I've never done this before," says the black-clad woman in the backseat as we slow down to pay the toll at the Westheimer exit on Beltway 8.
"Done what?" I ask from behind the wheel.
"Taken a trip outside of Houston just to have dinner."
Bistro Le Cep
713-783-3985. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Duck pt: $6.95
Canard l'orange: $14.95
Coq au vin: $13.50
Calf's liver: $12.50
Tart tatin: $5.50
Fish soup: $5.95
Tomato salad: $5.95
Bass meunire: $14.50
"This place is worth it," says the black-clad woman in the front seat.
I didn't know exactly what I was getting into, taking two die-hard inner-city Houstonians beyond Beltway 8 -- it's a little like leading a tour of a foreign country.
"What do all these people do out here?" one woman asks in wonderment as we pull into the parking lot of Bistro Le Cep near the Westchase and Royal Oaks neighborhoods. A huge office tower stands a little beyond the restaurant. Across the street, there is a large shopping center complete with a Whole Foods store. My passengers are shocked that the trappings of civilization extend this far into the wilderness.
"You aren't going to believe this interior," says the front-seat woman as we walk inside. She and I dined at the bistro a couple of evenings ago, and she has been telling her friends in the Montrose about it with wonder and enthusiasm. "And they all say that if they ever get out this way, they'll have to try it," she giggles.
From the outside it looks like a typical shopping center restaurant. But inside, Bistro Le Cep has been charmingly finished with old-looking pine floors and decorated with Gaelic artwork and a collection of French ceramic roosters. A dividing wall of wooden shelves and wine racks separates the two dining rooms, which each have about ten tables. The cozy ambience brings to mind a little cafe in the French countryside. And so does the menu.
We start off with an order of escargots, a romaine salad and some duck pâté. I was prepared for a little of that rubbery texture that makes snails so much fun to chew, but the imported gastropods are as tender as any I have eaten. They go down without a fight. But it's the snail-flavored garlic butter left behind in the indentation of the escargot dish that is the real treat. We all take turns sopping it up with French bread.
The insipid salad comes straight out of the refrigerator; it is too cold and tastes watery. But the duck pâté is a knock-out. The plate is decorated with crunchy little cornichons, a carved radish, some radicchio leaves and a slice of orange. The flavorful pâté slices are surrounded by Cumberland sauce, a sweet and tart combination of red currants, port and lemon zest. The rectangular slices of pâté each have a red circle of duck breast meat in the center.
"Look, it's got a wiener in the middle. Ain't that cute?" I josh the ladies in black, who roll their eyes in chagrin. For our entrées, we have selected coq au vin, canard à l'orange and calf's liver with apples, onions and bacon.
I had my first coq au vin in a little French village cafe just a year and a half ago. In the authentic version of the dish, big pieces of rooster meat are cooked in a massively flavored combination of red wine and chicken blood. Le Cep's version is an inoffensive little chicken stew with carrots, celery, cocktail onions and pickled mushrooms.
"No cock, no blood -- there's nothing passionate about it anymore," says one of the downtowners.
"Now this duck with red cabbage, this is passionate," she says, waving her fork. I know what she means. The canard à l'orange, a broiled duck breast served with red cabbage, lentils and bigarade sauce, has a big rustic flavor that makes me think of barbecue. The orange-flavored "barbecue" sauce and sweet-and-sour red cabbage are a terrific counterpoint to the crispy duck skin and succulent red meat. But the calf's liver is even better. Topped with slow-cooked onions and thick bacon, the liver is so soft, you can cut it with a fork. The creamy texture of the liver contrasts with the crunchy bacon and nicely undercooked slices of baked apple on the side.
On our previous visit we sampled the tart tatin, an upside down caramelized apple tart that got a "Gee whiz!" from my dining companion, and a warm pear poached in red wine served over ice cream that got an "Omigod!" Tonight we sample three other desserts, cherries in kirsch over ice cream, Alsatian fromage blanc cheesecake and a chocolate mousse. The cheesecake is boring, the ice cream with cherries is pretty good, and the mousse is flat-out fantastic. Barely sweetened, with an intense wallop of bittersweet chocolate, it has a puddinglike consistency with none of the usual airiness. The parfait glass that once contained it is returned to the kitchen embarrassingly clean.
Fifteen years ago, at the height of the nouvelle cuisine revolution, French provincial dishes like those served at Le Cep would have provoked yawns from critics and foodies. But after enduring a decade and a half of ever wilder innovations, I have come to understand why these dishes have achieved classic status. There is a Sunday-dinner honesty about this kind of cooking that disarms you with its simplicity.
On our first visit, the lady from Montrose and I started with a rustic fish soup and a tomato salad with blue cheese, both of which were pleasant but unremarkable. An entrée of striped bass meunière with butter sauce, however, was stupendous. A huge serving of fresh, firm fish arrived at the table with a hot, crispy crust and a simple lemon butter and caper sauce that set it off perfectly. Soft red potatoes and sautéed squash were served on the side. Our other entrée was a pork chop served with sweet-and-sour red cabbage, mashed potatoes and roasting sauce. The pork chop was extremely tender, and while the accompaniments of potatoes and red cabbage seem a little more German than French, you can't argue with the flavor. In fact, red cabbage or spaetzle is served with five of the entrées on the menu.
Bistro Le Cep's entrées come straight out of the French countryside, but the sides occasionally stray across the border. The owner, Joe Mannke, who also owns the highly regarded Rotisserie for Beef and Bird (2200 Wilcrest, 713-977-9524), is an award-winning veteran of hotel and restaurant kitchens on both sides of the Atlantic. But Mannke began his career in Germany, and his sensibility reflects his origins. One can't help but wonder why he didn't put more Alsatian dishes like choucroute (flavored sauerkraut baked with meats) and flammekuchen (sort of a Germanic pizza with a topping of farmer's cheese, bacon and onion) on the menu. This authentically French-German fare would fit right into his flavor profile.
But the "baby bistro" concept itself is quite French. Opening a smaller, less-expensive restaurant in another part of town to compliment an already successful restaurant is a business maneuver that has become fairly common in France. Houston wunderchef Joe Mannke is following in the footsteps of such Paris superchefs as Joel Robuchon and Guy Savoy.
"Savoy was and is the most successful of several chefs to create a series of 'baby bistros,' or spin-offs of satellite restaurants that bear his signature and style but allow other chefs to shine," notes Patricia Wells, the Paris-based restaurant reviewer of the International Herald-Tribune. Tourists in particular flock to the bistros, where reservations are often unnecessary and prices are considerably lower than at the flagship restaurants.
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We accidentally get a firsthand account of the difference between downtown restaurants and suburban spin-offs in dollars and cents from the owner himself. A sweating and red-faced Mannke comes out of the kitchen as the dinner shift is winding down to chat with a guy from Aries who is eating at the bar. We can't help but eavesdrop on their conversation from our table a few feet away.
After the pleasantries are exchanged, the matter of business comes up. The average ticket at Aries is running $60 to $70 per person, the waiter tells Mannke. That's about what we do at the other place, says the chef, referring to Rotisserie for Beef and Bird. "But we've got one of the best wine lists in the city there. Out here the overhead is much lower," the chef tells the Aries employee.
I didn't hear what the average ticket at Le Cep was, but in our two visits, an appetizer, entrée and dessert for each person plus a nice bottle of wine set us back an average of $40 per person.
The women in black each ask the waiter for a bunch of business cards to give to their friends back home in Houston. Sure, it's a 15-minute drive. But do the arithmetic -- that 15-minute drive could save you 50 or 60 bucks on a nice dinner for two.