Flea Market French
The duck confit salad I had for lunch at La Brocante Cafe on Kirkwood was a plate with three items. There were lightly dressed field greens, a preserved duck leg quarter that had been broiled until the skin was crunchy and a pile of deep brown shaved potatoes cooked in duck fat. I tried the potatoes first. They were cooked until they were as crispy as potato chips on the edges but moist in the middle. I followed those with some juicy thigh meat, some of the duck cracklings and then a forkful of the field greens in vinaigrette. The spectacular combination of flavors transported my palate and my imagination to the southwest of France. Suddenly, I couldn't drink iced tea. I ordered a glass of Cabernet and pretended it was Cote de Bergerac.
Before the confit salad, we had sampled an average-tasting onion soup and a wonderful "fisherman's soup." The boldly flavored fish broth was served in the style of bourride with croutons, with aioli and red pepper mayonnaise on the side along with a bowl of grated Gruyère. You spread some toast with flavored mayo and sprinkle a little cheese on top, then float it in your soup.
A salad with goat cheese and thin slices of Bayonne ham was the only clunker. The goat cheese was spread on croutons and the ham was served beside the dressed field greens. There wasn't anything wrong with the salad; it just suffered by comparison with the rest of the outstanding dishes.
For our other entrée, we ordered something called oysters New Orleans from the appetizer list. It turned out to be one of the best cooked oyster dishes I've ever eaten. Oysters tend to shrink when you cook them. These seemed to have swollen up in the cooking process. They were poached in a wine-flavored cream sauce with julienned leeks and chunks of bacon. Then the whole luscious mess was poured over puff pastry. Each fat oyster seemed to explode in my mouth.
I ordered another glass of wine, this one a crisp white Sauvignon blanc to go with the oysters. I don't usually drink in the afternoon, but I don't often get old-fashioned French food this good either. Whatever it was I was supposed to accomplish, the rest of the day could go to hell, I decided.
A few weeks later, on a dinner visit to La Brocante, the owner and veteran French chef Georges Guy came to our table. It wasn't any special honor. The chef went to every table that night. He and his wife Monique were running the front of the house and the kitchen at the same time. Georges Guy recited the specials on the blackboard, took people's orders and bussed tables. That's in addition to his duties as the chef.
When Georges and Monique Guy closed their previous restaurant, Chez Georges on Westheimer where Feast is now located, they said they were retiring. Georges is in his mid-sixties. His children and their spouses run several of the city's most successful French restaurants, so it seemed natural that the older couple would turn over the French restaurant business to the next generation. But evidently, retirement didn't suit them. I overheard Monique tell some other patrons that La Brocante is just a little place to hang out with their friends. So far, they haven't hired a staff other than a dishwasher. They do it all themselves.
With only 30 seats, the cafe is more like a large dinner party than a restaurant. La Brocante means "flea market" or "garage sale" in French. Monique Guy sells old furniture and bric-a-brac out of the space. There are price tags hanging on everything. One of the dining tables is a well-worn leather-covered card table. A wooden bed frame forms a booth. The plates are mismatched and the plastic placemats are gaudy maps of France with advice for tourists. The menu is handwritten on a blackboard.
That night my dining companion started her dinner with a vegetable terrine. The square slice of molded vegetables looked like a modern art canvas with little circles of bright green asparagus in a field of pink tomato cream with bright white creamy streaks. It looked gorgeous and tasted bland.
I got a cute little copper pot full of escargot with garlic butter and chunks of artichoke heart. The snails were wonderfully tender and the artichoke chunks offered a surprising contrast of textures. When the snails were gone, I mopped up the garlic butter with crusty French bread and gathered the rest of the artichoke heart on each piece of bread.
I much preferred my companion's entrée of Gulf red snapper with fennel to my cassoulet. The fish was a generous portion, and the fennel in butter sauce was an unusual side. The filet was artfully arranged on piped coils of mashed potatoes with a garnish of steamed green beans.
The cassoulet was a bowl of white beans with a Toulouse sausage buried within, along with some duck confit. A chunk of roast pork still on the bone was balanced on top. Once I might have been content with this humble dish, but I'm afraid I've been spoiled by the cassoulet at Feast, which comes to the table in a big round casserole bubbling hot out of the oven and topped with a crispy crust of bread crumbs.
I still had some Syrah left in my wineglass when we finished our entrées, so I asked busboy Guy if he could bring me a little cheese. He was happy to oblige. We finished our wine with a small sampling of brie, goat cheese and Roquefort served with some bread and salad greens. That's one sharp busboy.
For dessert, we had a poached pear with vanilla ice cream covered with chocolate sauce. The ice cream desserts come in what looks like a taco salad shell — only it's made of a sweet batter instead of tortilla dough.
While I highly recommend that you visit La Brocante as soon and as often as possible, I have to say I enjoyed my lunch visit more than dinner. The restaurant faces west, and despite a phalanx of patio umbrellas and stout window shades, the intense rays of the setting sun are warm and annoying. And they're going to get worse. Hopefully the Guys will find some sort of sunshade or vegetative barrier to solve the problem, but until they do, wait until after dark if you're going for dinner.
The duck confit salad didn't appear on the dinner menu. I am guessing that the dish was an attempt by chef Guy to come up with something a little lighter for the midday meal. Which makes me suspect that the lunch menu may be the place to look for chef Guy's best ideas.
Besides, lingering over a glass of wine or coffee and dessert at La Brocante in the late afternoon is a wonderfully decadent indulgence, if you can find the time.
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