Étoile Serves the Simple, Hearty French Food You Fell in Love With
Get a closer took at Étoile by checking out our slideshow.
There's a fine line between tradition and stagnation that becomes ever finer when you encounter a cuisine revered for its classic flavors and style. Julia Child breathed new life into French food (at least in America) in the 1960s, teaching us how to make Gallic staples in ways that even those with no culinary training could master. Later, Jacques Pépin introduced La Technique, which helped take the mystery out of some of the world's most lauded recipes, and contemporary chefs like Eric Ripert and Hubert Keller continue to innovate with French food, elevating classic dishes to gourmet status.
But it's easy to go the opposite direction. How many times have you opened a plastic-coated menu at a chain family restaurant — or even a high-end eatery — to find archaic dishes like trout amandine and coq au vin described exactly the same way they were back when Child introduced them to the American public? How often have you ordered one of these old-fashioned dishes and lamented the fact that there's nothing exciting about them? Are meals like boeuf bourguignon to be relegated to the pages of history books along with savory Jell-O molds and SPAMwiches?
Not if Philippe Verpiand has anything to do with it.
Verpiand is the chef at Étoile Cuisine et Bar in Uptown Park, and his thoughtful takes on traditional French food are enough to make you forget all the bad iterations of foie gras au torchon you've ever encountered and rejoice at the fact that, finally, someone has steered away from fusion and overly deconstructed dishes to get back to the simple, hearty French food we fell in love with in the first place.
The foie gras au torchon is just one example of Verpiand's mastery. The French word "torchon" means dish towel — a reference to the traditional preparation of foie gras in which it is wrapped in a dish towel to form a cylindrical shape. Étoile's squat slice of fatty duck liver is presented with a spoonful of dried-fruit mousseline, whose acidity complements the buttery foie. And oh, is that foie like soft butter on your tongue! Pink, smooth, creamy, ringed with a thin layer of light yellow fat, not a hint of grit or veins, no sour flavor, no crumbly texture. As all decent French chefs must, Verpiand makes his own torchons in-house, and the attention he pays to this small but important dish is impeccable.
All the classic French items on the menu here are prepared thoughtfully and with the same finesse as the torchon, from the moules marinière to duck à l'orange. The service, too, is what one expects in a venerable upscale establishment, but with none of the stuffiness that can so often mark typical gourmet French meals. This attention to history without musty arrogance or excessive modern technicality is what elevates Étoile's cuisine from overly passé or avant-garde to simply parfait.
When Verpiand and his wife, Monica Bui, came to Houston to visit relatives in 2012, they saw something here that many outsiders overlook — an exciting and rapidly expanding food scene. After years of working in and running Michelin-star restaurants across France and opening the much-lauded Cavaillon in San Diego, which he sold in 2011, Verpiand decided to take up permanent residence in the Bayou City and start a new venture. He hoped to re-create some of the magic loved by fans of his San Diego spot, which Zagat called a "charming French oasis." One year in, the Frenchman has accomplished that goal.
Even on weeknights, Étoile is packed with people ordering course after course from the menu of both traditional and seasonal dishes. The crowd is squarely in the 65-plus range, but young couples also seem to flock to the small, intimate space for dates, and the occasional solo guest will sit at the bar and sip on some of Étoile's solid but unadventurous cocktails (though the names and descriptions are quite amusing...I recommend the Ron Burgundy, which "reeks of rich mahogany"). The restaurant also includes a back room that's slightly quieter and cozier, thanks in large part to a wall of wine bottles and the warmer hues that color the private alcove.
However, where the menu succeeds in doing classic in an exciting way, the decor is unfortunately just as old-fashioned. "Distressed" wooden boards in shades of white and blue line the walls, a nod to an old French farmhouse, while oversize plush wingback chairs with upholstery that screams hotel-lobby furniture make it difficult to get close enough to the table without getting stuck or to scoot back a little without bumping into guests at the table next to yours. It's not the chicest of dining rooms, but it's functional. Besides, the food is what really matters, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with the tradition inherent in the menu.
The special selections vary daily, and Verpiand changes the main menu seasonally, reflected in the Saison section. This is where you'll find the catch of the day, seasonal vegetables and lighter or heavier fare, depending on the time of year. If the dinner menu seems small — only about 24 items on the traditional and seasonal menus combined — be sure to stop back in for lunch or brunch, both of which feature a number of sweet and savory dishes at remarkably reasonable prices.
For brunch, there are classic items including croissants and omelettes mixed in with less obvious offerings like a steak, hamburger or French toast. Lunch is similarly diverse, featuring a few salads and sandwiches along with duck leg confit and wild boar bolognese, and the "social hour" dishes are some of the best values in town. Étoile's bar isn't generally a place that I'd think to visit for happy hour, but cheese plates, truffled frites and crab cake lollipops, coupled with a diverse wine list, are enough to make me brave Galleria-area traffic at 5 p.m.
Where Étoile truly pulls out all the stops, though, is dinner. I can't imagine a better fancy-date place, with its reasonable prices and exquisite preparations of tried-and-true French dishes. The moules marinière are some of the best in town, thanks to rich white wine sauce containing just enough cream to thicken it slightly, but not so much that the flavor of the wine is lost. An off-menu special pasta dish featuring homemade ravioli filled with pulled short ribs in a cabernet reduction will titillate pasta-lovers tired of the same old combinations and carnivores who seek a rich, meaty flavor, even in ravioli.
Better still are the raviolis de champignon — possibly one of the best pasta plates I've ever eaten, including those I obsessed over while in Italy — raviolo filled with the smoothest mushroom puree and bathed in a lightly whipped sauce of port wine, truffle oil and aged Parmesan, then topped with thin wisps of cheese and finely sliced chives. Even after the ravioli were gone, I found myself stopping the waiter from taking my plate, which still had a thin layer of sauce on it. As soon as he left, I attacked the sauce with my spoon. I did not want any of it to go to waste.
Though the menu contains a fine list of traditional items, a special caught my attention one evening: Braised rabbit with polenta and root vegetables. As he did with the pastas, Verpiand managed to incorporate Italian influences from the south of France in his hearty fare and somehow improve upon even the Italians. The bed of polenta beneath the braised rabbit was as smooth as pudding yet retained that all-important firmness, while the root vegetables were cooked to the point of being soft but not mushy. The star of the dish is, of course, the rabbit. It practically fell off the bone into the savory, earthy braising juice, which had just enough tannic red wine to make the mouth pucker.
Verpiand even manages to make a beef tenderloin — a notoriously mild-flavored cut due to its lack of marbling — a decadent dish. The chef recommends you order it medium rare (which to a Frenchman is closer to rare), so it will be served with a peppery sear on the outside while remaining dark-pink and juicy on the inside. It's topped with a black pepper cognac sauce that complements both the meat and the crispy frites served with it.
As any decent French chef must, Verpiand continues to wow even into the dessert course with his simple takes on familiar French favorites. A crispy tarte fine aux pommes topped with wafer-thin slices of apples, fleur de sel caramel and a scoop of ice cream is picturesque enough to have been ripped from the pages of Saveur, but the flavors are clean and rustic, as if it were prepared in the modest kitchen of a provincial farmhouse. So, too, is the dark chocolate pastilla divine in its simplicity: the richest chocolate ganache wrapped in delicate puff pastry and served with a few dollops of deep-magenta raspberry coulis, which give the plate a small but necessary punch of acid. If you insist that you have no room left for dessert, beware. Verpiand is so proud of his desserts (and rightfully so) that he might just send one out to you anyway.
I fell in love with France within the first hour I was there. I fell in love with Étoile faster than that. From the food — perfect and unfussy enough to rival anything you could find in a beloved institution overseas — to the staff — friendly enough to greet regulars by name and converse about more than just the food or the weather — Étoile is everything I love about French culture and cuisine in the heart of Houston.
The French are often seen as generally rude, but I disagree. In my experience, any perceived rudeness is almost always the result of cultural differences. And it's important to remember that if and when (because he often takes breaks to check on the dining room) you meet Verpiand.
He's a man of few words and even fewer expressions, and talking with him, you get the idea he'd rather be in the kitchen, communicating through his food rather than with words. Upon praising his creations, smitten diners are met with a curt "Good" and "I know" rather than the typical "Thank you; I'm so glad you liked it!" gushes of gratitude.
Verpiand knows his recipes and techniques well, and he loves what he does so much that the care shines brightly in the final product. He conveys the best of French culinary tradition in his food, and he wouldn't serve it to anyone unless it was a perfect representation of his country and his craft. You needn't tell him that you enjoyed your meal. What Houston is learning, Verpiand already knows. His food is perfection.
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