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Bonjour, Neighbor

There are plenty of restaurants in Houston that call themselves bistros, but most of them do so simply because they think the word adds a certain Continental sheen to the same old fare. But when folks refer to Europa, a hidden gem near Rice Village, by that Left Bank term, they're simply being accurate. No cafe in town more authentically exemplifies the spirit of the traditional French neighborhood place than Europa (which doesn't even claim the bistro title in its name). Located in a converted West U bungalow, the small, unpretentious place with no more than 45 spots for diners at its tiny, forest-green-granite topped tables truly seems from another land.

Europa's modest menu features the same kind of uncomplicated yet filling dishes that make a genuine French bistro its regular patrons' home away from home. In France, locals used the corner bistro as an extension of their own flats, hosting meals there and even keeping their own napkins in special holders. There was a practical reason for that -- until recently, many French apartments lacked kitchen facilities -- but there was a convivial reason as well. It helped create a sense of community.

Americans don't share this tradition, but Europa's owners, Elena Majnach D'Elia and her husband Orlando, do. The D'Elias are natives of Argentina, and in Argentina, as Elena explains, "we have many, many immigrants from Europe" from whom certain customs were learned. At Europa, she's decided not just to carry on the customs, but also to adopt dishes from many of the transplants. Married to an Italian-Argentine, and herself the daughter of a Belorussian deli owner from Buenos Aires and the niece of cooks from the former Yugoslavia, D'Elia always wanted to explore her pan-European culinary connections. When her chemical engineer husband was hired by a Houston-based oil company in the early '90s, she got her chance. "I am too hyperactive to stay at home," she says. So the couple found the yellow-brick house on Nottingham, and in September 1992 Elena opened her bistro.

In the manner of a true neighborhood cafe, Europa features home-style cooking and basic, traditional recipes that require no special equipment or expertise. The dishes rely on consistency and good-quality ingredients for their success. Since this midrange palette of tastes runs counter to the prevailing culinary trend, which emphasizes the so-called "Big Flavors," some adventurous diners might find Europa's preparations less than satisfying. But the less daring, or trendy, tired of finding their taste buds in a losing struggle with incendiary chiles or obscure herbs, will probably find Europa's simplicity a welcome relief.

For starters the homemade lentil soup ($3.25), one of the rotating daily specials, is a much appreciated light version of an often too-substantial cottage favorite. Here the clear broth allows the basic tastes of the lentils, onion and celery to carry the dish. And even the somewhat bacon-y Italian minestrone ($3.25), with its unusual combination of celery, carrots, cabbage and black-eyed peas made just pungent enough with bay leaves, follows the same pattern. But what works with the hot soups is a drawback when it comes to the gazpacho ($3.25). Although served with a little side dish of diced fresh tomato, onion and green bell pepper suitable for mixing, the cold tomato and vegetable puree is too bland to make much of an impression one way or the other. The same can be said of the red sauce on several otherwise perfectly acceptable Italian entrees: The lasagna a la Padana ($7.65) and both the chicken and corn cannelloni ($7.95 each) could use a bit of spicing up.

Both the green-and-red cabbage cole slaw ($2.75), which accompanies a number of dishes even when not mentioned on the menu, and the Dutch egg salad ($5.25) -- fresh tomato rounds, slices of hard-boiled egg, dime-size dill pickle bits, a sprinkle of capers and a pentagon of anchovies -- labor under what I found to be a too-generous helping of tame, Northern European-style mayonnaise, though I have to admit that a companion less enamored of strong flavors considered the soothing blanket of dressing just right.

There was no difference of opinion about the downy-light yet satisfyingly crispy crust on the appetizer empanadas ($2.35). This often deep-fried south-of-the-border specialty was here brushed with egg white then baked to golden perfection. The pastry pockets, filled with shreds of chicken or beef mixed with onion and green olive and accompanied by a vinegary basil dipping sauce, were simple and savory. The chicken flamenco, at $11.75 by far the most expensive item on the menu, adapts European cutlet-preparation style to the Americas by flattening a chicken breast, breading it and then lightly pan frying the meat until it's tender throughout. Served with small boiled potatoes, marinated carrots and a small cup of an unusual bechamel-type sauce studded with kernels of corn, it's well worth a try.

And the full-flavored onion quiche ($5.75) is a hands-down winner. Although listed as an appetizer and served with a side order of the cole slaw, this deceptively uncomplicated country-French staple would make a fine entree if accompanied by a green salad. It's rich enough with eggs and cream to make it filling, but the bonus points come from the wealth of precisely caramelized onions and the still-crisp pie crust beneath; they make it a joy to consume. The chicken Marbella ($7.95), too, is special. It's the kind of dish that gives bistro food its loyal following, and is worth going back to Europa for again and again and again. A leg-quarter of chicken, skin perfectly roasted until it's the color of old gold, is finished with a meltingly sweet and simultaneously savory prune, caper and brown sugar demi-glace. The accompanying carrots are a surprise: Cold and vinegary, these lightly blanched spears are a perfect foil for the chicken's rich sweetness.

Sweets, as it happens, are where Europa's kitchen truly shines. Offering more than two dozen different homemade desserts daily, the cafe attracts a considerable number of folks who just want to sip coffee, read one of the magazines found hanging on rods and indulge their passion for treats.

The desserts range in price from $1.50 to $4.50, and at the low end is the merengue, a kind of sandwich made from two biscuit-size swirls of hard meringue and a filling of ultra-rich, caramel-y dulce de leche. Too crumbly to spear with a fork and too large to bite easily, this luscious extravagance remains one of the mysteries of the universe -- as does how to eat it properly. A companion suggested unscrewing it in the manner of an Oreo cookie, licking out the golden-brown filling, then allowing the spun-sugar taste of the meringue to melt in your mouth. It works for me.

The tricolor bavarois ($4.50), made of mousse-like vanilla, coffee and chocolate layers stiffened a bit with clear gelatin, is more creamy than actively sweet, and the apple pie ($3.75), which looks nothing like the kind that appears on Thanksgiving tables, is crispy-tart with multitudinous layers of paper-thin apple slices beneath a wispy, golden crust. But the piece de resistance is the Argentine signature dessert rogel ($4.50). It consists of dozens of layers of pastry that taste for all the world like unsalted crackers, each separated by an equal layer of the sinfully rich melted-caramel taste of dulce de leche. The whole is then frosted with Italian meringue as gorgeously thick and swirled as blizzard snowdrifts on the Alps.

If your travel plans include Megeve or Val d'Isere this winter, you may find plenty of friendly little bistros ready to indulge you. But me? I'll be happy to kick back in Houston, enjoy a meal at Europa and pretend.

Europa, 2536 Nottingham, 942-0001.


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