We're heaping spoonfuls of tuna tartare onto slices of baguette like a sushi spread and washing it down with crisp Roederer Estate sparkling wine. The raw tuna melts in your mouth like butter. It's the ideal consistency: chopped into tiny cubes, not minced into mush. And the Asian-French accent of the soy sauce and truffle juice drizzled over the top is a touch of genius, bringing out the flavor of the fish and adding a sweet and salty sheen of its own. There isn't a speck of fish on the plate when the waitress clears the appetizer away.
But there is a crumb of tuna left behind on the tablecloth. My dining companion, Red, is studiously avoiding brushing the little fish nugget with her arm. Being the gentleman that I am, I take it upon myself to remove the stray morsel, carefully positioning my right forefinger and flicking it off the table.
Red is my ex-girlfriend, who now occasionally volunteers to join me for dinner, especially when the food is French. And Papillon Bistro Français is described as "French with a twist." Co-owner Youssef Nafaa, who also owns Mi Luna and Mia Bella, is the chef; Zack Ateyea, who owns Café Elegante, is his partner.
The restaurant is in the Hogg Building, around the corner from the Alley Theatre. It's a great example of how an old building can give a new restaurant instant character. The exposed ductwork, concrete pillars and raw brick walls of the original space are softened by the refinished wood floor and the green and purple chiffon drapes that hang in the huge windows. The antique chandelier brings the ceiling down to a more intimate level, and track lighting focuses on the linen-clad tabletops. The contrasts are inviting, like a dressy dinner party held in a warehouse.
Red and I are seated on a banquette along the front window. From our vantage, the long, dark wood bar and the cleverly refitted dining room spread out before us. This would be a great spot to people-watch -- if there were any people. On this Wednesday night, there aren't more than 20 patrons.
I'm thinking about ordering the roasted free-range chicken with potatoes lyonnaise, but the waitress grimaces. "It's very basic," she says. I figure that's waitspeak for "boring."
Red orders the poisson du jour, today's catch being mahimahi with a crabmeat stuffing. The stuffing has that old-fashioned bread-crumb-dressing flavor -- tasty, but together with a large pile of lemon-infused risotto, it's an awful lot of starch. The mahimahi is as oily and full-flavored and wonderfully fresh as it should be. Mahimahi, by the way, is an imported name for a local fish. The English name, dolphin, is seldom used, because so many people confuse the fish with the mammal. Known in Spanish as dorado, the dolphinfish is a large deep-water fish that runs from yellow to metallic green to dark blue. When Hawaiian mahimahi dishes became popular in California some years ago, restaurants and fishmongers across the country started calling dolphin by its Hawaiian name, regardless of where it was caught. But the fish is common to the Gulf of Mexico.
I order the salmon, and it's not quite what I imagine -- thank goodness. From the menu description (salmon with a golden tomato-chardonnay coulis), I figure I'll get a tiny piece of fish beside a precious little pool of sauce. Instead, the huge fillet of potato-crusted salmon comes bent over a pile of sweet-and-sour red cabbage, with spears of asparagus and a bunch of green beans sticking out each side. I can't find the tomato coulis, but I don't miss it; the red cabbage has been slow-cooked with honey and red wine, and it tastes terrific with the moist salmon. The vertical pile-up presentation, with the starches and vegetables on the bottom and the fish on top, makes the dishes look neatly composed without getting too fussy. The tower of chow also emphasizes the size of the portions. You get a lot of food for your money at Papillon.
We're sitting back, relaxing with the last of the champagne, when Red suddenly starts giggling. "Look," she says, pointing at the empty table directly in front of us. I can't figure out what she's laughing about. The table is empty; there's nothing to look at but a spotless white tablecloth. Then I see it: A tiny red cube of tuna sits right in the middle of the table, dramatically lit by the overhead spotlight. I don't know whether I should tell the waitress or not. We decide to make a run for it.
I'm sitting at the bar waiting for Red, who's running late for our second visit to Papillon. "I'll have a Perrier or something," I tell the bartender. He disappears to the far end of the bar, then reappears with a stemmed cocktail glass full of fizzy water and a blue tear-shaped bottle that's already been opened. The water costs six bucks -- I could have had a Scotch! Maybe they're trying to get even with me for my tuna-flicking high jinks.
I wouldn't be so mad if I hadn't just read an article in The Wall Street Journal about how restaurants are training their staffs to run up your bill with expensive bottled water. Substituting designer waters you've never heard of for Perrier and San Pellegrino is one tactic. (They deliver them already open so you won't send them back.) Other tricks, like refilling your glass without asking, are used to add more bottles to your bill without your noticing. Red arrives just in time to hear my fancy-water tirade. By the time I calm down, we're seated at a booth along the back wall.
For an appetizer, Red orders a fabulous, fresh-tasting salad made with baby greens, apples, oranges, slivered almonds and Roquefort. And I get the worst sweetbreads I've ever had. Evidently, the chef in charge of cleaning the sweetbreads is having an off day. The pieces are connected by springy bits of mucilage that look like rubber bands, and taste like them, too. The caramelized corn-and-plum-tomato chowder underneath the rubbery organ meat is lovely, but who cares? Between the water scam and the sweetbreads, I'm rapidly losing confidence in Papillon. But a great bottle of wine and two exceptional entrées completely change my mind.
Poitrine de canard et son foie gras is French for duck breast with foie gras. Take a bite, and you won't care how to pronounce it. The duck is served in a bowl, with sun-dried cherries in a broth of rich reduction sauce at the bottom. The cherries have plumped up in the liquid so that they're easily mistaken for the smallest of dozens of tiny whole mushrooms popping up all over the place. Next comes a layer of green squash slices and green beans. On top of that are thin slices of meaty Muscovy duck breast cooked medium rare, then bigger whole mushrooms. Off to one side is a flat, wristwatch-sized slice of seared foie gras.
"This is the way to eat foie gras," I say out loud as I jam a piece into my mouth with some duck breast, mushrooms and cherries. What a pleasure to eat the unctuous liver with some simple ingredients and a glass of red wine instead of as a course by itself with a lot of pretentious accompaniments. When most of the juicy duck slices and the foie gras are gone, I figure the rest of the bowl will be pretty boring. But the duck soup that's left in the bottom is full of cherries, mushrooms and vegetables -- it's so good I want to pick up the bowl and drink it.
Red gets mushroom-crusted lamb loin with truffled potatoes. The presentation looks like an ogre with a face made out of mashed potatoes: The slices of lamb are the giant teeth, and there are three carrot horns, two button squash eyes and a lamb-bone nose that sticks straight up out of the mashers. The lamb slices are coated with mushroom powder that has turned black in the cooking. Neither the mushroom dust on the lamb nor the truffles in the potatoes add noticeable flavors, but the dish is delicious all the same. The tender lamb is done medium rare, and the slices sit on top of a rich demi-glace sauce that gives them even more meaty flavor. The serving of lamb is enormous, and there are more mashed potatoes than anyone can eat. More little round button squash lurk behind the ogre's ears.
We finish with a sinfully sweet apple tart. The apples are gooey with brown sugar, and the tart sits in a pool of vanilla cream drizzled with blueberry sauce. Topping it all is a scoop of vanilla ice cream encrusted with caramelized sugar. What fun it must be to blowtorch ice cream. We leave the restaurant as an after-theater party begins to fill it up.
Simple but sturdy French bistro fare has become exceedingly popular in Houston lately, and the menu at Papillon features lots of the classics (steak frites, roasted chicken and mussels in broth). But few restaurants that call themselves bistros offer dishes as ambitious as Papillon's duck breast with foie gras or tuna tartare with truffled soy sauce. These are the kinds of dishes you don't want to miss here.
So when your waiter steers you away from the basic roasted chicken and toward something more elaborate, you can trust him. It's when he approaches your table with a blue bottle that you have to watch out.
Joe Phelps "Le Mistral" 1998
They call this a "Rhône-inspired" California wine. What's inspired is that Phelps doesn't bother to stick with the usual Rhône varietals. Instead, the winery has ingeniously blended syrah, a Rhone grape, with zinfandel, a variety that doesn't come from the Rhône but tastes like it does. The result is a stunning bottle of wine with an intense ruby color, a concentrated flavor and a velvety finish that will put a similarly priced Châteauneuf-du-Pape to shame. This is just the thing to drink with Papillon's "French-inspired" cuisine.
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