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French Paradox

Writing about a two-week-old restaurant is a fool's errand. Ordinarily, anyway. But talented chef Olivier Ciesielski has made such a promising start at the trim little L'aventure Cafe -- and it fills such a gap in Houston's French-poor culinary scene -- that I'll play the fool gladly.

Right now, in the flush of newness, is exactly when to try the place, while Ciesielski, who looks like Johnny Depp's younger, cuter brother, is fussing over the stunning plates of food that issue from his open kitchen; conversing in animated French with countrymen already drawn by some mysterious expatriate's food radar; managing, in his black baseball cap and young man's goatee, to be everywhere at once. Something's happening here, and it's hard not to feel smugly pleased at getting an inaugural taste of Ciesielski's revelatory roasted redfish with caramelized carrots and red wine sauce.

"Caramelized" is a key word with Ciesielski, who revels in deeply glazed surfaces and looks almost rapturous when he recalls filching the best-browned carrots from his mother's roasts. "What are you doing?" she would demand. "Nothing," he would reply disingenously. These days, the chef is making his own fun: roasting a handsome slab of redfish on one side only, so that its skin emerges superbly crisp and chewy, a dramatic contrast to the soft curds of fish underneath. A small herd of baby carrots charges across the simple white bistro plates -- sweetly browned, in places, with a dense, roasted texture and concentrated flavor that persuades you carrots should be cooked no other way. Throwing everything into sharp focus is a lucid pool of much-reduced red wine sauce so magnetic in its deep sweet-sourness that you want to dive beneath its surface ... and stay there. Even the singular name of this dish, Red Fish a L'unilaterale, exerts its own pull.

This is highly sophisticated food, and it does not come at what most Houstonians would consider bistro prices. That's the paradox of L'aventure: its pared-down looks and pared-down menu say "bistro," right down to the potted duck and French onion soup, but its prices and its execution murmur "fancy French restaurant." A startled look creeps over the faces of certain dressed-down patrons lured by the cafe appellation and the clean-lined, casual look of the invitingly remodeled space that once held Armando's. They ease into their matte-green, neo-Bentwood chairs, plant their feet on the minimalist sisal floor covering, survey the smart architectural prints, absorb the French accents of their chic fellow diners. Then their eyes settle on the $9.25 snail appetizer, the $8.50 goat cheese salad, the dinner entrees that range from $15 to $20. I watched one T-shirted pair rise after a few nervous minutes and flee.

"Come back," I wanted to call out to them, mesmerized by a gorgeous, warm salad of caramelized chicken livers with a deft film of balsamic vinegar sauce and variegated baby lettuces to swipe through it. "Where else in Houston can you get a plate of food like this for $8.55?" But I held my tongue, savoring the seared-brown surfaces and rose-silk interiors of the chicken livers, anointing brittle rounds of garlic toast with a fluff of chicken-liver mousse that came as a bonus and registered as a fragile pink cloud. With a glass of wine, it seemed to me, this would be a perfect meal.

There are meals here that fall short of perfection, but they fall short in an interesting way. Roasted duck breast in a potent brown sauce enriched with raisin-y dried blueberries may have been cooked drearily medium instead of rare, the way I asked for it, and its rims of fatty skin may have lacked curb appeal. Yet the sauce refused to descend into cliched sweetness; triangles of a layered potato-and-leek gratin stood tall, their tops deliciously glazed, architectural and homey at once. A whole grove of haricots verts tumbled across the top of the plate, chewy green bean sprigs that tasted clean and fresh against the rich duck meat and richer sauce. Had the duck been cooked with the finesse Ciesielski clearly has in spades, this would have been an extremely well considered plate of food.

I felt less sanguine about the chef's pasta with sea scallops and shrimp, a dish that exhibited a certain intellectual rigor but little electrical charge. Flat noodle ribbons tossed in a concentrated veal-stock sauce were a refreshing idea, but somehow the nicely grilled shrimp and seared, barely gelled scallops that rode on top seemed to inhabit a separate universe. What, I wondered, was the extra ingredient that would pull these elements together?

But Ciesielski is a chef more prone to subtract than to add. In many instances, his passion for simplicity serves him well; at its best, the food of the man who trained with the august Bernard Loiseau in Saulieux, and who lately ran the kitchen at Houston's La Colombe d'Or, has a purity and immediacy that is hard to come by. He can oblige a guest by whipping up an impromptu meal that fairly dazzles: sauteing a filet of the freshest red snapper; giving it a discreet bath of warm vinaigrette mellowed and deepened by hazelnut oil, sweetened with balsamic vinegar, nudged to a higher plane by a few crushed pink peppercorns. With it? Miraculous asparagus cooked two ways, so that it tastes like two different vegetables: slender tips with the seared, caramelized edges Ciesielski loves, hiding a cache of pared, diced asparagus stems sauteed to gentle, buttery softness.

But if Ciesielski's simplicity attracts, it also has the capacity to leave me longing for more. His osso buco was severe in its lack of adornment: a great knob of meat whose uncompromising effect could have been softened by another 45 minutes in the oven, or a ladleful of braising juices. But what came with it (described in L'aventure's austere menu prose as "pasta") was simply compelling -- flat noodles set off by asparagus tips and whole scallions that were, naturally, roasty and slightly caramelized.

A word about that prose. In an age of effusive menus, it's refreshing and even amusing to come upon a dish, Emince de Blanc de Volaille aux Poivrons, that is translated as "sliced chicken breast with bell peppers." That modest description is deceptive, of course. Ciesielski stuffs the breast with the pungent fresh herb mixture he loves to use, roasts it on two sides, leaving it pink in the middle, and adds one of his graceful brown reductions along with the marqueed red peppers. Moral: what sounds terminally boring here is, in all likelihood, not.

Even the obligatory bistro classics have their own presence. Onion soup shows a depth and complexity that springs from long-simmered veal bones. A simple vinaigrette-dressed luncheon salad tastes like an herb garden in high summer; there's even a licoricey trace of chervil in the mix. A snail appetizer appears in a long bark of flaky puff pastry, rich with earthy mushrooms, glazed pearl onions and cloves of roasted garlic; its reserved quality sets it interestingly apart from its dizzyingly garlicked cousins. Yes, these snails cost almost ten bucks -- but you can split them. And you'd almost have to split the goat cheese salad to justify its $8.50 price tag; there's nothing wrong with it, it's just too expensive (and too doused in slivered almonds).

Amazingly enough, L'aventure's desserts keep up the high standards of the place. There is nougat glace, a species of frozen whipped cream folded with pistachios and candied apricots, opulent in itself and hopelessly wicked in concert with a tart mandarin orange sauce. The midnight-dark decoration that looks like something pried off the bottom of a work boot? Highly edible honeycombed essence of chocolate.

Floating island really does float -- in an ivory sea of delicate creme anglaise, its snowy pillows of soft meringue wearing brittle, burnt-sugar squiggles that leap out in this gentle context. The indecisive can order a sampler plate that combines a bit of iced nougat with a riveting chocolate mousse that tastes much darker and deeper than it looks; its intense orange sauce, plus strips of candied orange peel of the sort you'd get in Paris, heighten the effect. But it's hard to care about white-chocolate mousse (will somebody please explain the appeal of white chocolate to me?), and the dense chocolate cake de la patronne seemed to have been sitting out for a couple of days.

For a brand-new restaurant, though, L'aventure displays surprisingly few glitches. Months from now it may be a different place: menus shake out, and prices do, too. I wonder if the cafe's target audience will embrace its price points or prod them downward, use the restaurant as a splurge or as the everyday bistro it so clearly wants to be. I wonder, too, if the generously spaced tables will find themselves closer together once the place catches on, and whether someone will turn the fundamentally pretty lighting down a notch or two. That would make the spare setting wrought by the wife of owner Daniel Drumlewicz look even better.

Mostly, though, I wonder what Olivier Ciesielski will do next. He's engagingly full of ideas, attuned to his customers and willing to improvise. He's also one of those rare Houston chefs to whom I might dare utter the dangerous phrase, "surprise me."

L'aventure Cafe, 1811 South Shepherd, 527-9800.

L'aventure:
caramelized
chicken liver
salad, $8.55;
onion soup, $5.25;
roasted redfish
with red wine
sauce, $15.50;
nougat glace,
$5.50.


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