sauce were quite dry. They were rendered palatable by a thick coating of the sauce, but that got old pretty quick. Her appetizer was even more lackluster. "Terrine de legumes 'Olympe'" is evidently French for an artfully decorated rectangle of tasteless veggie mush thickened into a pate.
My appetizer, "chausson d'huitres tiedes 'favorite,'" a half dozen oysters sauteed in champagne cream sauce over puff pastry, was much better. And it came before any of the other rich foods, so the creaminess wasn't overwhelming. Chez Georges's yawningly predictable menu also includes escargot, terrine de foie gras, Dover sole and duck in orange sauce. For dessert, there's tarte tatin and profiteroles.
We hadn't actually set out for Chez Georges that Saturday night when I first visited the restaurant two weeks ago. We intended to eat at Max's Wine Dive, which is known for its $14 chili dogs, $18 Kobe hamburgers, big cones of French fries and unique wines by the glass. It's a grazer's restaurant where you can also get steamed mussels, cheese plates and main dish salads. You would be hard-pressed to put together a three-course meal from its eclectic components. But I'm guessing Max's is a true reflection of what young Houstonians want to eat.
I was impressed by the casual interior at Max's -- stained concrete floors, a room-length mirror on a brick wall, exposed ductwork, a long black bar and a few booths. The casually dressed crowd looked very cool. But it was so crowded at 7:30 on Saturday night, we couldn't wedge our way close to the bar, never mind get a glass of wine. Max's is open until 2 a.m. on weekends, so we could have come back later. Instead, we gave up and called Chez Georges. They said they could seat us immediately.
Chez Georges is a romantic French restaurant located in the old two-story house on Westheimer where Aldo's used to be. The fusty dining rooms, with their creaky wood floors, old French furniture and delicately framed artworks, are the stage for a nightly snore-a-thon. At first, I couldn't understand why the hostess wanted us there by 7:45 p.m. rather than 8 p.m. When we arrived and saw that most of the gray-haired crowd was finishing dessert (or nodding off), I realized that the restaurant probably closes up most nights right after the early birds finish up at 7:30.
Once upon a time, classic French restaurants like Chez Georges were the very definition of fine dining in America. And you could expect such a bastion of gourmet cooking to be booked solid for months in advance. Today, such old-fashioned French restaurants with their cliches in cream sauce seem laughably out of date. When their aging chefs retire, there might not be many of these old relics left.
But last Saturday, when I decided to take my daughter out for an early Valentine's dinner, Chez Georges was the first place that came to mind. I made our reservation for 8 p.m., figuring the dining room would be empty. In fact, ours was one of two tables occupied. Katie was impressed by the formal place settings and mesmerized by the table's little glass dome centerpiece, with an incredibly detailed French street scene illuminated by a tea candle. She had never eaten at a classic French restaurant. All of the old cliches on the menu were new to her.
It was refreshing to see things anew through her eyes. Just as you need to know something about art history in order to understand modern art, you need to know a little bit about classic French cuisine before you can appreciate its modern interpretations, I told her. If you don't know that a classic tarte tatin is a dessert made with apples, then you won't get the allusion when you eat Bistro Moderne's savory tatin made with brie and duck.
I ordered a Jean Ernest Sancerre and told her not to judge the sour white wine by the way it tasted alone. American winemakers produce soft, buttery wines that taste good at cocktail time but don't stand up to food. An extremely amusing amuse-bouche arrived in the middle of my speech. It was a tiny hamburger bun with a teaspoon of salmon tartare in the middle served with a dozen miniature French fries on the side. The Sancerre was the perfect lemony counterpoint to the taste of the oily, raw fish, which neatly illustrated my point.
I got the escargot ma facon (at the whim of the chef). That night, chef Georges Guy centered an artichoke heart slice on a small plate and surrounded it with snails in a thick and garlicky pesto cream sauce. The Sancerre cut through the cream and cleaned our palates on cue. Katie got the special appetizer, an excellent giant seared scallop with a pastry crust.
They didn't have any Dover sole that night, nor did they offer the bouillabaisse that I have heard some Chez Georges patrons rave about. But I was delighted with that night's fish special -- an order of grouper over tomato cream sauce. The fish was brilliantly cooked; it fell apart into big, moist sections as I ate it.
Katie's salmon en papillote was a disaster. The fish, which was nested over julienned vegetables and wrapped in parchment paper before being baked, was dry and overdone. It came with a ramekin of extremely thick Bearnaise sauce. If you spread a big gob of the tarragon-scented mayonnaise on the chalky chunks of fish, you could choke some of them down.
When the waitress asked how our food was, we told her the salmon was overcooked. She said that was not typical; chef Guy usually erred on the rare side. There was an intern in the kitchen that night, she apologized. But she didn't offer to replace the fish, discount the tab or give us free breath mints. She didn't even invite us to swear at the intern like Gordon Ramsay.
For all its failings, I will probably be back to creaky old Chez Georges. Sometimes filet mignon with foie gras, truffles and a faded Bordeaux are just what the doctor ordered. And my 75-year-old mother visits quite often. She loves old-fashioned French restaurants that start serving at 5 p.m. I have some more daughters who need to further their food educations, too.
For dessert, Katie had her first profiteroles. If you've never had this dessert, it's a plate of thick pastry tubes stuffed with pastry cream or ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce. Georges Guy's interns may be overcooking the rabbit and salmon these days, but they make the best profiteroles in Houston. The pastry is fluffy, the caramel ice cream inside is spectacular and the dessert comes with a handmade spun-sugar dome. The last time I saw one of these was at a fancy French restaurant my parents took me to when I was in high school. The sugar is drizzled over a bowl and holds the shape when it hardens. It tastes like caramel and sparkles like a tiara. 219 Westheimer, 713-529-7788. Hours: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
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