A skinny guy with a blond bouffant hairdo and a calf-length black mink coat swoops into the bar at Rouge, where my dining companion and I are seated. He's with an entourage of nattily dressed young men. They stop at a table near ours for some air-kissing and a brief conversation in French with the four women there.
"Good Lord, the hairdressers are hanging out here," my tablemate whispers. "What a scene."
In fact, Rouge, the stylish new restaurant on Westheimer near Montrose, is so mobbed these days, it's difficult to get a table in the dining room. We showed up on time for a Wednesday reservation for two at 7:30 p.m. We were asked to wait at the bar until a table became free. After 20 minutes and two cocktails, we were offered a table in the bar that had been vacant the entire time. Apparently, no amount of waiting would get us a table in the dining room.
812 Westheimer, 713-520-7955. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Dinner: 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Smoked salmon: $8
Rabbit terrine: $7
Foie gras: $15
Salmon confit: $16
Lobster tagine: $27
The atmosphere in the dining room is elegant. The walls in the small room are painted intense colors of dark red and eggplant-purple, and every table is decorated with red roses. The bar, with its marble floor, track lighting and techno music, is noisier and more casual. But the table we're offered is up against a big upholstered banquette, so it's quite comfortable. And I have to admit, the people-watching in here is pretty wild.
After looking over the short but intriguing wine list, we seek the manager's help in selecting a red wine from the Rhône region to match our food choices. He recommends a relatively inexpensive but unusual bottle, a 2001 Balandran. It's a wine made from the Grenache varietal in the Nîmes area of the southern Rhône. The wine is an enticingly inky purple. But it's too warm to drink when it arrives, so we send it back to be chilled. When the bottle returns, ten degrees colder, we're impressed with the deep berry aromas, chewy viscosity and stout fruit flavors. The wine is a terrific complement to our first appetizer, a terrine of rabbit confit.
Edelberto Gonçalves, the chef at Rouge, uses the term confit to mean "slow-cooked." When sliced, his elegant terrine of rabbit confit reveals a decorative pattern of squares formed by vegetable strips. In the middle of the terrine slice, surrounded by the moist and well-spiced rabbit meat, is a gooey dried fig that gives the dish a sweet accent. The plate is garnished with piles of tiny black lentils and caramelized onions. On another plate sit two slices of toast and a little crock of sweet potato mayonnaise dotted with capers. My dining companion is a little confused about what you're supposed to do with all these spreads and toppings.
When I interviewed Gonçalves last month (see Toque Off, October 30), I asked him about the profusion of relishes he sends out with his food. These little accents are all intended to complement the dish, he told me, but there isn't any right way to assemble them. "I am not going to tell anybody how to eat," he said. You can take a bite of the rabbit with the fig, you can spread some mayo on the toast and top it with rabbit and garnishes, you can eat the toast separately with the onions on top -- the options are delightfully endless.
Our other appetizer is a seared slice of fresh foie gras. The hot, creamy duck liver is exquisite against a rustic foil of roasted leeks and a tiny glass of sweet, late-harvest Moscato.
For an entrée, I order the veal medallion, which in presentation resembles a stack of progressively smaller cookies. On the top, there's a little silver dollar-sized chunk of sweetbreads that's been flattened and sautéed in what tastes like a wine sauce. Under that, there's the medallion of veal, cooked perfectly to medium rare. Then comes a round slice of toasted bread with a circle of black olive tapenade baked into the middle. Finally, underneath it all is a pancake-shaped layer of purple onions caramelized with some tomato and herbs. You have to topple the tower to cut into it, but the combination of flavors is outstanding. And I swear I detect a little truffle oil in there somewhere.
Oddly, I can't taste the truffles at all in my companion's guinea fowl with black truffles. After a few bites, she pronounces the dish too creamy and too salty for her taste. These are complaints I seldom make, so I switch dishes with her. I must admit, the skin of the bird is a little oversalted, but the rich sauce doesn't bother me a bit. The slices of truffle don't taste much like fresh truffle, however.
For dessert, we throw the manager a curveball. We each have a glass of wine left and want to savor it. So we ask for a cheese plate, although the menu doesn't offer one. "No problem," he says, and the waiter returns with five excellent cheeses on a handsome stainless-steel platter. Evidently, the chef keeps a couple of stinky French cheeses, an aged Gouda and a creamy goat cheese lying around in the kitchen for just such contingencies.
My first visit to Rouge was a champagne lunch a few weeks ago. I remember what we ate much more clearly than what we were celebrating. After an appetizer of smoked salmon, served with extra-thick buckwheat pancakes (blini), my lunch mate had the creamy salmon confit over soft-cooked leeks cut to resemble fettuccine strands. The dish came with another plate of toast points and some tapenade, which chef Gonçalves encourages you to spread on anything you like.
I ordered the lobster tagine, which may be the best dish on the menu. A tagine is a Moroccan terra-cotta cooking vessel with a domed lid. The custom in Morocco is to prepare a stew in it in the morning, then drop off the vessel at a bakery or other establishment that has a fire burning, so you can park your tagine in the coals. Later that day, you return and haul the slow-cooked stew back home. The vessel absorbs some of the flavors. It is said that a well-seasoned tagine will impart a flavor of its own to the food cooked in it.
When you order the lobster tagine at Rouge, your waiter brings the lobster to your table in the cooking vessel so that you can experience the full blast of aroma when it's opened for the first time. I didn't see the point of stewing lobster in a slow cooker until I tasted it. The dish was stunning. The white meat was soft, with none of the rubbery texture that a quick boil so often produces, and the Moroccan spice mix had permeated the flesh to create one of the tastiest lobster dishes I've had in ages. The accompanying tiny baby cabbages and artfully layered vegetable slices made for a bold presentation.
The dish brings up a much-debated question: What kind of food is served at Rouge?
The word rouge is French for red. The restaurant first opened right around the time that the war in Iraq began. Perhaps the owners did seek to mitigate the anti-French backlash by calling the food New American cuisine, as has been reported. And it's quite true that chef Gonçalves was born and raised in Paris and trained in the French cooking style. But Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a French chef too, and nobody calls his famous fusion cuisine French. Granted, there are a lot of French words on the menu at Rouge. But there's also couscous, pasta and Moroccan spices. So is Rouge a French restaurant in disguise?
The lobster tagine in North African spices argues otherwise. Rouge isn't the only restaurant in the state that serves shellfish in a tagine. Chef Stephen Pyles makes an excellent seafood tagine at Dragonfly, the restaurant in the trendy Hotel ZaZa in Dallas. When I ate there last month, Pyles told me he got his tagine crockery at Casbah Imports here in Houston, the same place Gonçalves gets his. Pyles also told me that he calls the food at Dragonfly a Mediterranean/North African/Asian fusion. He came up with the concept to complement the fantasy atmosphere of the exotically decorated boutique hotel.
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The food at Rouge is certainly more French than what Pyles is doing in Dallas, but the approach is similar. If Pyles and Vongerichten get credit for boldly innovative fusion food, then let's give Gonçalves his due for creativity at Rouge. The menu is cosmopolitan and the craftsmanship is stellar. If the French-trained chef says the food is New American, then I, for one, am willing to go along with him.
While we finish our cheeses, a couple making out on their bar stools becomes so ardent that the bartender is forced to ask them to cool it. Meanwhile, the man in mink has taken a table outdoors, where he and his party sip cocktails alfresco and banter with patrons waiting for the valet. The late-night dining crowd has just begun to make its entrance.
Rouge is the hottest spot in town this season. If you're planning to celebrate a special occasion there, ask for a quiet table in the dining room when you make your reservation. And if you're planning to arrive late and eat in the bar, wear something flamboyant.