After one week in France (and watching one too many French films), I've searched continuously for a Houston version of my ideal French bistro. It should be a small, cozy restaurant, with black-and-white tile floors, perhaps, a wood-beamed ceiling, exposed brick walls, and maybe a fireplace for cold evenings. The tablecloths, napkins and dishes would all be brightly colored; the blessedly unpretentious waitstaff would speak with the most charming of French accents. And most important, the moderately priced menu would offer traditional French favorites sometimes forgotten in our continuous search for the new.
It was one of those dreams (like universal peace) that I never expected to come true. But at least Bistro Provence came with a pedigree promising enough to give me hope. After chef Georges Guy closed his venerable Chez Georges, he opened these lighter, less fancy places, and prepares the soups and stews for both locations. (Grilling, sauteeing and such are left to the chefs on site.) At eight months old, the Memorial location is the elder sibling, and its emphasis is on meat and poultry.
But the two-month-old Westheimer location leans toward seafood, which seemed appropriate to my summertime mood. And on sitting down there, I was pleasantly surprised to find the place meeting the requirements of my mental checklist. Cozy, yes. Tile floor, yes. Bright tablecloths, yes. Charming waitstaff, yes. Even (gasp!) moderate prices.
I fretted that the food wouldn't live up to its surroundings, but I needn't have worried. And I stopped almost immediately, comforted by slices of fougasse, an impressive Provencal bread baked in Bistro Provence's brick oven, then served with a crock of tapenade, a dark, intense spread made of black olives and anchovies perfect for stimulating the appetite.
Which is not to say that your appetite will need to be stimulated; the other dishes are quite capable of inducing hunger. The marvelous paté du chef ($5.50) combines dense, chunky rabbit meat with chestnuts, and is perfect for spreading on more bread; it comes garnished with cornichons, those tiny French pickles, and accompanied by a little salad of mixed greens.
Lobster bisque seemed like a sure bet: even at a second-rate restaurant, it's usually pretty good. At Bistro Provence it turned out to be very, very good: rich, smooth and deeply flavored with lobster.
Escargots au beurre d'herbes ($5.50) is riskier: too often, the phrase translates as "snails masquerading as rubber bands." But here, the snails were amazingly big and tender; their meaty flavor raised them to something more than a vehicle for garlic butter.
The lighter salade Monte-Carlo ($6.95) mixed spring greens with lightly cooked shrimp, scallops and squid, served with a perfectly balanced vinaigrette. The slightly bitter greens, sweet seafood and thick tart dressing combined magically perfect ingredients making a perfect salad.
I love duck confit (that is, duck cooked and preserved in its own fat, a concept that sounds much better in French). I envisioned the entrée cuisse de canard gras confit aux haricots panaches ($11.50) as a crisp slice of confit served on a bed of greens, perhaps with a few beans scattered about. I was startled to be served a hearty crock of what appeared to be a cassoulet, the famous French version of baked beans. Not disappointed, mind you; merely startled. The duck confit had been slow-cooked with beans under a thick topping of seasoned bread crumbs. The rich, tender duck elevated those beans to high art. The dish is perhaps too hearty for a warm night, but when the weather turns cooler, with a glass of red wine.
A better choice, during a Houston summer, would be the aioli ($14.50), poached cod with carrots and rutabaga in a light broth. It's served, of course, with a bowl of aioli, homemade mayonnaise with an olive oil base, fabulously heavy on the garlic. The cod was light and tasty, but it was almost beside the point; three-day-old pizza would have tasted good dipped in that garlic mayo.
Meat eaters will be delighted by the boeuf cocotte camarguais ($11.50), a hearty beef stew in a tomato and sweet red pepper sauce with black olives. The long-simmered meat is tender enough to cut with a spoon and you'll probably want to use a spoon so you don't miss a drop of the sauce.
Bistro Provence deviated from my dreams in only the most minor but puzzling ways. Strangely, the restaurant serves all its entrees with what it calls a "bistro potato," a baked potato wrapped in tin foil. This raises two questions: (1) Why? and (2) How did a French bistro suddenly become a Ponderosa Steakhouse?
Desserts, fortunately, offered no unnecessary distractions. The gateau au chocolat ($5) was a swirl of chocolate cake and buttercream, resting in a pool of crème anglais. The parfait au café ($5.50), an elegant blend of coffee ice cream, meringue, chocolate and coffee syrup, was served a little too frozen, but after sitting a couple of minutes, its flavors blossomed. The tarte maison ($5.50) was lemon on the day I sampled it, and it was splendid, its sweet shortbread crust a nice complement to the puckery tart lemon filling.
The coffee, though, was wimpy; like that baked potato, it seemed out of place. What has the world come to, you wonder, when a good French restaurant doesn't serve coffee up to American standards?
Bistro Provence,11920 Westheimer, (281) 497-1122; and 13616 Memorial Drive, (713)827-8008.
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