During a recent weekday lunch at Café Moustache, I picked idly at the mesclun salad in front of me as my friend Judy poked at her own bowl of chicken and sausage gumbo. The restaurant was empty save for us and one table containing an older woman who was slowly reading the most recent New Yorker from cover to cover. It was deathly quiet inside. Our waiter hovered, having nothing else to do. It made it difficult to discuss the poor salad we were contemplating.
Covered in what seemed like nothing except olive oil, the half-wilted lettuce and its anemic cherry tomato nubs were a sorry way to start our three-course lunch. It was completely devoid of flavor, but at least the gumbo was picking up the slack — somewhat.
Gumbo was certainly an odd thing to see as the soup of the day at what is presented as a more traditionally French restaurant. But I should have learned from previous visits that sometimes Café Moustache's attitude is that of, "Screw it. Let's put something Tex-Mex on the menu." It's this halfhearted approach to the food at the former So Vino that's left me cold across four different visits.
The gumbo wasn't bad, per se. But it wasn't striking either, with its thin broth that didn't look as if it had ever seen a roux. And it was simply terribly out of place. Ditto the romano-crusted chicken that was one of the three entrée options for the day. An Italian-American hybrid dish at a French restaurant that also serves the occasional French-Tex-Mex concoction? I am not convinced that Café Moustache knows what it wants to be.
And after tasting the romano-crusted chicken — dry inside and bland outside, covered oddly with a butter sauce that seemed to consist of only butter — I'm not convinced that Café Moustache knows how to prepare good food on a consistent basis, either. My trout meunière suffered the same butter-drenched fate as the chicken — no white wine to be found there — and was aggressively fishy tasting. Trout isn't the mildest fish, but it normally doesn't taste like a wharf.
Dessert arrived, and it was a relief to have the pitiful entrées taken away. But oh, what a replacement came in their place: Judy's Black Forest crepe clearly pre-made, lifeless and cold and containing equally saccharine amounts of mass-produced chocolate syrup and bottled cherries. My chocolate pot de crème was better, but the Jell-O Temptations six-packs at my local H-E-B are cheaper and taste just as good.
During this time, I watched as John — a semi-homeless man who lives just down the street — ambled into the Café Moustache parking lot, bag from a convenience store in hand. He decided to take his lunch in one of the parking spaces, sat down and began "prepping" his cup of Ramen by smashing the noodles into bits with his hand and tilting the cup up to eat them like snack mix.
He had a happy grin on his face the entire time, content to eat his Ramen noodle dust in the sunshine. And all I could think was, "John is having a better lunch than I am today, and he paid a lot less."
I confess to not understanding Café Moustache at all. I would say that I don't understand how it is consistently busy, but that question is answered by the thrifty happy hour that it holds from 5 to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. And this is easily the best time to go: The food and wine are inexpensive, and the crowd nicely fills out the sleek space.
Not much has changed, interiorwise, since owners Manfred Jachmich and Elizabeth Abraham changed concepts last year and transformed So Vino into Café Moustache. The soaring ceilings and unique architectural details are still in place, as is the generously sized bar area. And during these weekday happy hours, the place buzzes with a warm and inviting vibe.
During dinner, however, that warmth seems to vanish as people retreat back to their homes or to other restaurants. The dinner service speaks for itself: Why stick around for a nearly $30 plate of steak-frites that's gristly and tough? No, the $4 appetizers — which are more inspired anyway — and $5 glasses of wine are the draw here.
And if that were all that Café Moustache was offering, I would probably love the place. What's not to love about a casual spot offering small plates of duck-Cognac pâté with dill mustard or mussels Provençal with chorizo? Montrose can and would support a restaurant of this measure.
What it won't support is a $15.95-a-person three-course lunch with insipid, poorly prepared dishes that appear to have been transported across time and space from Jachmich's original Café Moustache, which experienced its heyday during the 1980s. Not when restaurants like Feast, Dolce Vita and Indika are doing some of the best, most creative cooking in the city right across the street — and often for the same price. You can even get far better crepes a few blocks away at Melange Creperie.
During that lunch, Judy remarked about her plate: "This looks like a page out of Ladies' Home Journal, circa 1978." And although there's something charming about an old concept revived and reincarnated, there have to be at least a few concessions to time and modern cuisine. Must every plate come with the same boring potatoes and scant sautéed vegetables? Why not choose sides that complement the entrée?
And during my first visit to Café Moustache when it reopened after — appropriately enough — Bastille Day last year, I had a wonderful plate of braised short ribs with Gruyère polenta. But the dried-out haricots verts on the side were a harbinger of boring meals to come, like the softball-size mound of truffle risotto I had recently at dinner or that gristly New York strip on my plate of steak-frites.
And when the best thing I can think of to say about a restaurant's lunch and dinner is that they're "inoffensive," something has gone seriously awry in the kitchen.
The last dinner I had at Café Moustache involved not only that risotto and steak-frites, but also those godforsaken duck quesadillas that don't belong on the menu any more than I belong in the French National Assembly. As I ate a few small, soggy bites filled with rubbery duck, the only thing I could think was, "How can anyone manage to make duck so bland?"
The truffle risotto, despite its promisingly pungent odor, was similarly bland, and served in such an indecent portion that I was struck by its size. Who could eat this much risotto in one sitting? And why would they want to? The saving grace was a decent tomato salad that contained the balsamic vinegar and the ripe red tomatoes I'd been missing in my lunchtime salad.
At this dinner, too, the waitress hovered incessantly. Every time my dining companion and I looked up, she was there. She was charming on the whole despite this, and gushed to us about how it was her first job waiting tables.
On the other hand, the service has come a long way from the distant and brusque waiter my friends and I endured on our first visit, so it seems that Café Moustache does indeed listen to some of the criticism leveled at it. And the place, like our waitress, isn't without its charms, especially over a few of those $5 glasses of wine during happy hour.
But during dinner and lunch, Café Moustache desperately needs a more modern approach to its classic French cooking — why not incorporate our local Gulf seafood or Texas produce into the menu? Streamline the menu and remove those ridiculous items. Focus instead on perfecting the standbys like mussels and steak-frites. Emphasize the comfortable neighborhood vibe that's on display during those happy hours. If they do, Jachmich and Abraham could have a hit on their hands.
Until then, however, I'll stick with the spectacular prix-fixe menu at neighboring Feast for lunch, where I can indulge in pan-fried Gulf bluerunner and freshly made strawberry ice cream before hitting the road back to the office — and for the same price as Café Moustache, too.
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.