The hot ham and Swiss cheese sandwich with sweet hot mustard on a crusty baguette with a cup of cold cucumber soup on the side may be the best thing I tried at the French House, an odd little breakfast and lunch operation on Westheimer at Fountainview. The sandwich usually comes with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. My lunchmate went with the mustard instead, and I think it was a good call.
The only decorations I noticed in the restaurant, which is furnished in neutral-colored Formica and linoleum, were the aquariums in the front and back, which are stocked with giant googly-eyed goldfish. The box-shaped dining room was completely packed at noon on a weekday. The almost entirely female crowd appeared to be dressed for shopping, in comfortable slacks and designer sandals. I saw a lot of salads on the other tables around us.
I got the "beef eater" sandwich with roast beef, sautéed onions and mushroom, melted Swiss and mustard on a crusty baguette. The beef was thin-sliced and cooked to a pinkish medium, and the mustard and cheese set it off nicely. But beyond that, the ingredients got excessive — it was a sandwich that was trying too hard. Most of the onions and mushrooms slipped off onto my plate; the rest found their way to my shirt.
A cup of chilled gazpacho with what tasted like a tomato juice base was a pleasant warm-weather accompaniment to our sandwiches. The cold soups at French House were surprisingly good. They also serve one hot soup a day, but I will put sampling those off until the winter.
Another one of my lunch amigos had the egg salad sandwich on wheat bread, which was awful. The egg salad was utterly bland, and the bread was the nasty sort of healthy whole-wheat loaf that falls apart in your hands. Based in part on that experience, I figured out that the sandwiches worth eating at French House are served on croissants or baguettes.
When I first noticed the sign for French House while I was driving down Westheimer, I wondered how it could be that there was a French restaurant on the fringe of the Galleria that I had never heard of. So I stopped by one Sunday morning around 11 for brunch.
I was a little disoriented by what I encountered inside. It looked like a generic American diner with a walk-up counter instead of table service — except that everyone behind the counter was Asian.
"Korean?" I asked the young guy behind the counter.
"No," he said simply.
"Vietnamese?" I tried again.
"Chinese," he said with a smile. "Taiwanese, actually."
"A French restaurant with all Chinese employees?" I said in wonderment.
"I know," he joked, "they ought to call it Chinese House, right?"
I ran into the Taiwanese woman who owned the place as she tidied up the little bins of sugar, sweetener and plastic containers of half & half beside the serve-yourself coffeepot.
"Why did you want to open a French restaurant instead of a Chinese restaurant?" I asked the elegant-looking woman.
"Chinese food is too complicated," she said.
I was dumbfounded. I had never thought of French cuisine as convenience food before, but it was good to get another perspective.
The coffee was weak, the napkins were paper and you carried everything to your table on a cafeteria tray. Apparently French House is popular among people who go to the gym instead of church on Sunday mornings, because almost every person seated in the restaurant was clad in running shoes and training apparel.
Our breakfast was shockingly good, given the expectations created by the ambience. We tried the breakfast croissant, a toasted fresh-baked crescent sliced in half and stuffed with scrambled eggs, cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato with a little mayonnaise, which was excellent. And we had a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with sliced avocado on a fresh crusty, toasted baguette that was even better.
The second time I ate breakfast at French House, I walked in a few minutes after their seven o'clock opening and saw a huge package wrapped up in brown paper on the front counter.
"Is that your bread order?" I asked. When the counterperson said it was, I asked which bakery they used.
"The French Bakery," he said. I was pretty sure he meant French Riviera Bakery on Chimney Rock.
I ordered a toasted baguette with two eggs sunnyside up and the ham steak that morning. The baguette was excellent and the eggs were fine. But the "ham steak" was disgusting. I expect real ham with a bone when I order a ham steak, not two slices of pressed ham loaf with a shiny red rind sliced to lunch-meat thickness.
Henceforward I'll stick to the sandwiches — on French Riviera Bakery bread.
My friend Paul Galvani told me that he had once asked the chef at Corleone Bar & Grill, the new Italian dining operation attached to Patrenella's on Jackson Hill, where he got his fabulous bread. The chef said it came from French Riviera Bakery. Paul told me the coffee at the bakery was excellent, too.
I had driven by the French Riviera Bakery on Chimney Rock between Richmond and Westheimer a thousand times before. But now, thanks to my French House visits and Galvani's recommendation, I was curious. So I stopped off for breakfast one morning.
The bakery, I discovered, is also Asian-owned. There are lots of French bakeries owned by Vietnamese bakers in Houston; they're famous for their Vietnamese sandwiches. Alpha Bakery in Hong Kong City Mall and Parisian Bakery on Beechnut are a couple of my Vietnamese-French favorites. But the Chinese-French fusion was new to me. Next week, I will recount my delightful experience at French Riviera Bakery.
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The last time I had lunch at French House, I took Houston architect Jim Herd along to talk about renovating my kitchen. Herd's firm not only does residential work, they also designed such upscale Houston restaurants as Catalan. He was understandably underwhelmed by the little sandwich shop's dull decor.
But Herd's office is right down the street, and he liked his turkey sandwich just fine. He also thought the cucumber soup was excellent. So I asked him if he would eat lunch at French House again. He said probably not.
"There's nothing wrong with the food," he said. "There are just too many other exciting restaurants to choose from in Houston."
I couldn't have said it better myself.