It’s 72 degrees outside and the sun is shining. Not the sweltering, hot and humid sunshine that plagues Houstonians during our summer months, but the breezy, California-esque sunshine that practically caresses the skin.
There I was, sitting under a white umbrella on the pristine, astroturfed patio at Café Azur in Montrose. Cars passed by on the road just a few feet away, but thanks to the large Oak tree and strategically placed shrubbery in front of the cafe, I barely noticed it. My lunch companion had already gone back to work, but I had the afternoon off, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Despite the fact that my coffee was cold and I’d already been there for two-plus hours, I wanted to linger.
That afternoon, we’d been treated to a preview of the new lunch menu at Café Azur. When the Montrose restaurant opened last fall, only dinner and weekend brunch service were offered. The lunch menu debuted on April 4, just in time for patrons to take advantage of Houston’s fantastic spring weather.
Though the lunch selections do have some crossover with dinner — items like his bouillabaisse (fish soup), foie gras taco (one of the best bites we tasted last year) and the truffle linguine are available — chef and owner Sidney Degaine has several delightful new plates designed to light up not only your plate but your palate as well.
The salmon gravlax, more of an appetizer than a salad (but listed under the salad section of the menu) is a definite highlight. Made with Degaine’s own gravlax recipe, the mild, slightly sweet cured salmon is served over a bed of cucumber marinated in yogurt. Cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs and a gin dressing, along with mustard seed pearls and artfully placed radicchio, make a beautiful, Instagram-worthy plate.
For sandwiches, you can try the classic croque-madame or croque-monsieur — the French versions of ham and cheese with or without a fried egg on top. But in keeping with the coastal French theme of the restaurant, Degaine also offers three choices for lighter, open-faced tartines topped with, respectively, prosciutto, salmon or grilled shrimp and avocado. The latter comes with a salad of purslane with balsamic vinaigrette. “I love purslane,” says Degaine, “It is a medicinal herb, good for the prevention of cancer. I recently found a supplier for it out in California.”
Degaine offers some vegetarian options as well, including a chunky heirloom tomato salad with crispy croutons, a smattering of pine nuts, and hunks of fresh, creamy mozzarella dressed simply with fresh basil, Maldon salt and extra virgin olive oil. “You don't want to mess with the amazing taste of those tomatoes,” he says.
For the cheese lover, there’s a crowd-pleasing grilled slab of butternut squash served over butternut squash puree and topped with a thin slice of French bread, over which is a mound of oozing, melted Taleggio cheese. A liberal dose of chopped chives and pine nuts are sprinkled on top. It’s large enough to be ordered as a shared plate, and decadent enough that you’ll want to order a glass of wine to go with it.
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Entrées are heartier and more substantial, with choices ranging from a lighter Mediterranean branzino filet, to duck pot pie served in a large, terrine-style tranche reminiscent of a pâté en croûte, to Degaine’s spectacularly plated version of boeuf bourguignon (beef Burgundy). To see it is to want it: Fried strips of crispy potato jut upwards from a round bed of buttery smooth mashed potatoes, with the stewed beef and its juices hidden in the center underneath a generous helping of gremolata.
If there’s one thing that’s missing from the lunch menu at this point, it’s a prix-fixe or business lunch option for those who have less time to linger (we are hoping Café Azur will introduce one in the future). For those who are looking for a lovely lunch experience, however, the menu is filled with options that invite you to sit back and enjoy the simple pleasures of coastal French dining. And, in keeping with the spirit of the Côte d’Azur, it’s worthwhile to know that there are also plenty of options for rosé — by the bottle and by the glass — among them, the Jolie-Pitt clan’s famous Château Miraval from Côtes de Provence, a Bandol Rosé from Domaine de La Laidière, and even a bubbly JP Chenet Brut Rosé.
Café Azur is located at 4315 Montrose. Lunch will be served Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations are recommended at 713-524-0070. For more information, please visit www.cafeazurhouston.com.