If you look back on the new restaurants that have opened this year in Houston, most have fallen within two categories: established restaurants and groups that have opened new concepts or additional locations, and concepts from other cities that have opened branch locations in Houston.
The examples are numerous. On the homegrown front, Killen’s Steakhouse and Killen’s BBQ opened Killen’s Burgers in May; Delicious Concepts (the owners of Pink’s Pizza, Republic Diner and Lola, etc.) opened Ritual in July; the owners of Helen Greek Food & Wine opened Arthur Ave in August; Cherry Pie Hospitality opened Pi Pizza in September; The Adair Family Restaurant Group opened Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors earlier this month; Peli Peli will open Peli Peli Kitchen this week, and so on.
Out-of-towners that have recently opened in Houston include all the concepts that have opened in the ritzy River Oaks District (Le Colonial, Steak 48, Toulouse and its sister restaurant Taverna, Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Amorino Gelato), as well as spots like Colorado-based Snooze A.M. Eatery, Dallas-based Cane Rosso, San Antonio-based The General Republic, etc.
And then there’s a place like Cafe Azur, a charming neighborhood restaurant that opened on Montrose a couple of weeks ago. The story behind it is the kind that captures your heart and makes you want to go and support the young duo behind it. The food is what will keep you coming back.
Located in the former Brasserie Max & Julie space on Montrose at Richmond, Cafe Azur brings a breath of fresh air to the Houston restaurant scene. Sidney Degaine, a French chef whose roots are in Nice in the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), and his Brazilian wife, Maria, met years ago while working in Idaho. They fell in love, got married and then moved to Brazil, where they opened three restaurants.
Despite their success, after the duo had kids, Degaine and his wife decided that they wanted to raise their children in the United States. He says that he visited many cities in search of a new home for his family and his restaurant, ultimately passing up places like Dallas and Miami in favor of Houston, which he chose because of the thriving restaurant community and the fact that Houstonians are known to eat out an average of five times a week.
The decision made, the Degaines sold all of their holdings in Brazil and purchased the Brasserie Max and Julie spot, which they have transformed into a delightful neighborhood eatery channeling the breezy coastal vibe and aqua-turquoise hues of the French Riviera, complete with a lush green ground floor patio and balcony.
At just around dusk at Cafe Azur, dappled sunlight filters through the branches of the large oak tree positioned right in front of the restaurant. It’s still a little too hot to sit on the patio, but the white umbrellas and lovely scene are such that you know you’ll want to revisit for brunch or on a cooler evening.
We are greeted at the door by a suited French maître d'. “Bienvenue à Cafe Azur,” he says with a broad smile as we step across the threshold and take in the cozy dining area and wraparound bar.
Diners who are former patrons of Brasserie Max and Julie might remember a short bar and a space dominated by dark-colored wood. Cafe Azur is similar in terms of layout, but different. The bar has been extended so that it now forms an “L” shape that is much more spacious and inviting. In contrast to the old-school dark wood of before, the color scheme now is light and bright with soothing, cool shades of white, turquoise and aqua blue that allow you to make believe that you’re in a small restaurant in a coastal town.
The menu is French, but reflective of this coastal theme, with lots of seafood throughout. There were three of us that evening, so we ordered several appetizers and entrées to share. Of the three appetizers we tried, the braised octopus was exemplary, something we would definitely return for. It was tender, with still enough chew to make it interesting, and the plating put the focus on the just-charred tentacles, while a bed of tender potatoes with capers, lemon and fragrant, sweet onions added flavor without detracting from the main ingredient.
Crispy artichokes over ricotta was a nice seasonal dish to share, though a bit scant on the artichokes. An artichoke heart had been cut into fourths and fried till crisp, and was served with crispy croutons and creamy ricotta whip dotted with tangy lemon zest.
Branzino carpaccio was fresh and generously portioned, but disappointing because it was sort of drowned in too much olive oil. There were blood oranges and lemon in the dish, but not enough. It would have benefited from a stronger burst of acidity or some spice.
The bouillabaisse, on the other hand, showed a mastery of the dish that I haven’t seen elsewhere in Houston. The broth — a rich, opaque tomato and saffron version — was almost as thick as a stew, full of seafood essence (it’s made with five types of seafood, including mussels, shrimp and sea bream) and utterly sublime. Knowing that our table was a three-top, the kitchen had portioned it out into the three separate bowls for us (a lovely gesture), and I found myself scraping the bowl for every last drop.
What took it over the top, though, was the side dish of crackers and rouille (a sauce of olive oil with breadcrumbs, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper) that came with a clove of fresh garlic. We were instructed to rub the fresh garlic over the cracker and then top it with a generous spread of rouille before sipping the broth. That one-two punch of garlic-rubbed rouille cracker and soup was seriously a wow, something I’ll definitely return for, and often.
Another wow? The duck confit. Degaine takes his crispy-skinned, pan-seared duck leg and tops it with a viscous, caramelized demi-glace orange sauce that made each bite a joy.
We finished the night with a smokey tableside show of pistachio ice cream, frozen tableside with liquid nitrogen. An affordable bottle of Alexander Valley Pinot Noir ($49) made a fine pairing with our meal.
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Our experience at Cafe Azur, though not perfect, was the kind that makes you feel like you have a connection with the restaurant. The atmosphere was quaint and cosy. The menu was interesting enough to make you want to come back and try more. Degaine, toward the end of the meal, came out of the kitchen wiping sweat off his brow, eager to see how we had enjoyed his food. My only quibble would be with the music, which was sort of clubby and techno, instead of relaxing and breezy, but other than that, this is one of those places I'll be happy to revisit. It's only in its second week of operation, but the small family-owned endeavor shows major promise, not just as a neighborhood restaurant, but as one of Houston’s destinations for alfresco dining as well as for authentic French cuisine.
Cafe Azur is currently only open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sundays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. The restaurant will offer brunch on weekends starting October 22. For more information, visit azurhouston.com.