French Food Sans Frenchmen
On my first visit to Bistro Calais, I walked in the front door of the historic cottage that houses the restaurant, took a look around the empty bar and dining room, and concluded the place was closed. If somebody in the back dining room hadn't chosen that moment to laugh, I might have left hungry.
A stroll to the rear of the house revealed a dozen people eating lunch in the "garden room," a cheerful dining room that looks out on an impressive backyard. Beyond the shrubs and rosebushes is a huge old-fashioned greenhouse, the sort of white frame and glass structure the English call a conservatory.
Both the greenhouse and the cottage that houses the restaurant are more than a century old. They were transplanted to the Bammel Lane property as part of a developer's plan to create an antique village. The interior of the restaurant has been painted with faux stonework and cracking paint to accentuate its advanced age.
While I was initially annoyed by the lack of a greeter, by the time I had ordered lunch, I realized that this was the least of Bistro Calais's problems. Evidently, there's no waitstaff either. The owner, Roy Knapp, introduced himself and said he'd take our order. He and the manager, Phillip Mitchell, were waiting tables until business picked up.
I asked about the kitchen staff, and Knapp told me that his wife, Jane Knapp, and chef Francisco Luna were in charge. As the name Luna didn't sound French, I wondered about his experience. I found out Francisco Luna is a Mexican-American who cooked for many years at Carrabba's and briefly at La Strada.
I decided to test his mettle with ris de veau aux champignons, or veal sweetbreads in wild mushroom cream, a dish that's notoriously tricky to cook. My lunchmate ordered bouillabaisse, another final exam for French chefs. For an appetizer, we split the assiette de charcuterie, which the menu translated as "deli plate."
You don't expect anything exotic in the cured-meat assortment when they bill it as a deli plate, so I was a little shocked to see blood sausage on the assiette. My tablemate wrinkled his nose in disgust when I offered him some of the sweet and savory black pudding. I found it quite tasty, as were the salami and ham slices.
And to my surprise, the ris de veau turned out to be the most delectable I have had on this side of the Atlantic. The fluffy chunks of sweetbread melted in my mouth, and the creamy sauce coated each one with the earthy forest aroma of wild mushrooms. A glass of sturdy red wine from the Côtes du Rhône rounded out a splendid lunch.
While the bouillabaisse looked expertly executed, my sampling was ruined by a funky mussel. I don't know if it was old, poorly handled or just tasted that way, but the overwhelming flavor and aroma of the one smelly mussel I chose to put in my mouth made it impossible to appreciate the rest of the flavors in the soup.
My disappointment was particularly poignant since I'd just tasted a magnificent bouillabaisse at Bistro Moderne, another French restaurant that recently opened in Houston.
For most of the country, the "French boycott" amounted to little more than George Bush changing the name of his breakfast to "freedom toast." But Houston is not like the rest of the country. Here in the capital of the red states, anti-French fanatics launched a terrorism campaign reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany.
A Theater District restaurant called Papillon Bistro Français had its windows smashed and closed its doors in the face of telephoned threats promising more attacks. Similar threats to La Tour d'Argent on Ella caused that restaurant to close as well.
In a two-part series ("The War with Chirac," May 29, 2003, and "Le Fracas Français," June 5, 2003), I wrote about the chilling effects the boycott had on the Houston food and wine scene. Since then, Guerin's Bistro has gone out of business and Chez Nous has changed hands.
Bergerac native Cedric Guerin took some much-needed time off. And ironically, the boycott forced the heartbroken American couple who owned Chez Nous, Barbara and Kenneth Farrar, to turn the restaurant back over to its French founder, Gerard Brach.
Somebody must think that the political climate in Houston has changed lately, because French restaurants have started popping up around here like mudbugs after a flood.
Along with Bistro Calais, we now have Bistro Moderne in Hotel Derek with chef Philippe Schmit at the range, and La Tour d'Argent, where Cedric Guerin has found a new home as head chef. Given the drought of French food in the last few years, I thought it would be interesting to review all three of these restaurants as a series.
To start with an overview, Bistro Calais is an antique cottage where your fellow Americans serve authentic French country cooking. Bistro Moderne is a sleekly decorated world-class restaurant run by a top French chef. And La Tour d'Argent is an antique hunting lodge where a chef from the rural Dordogne region does rustic French classics.
Except for the funky mussel, the bouillabaisse at Bistro Calais was similar to the one I tried at Bistro Moderne. Of course, the fact that Bistro Moderne used better seafood made a huge difference. But the biggest contrast was in ambience. As much as I enjoy Bistro Moderne, it's too formal to ever become a hangout.
The casual Bistro Calais, on the other hand, inspires epic laziness. A late lunch eaten outside on the front porch one sunny afternoon started with a wonderful glass of floral-scented white Côtes du Rhône wine and a salad of crispy greens and buttery avocado with shrimp, smoked salmon, pineapple and mango, which was called salad l'exotique. The house-smoked salmon was tasty, but cooked through rather than silky and raw like cold-smoked salmon.
My companion had a light, fruity Beaujolais and a steak frite sandwich featuring a tasty, if slightly chewy, flatiron steak, blue cheese, tomato slaw and oversize skin-on fried potatoes.
Dessert was an assortment of sorbets served in what looked like a giant sugar bowl. We had fun puzzling out the flavors, which included raspberry and a pale yellow one that turned out to be champagne-lemon.
One cup of coffee led to another, and then it was four o'clock in the afternoon. One of the most endearing things about Bistro Calais is that it is open continuously, so you can eat lunch as late as you like and sit there unmolested all afternoon. I asked my lunchmate if she wanted to stay for dinner, but she had an errand to run.
On my last visit to Bistro Calais, we arrived at seven thirty on a Wednesday night and had an awkward dinner. My dining companion and I were chagrined to discover we were the only customers in the entire restaurant.
There was no music playing in the dining room, but it sounded like a party was going on in the kitchen. Somebody had a boombox blaring in there, and the workers had to talk loudly to be heard over the music. We wanted to pick up our plates and go eat with the chef and the dishwashers. It sounded like they were having a lot more fun than we were.
As the only customers in a restaurant, you'd expect the service to be stellar. But unfortunately, quite the opposite was true. With no other reason to check the dining room, the staff didn't give us a lot of attention.
My companion ordered French onion soup as an appetizer, and she was looking forward to those long, gooey strands of melted cheese. Unfortunately, the soup came to the table so cold the cheese was just a clump. She sent it back to be warmed up.
My foie gras terrine appetizer was quite good. It was supposed to be served with pearl onions and a compote of figs. There was so much fig jam on my plate, I figured the chef was trying to get rid of the stuff.
My dining companion's salmon was perfectly cooked with a nice crust on the outside and a moist interior. It came with buttery mashed potatoes and sautéed squash.
I had the rabbit ragout, which consists of large pieces of meat served on the bone in a pot with the braising liquids. The stewpot also contained pearl onions and mushrooms that were cooked with the rabbit, along with some roast potato quarters. The meat was extremely tender, but a little dry and not terribly flavorful.
For dessert we split an order of profiteroles, which I like to think of as French ice cream sandwiches. Crunchy puff-pastry rounds are cut in half, filled with vanilla ice cream and then topped with chocolate sauce. We paid the bill a little after nine o'clock, and we were still the only customers in the place.
Bistro Calais's problems are those of a restaurant that hasn't found its audience yet. Of course, it hasn't been open very long. But hopefully the lack of business isn't due to the reluctance of hidebound River Oaks residents to give up on the French boycott.
After all, Bistro Calais is a French boycotter's dream come true: a French restaurant that doesn't employ any Frenchmen. ,
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.