La Nouvelle Recession Cuisine at Au Petit Paris
"Queue de Boeuf Braisé avec Champignons Sauvages, Oignions Grelots Caramelisés, Lardons, Mousseline de Pomme de Terre et Pousse D'Epinard" means "expensive soul food" in French. Okay, the actual translation on the menu at Au Petit Paris, a new French restaurant in a refurbished bungalow on Colquitt, is "slowly braised beef tail with sautéed wild mushrooms, sweet caramelized onions, bacon, delicate potato mousseline and sautéed baby spinach." And at $30, it's the most expensive thing on the menu.
That's right, oxtails in mushroom gravy with mashed potatoes and greens for thirty dollars. You got a problem with that?
I was okay with the fancy French oxtails, even though the intense braising sauce completely overwhelmed the 2005 Jean-Jacques Girard Burgundy I was drinking. I should have listened to the waiter when he recommended I get a Bordeaux.
What I actually craved with this plate of stew and mashed potatoes was a pint of Guinness. But it's hard to say if that was because the French reduction sauce was too thick, too salty, and too overpowering for red wine of any description, or because our dinner took place on St. Patrick's Day.
We had started our meal off with a bland tomato basil soup and a chicken tartlette served over salad greens. The little chicken quiche had a lovely light filling, but the crust was burnt on the bottom. The waiter took the charred crust back to the kitchen and returned with the chef's apologies. The offending appetizer was taken off the bill.
For her entrée, my dining companion asked the waiter if he recommended the chicken fricassee with mushrooms or a rib eye with herb butter.
"Go for the rib eye," he advised, "you can get chicken anywhere."
"Since when is it hard to find a rib eye in Houston?" I asked her after he was out of earshot. The advice seemed backwards to me. Where else in town do you find chicken fricassee with mushroom sauce?
She ordered the steak medium-rare. It was cooked closer to medium and served with green beans and tater tots. Okay, the restaurant calls them "Dauphine potatoes," and they weren't previously frozen, so let's compromise and call them "fancy French tater tots." She was underwhelmed by both the meat and the potatoes. The best thing on her plate was the neat stack of skinny green beans. They had a nice crunch and were tossed in garlic butter.
She cut me off a quarter of the rib eye. Having already consumed several large mouthfuls of oxtail meat in black gravy with bacon and onions, I could barely taste the steak. So I gargled with some Burgundy and tried it again. But my palate was too far gone. The only solution was to swish forkfuls of the steak around in the oxtail sauce — that tasted pretty good.
My glass of Burgundy cost $15, and it was served too warm — and this is only March. The red wines appear to be stored in a rack outside the kitchen without any temperature control system. I wonder what they are going to taste like in August?
The best thing I ate on my first visit to Au Petit Paris was called "Noix de St. Jacque Poêlées au Lard Fumé Croustillant Servie avec une légère Purée de Choux Fleur au Curry, Asperges Vertes." The long French menu description means scallops with bacon, curried cauliflower puree and asparagus. At $27, it works out to roughly a dollar a word.
The presentation was delightful — the luscious little sea scallops were cut in half and stuffed with bacon slices so they looked like little hamburgers. As good as they tasted, it was the rich curried cauliflower that stole the show. I dunked each bite of scallop in the puree, which made quite a seafood sauce.
We shared a well-chilled bottle of Lapostolle, a crisp Loire Valley Sauvignon blanc. The citrusy acidity of the white wine went perfectly with the scallops and the other seafood dishes we ordered.
Skate in lemon caper sauce was wonderful, though straightforward in preparation. I love the way the big ridges of meat in the sea ray flake off with your fork and combine with the buttery sauce. The plate was garnished with some crispy chips of fried celery root. I also sampled a pleasant but unremarkable sautéed red snapper filet served with a green apple sauce and vegetables cut to resemble thick pasta.
For starters, I got the spectacular Champs Elysée salad, which featured a poached egg over greens with giblet confit, bacon and cherry tomatoes. I love to cut up a poached egg over greens and crisp bacon, although I usually think of this kind of salad as a meal in itself. To make matters worse, one of my tablemates got a slice of homemade foie gras terrine served with toasted brioche and truffled vinaigrette. It tasted terrific, as foie gras terrine always does. But if I had it to do over, I might have ordered something lighter. Foie gras and poached egg salad are pretty heavy appetizers.
On that first visit to Au Petit Paris, we were graced by the presence of socialite Lynn Wyatt, who entered the place grandly and was seated a few tables away. Every employee in the restaurant seemed to be required to pull out her chair. Both of the two French chefs who own the place came out from the kitchen, toques a-twitter.
Maybe it was the reflected glow of celebrity, but somehow the bad paintings of Paris street scenes, the corny French music and the frumpy lace-curtain atmosphere seemed a little more charming that first night. The food certainly tasted better.
French seafood and chilled white wine is your best bet at Au Petit Paris — after all, you can get warm red wine and overcooked rib eye anywhere.
"Tightened belts will be no bad thing for the hospitality business. It will remind them what hospitality actually means," London restaurant critic A.A. Gill wrote in a recent review. "It will wash away the cynicism and the sham, the cooks who flog their names and consultancies rather than sausage and mash."
I wish Gill were right. If an economic storm is approaching, it would be nice to think that there was a silver lining in it for the Houston restaurant-goer. But the current recession doesn't seem to be wringing out any excesses. In fact, restaurant prices are actually getting higher.
But don't blame the restaurants — blame $100-a-barrel oil. The higher price of transportation, fertilizer and power is pushing food costs higher. Meanwhile, the fall of the dollar against other currencies is making imports like wine, olive oil, cheese and spices much more expensive. The costs of building a restaurant to begin with are way up, too. Welcome to the era of higher prices and lower expectations.
It wasn't all that long ago that we were sitting in a leather booth in the gorgeous multimillion-dollar chocolate and blue interior of Houston's best French restaurant, Bistro Moderne, eating Philippe Schmidt's ethereal bouillabaisse and stunning avocado and crabmeat bombe. Alas, Bistro Moderne has closed its doors.
Au Petit Paris is Houston's French restaurant of the moment. The food is a huge step down from Bistro Moderne's, and the atmosphere is downright shabby by comparison. But the prices are about the same.
Deal with it.
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