Le Fracas Français
Domaine de Mourchon is a Côtes du Rhône village red with an inky color and the sort of concentrated fruit and intense flavor you'd expect from a more expensive Rhône, like a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a Gigondas. Yet a bottle of the 2000 vintage sells for a mere $36 at Chez Nous, the famous French restaurant in the suburban village of Humble.
Located in a modest house in a tree-lined residential area, Chez Nous has been cited as one of America's best restaurants by Zagat, Gourmet magazine, Wine Spectator and the Mobil Travel Guide, among others. The ambience is a French tug-of-war between formality and informality. The tablecloths are white linen with a fleur-de-lis design, but the funky little lamps on each table are made out of Grand Marnier bottles. The tables are set out in regimental rows, but the green wainscot and cream-colored walls of the interior make the old house feel as cozy as Grandma's.
A French chef named Gerard Brach founded the restaurant. When Brach retired a few years ago, his sous-chef, Barbara Farrar, and her husband, Kenneth, bought the place. Once upon a time, you needed to reserve a table far in advance. But tonight the place is quiet. The boycott of French wines and French restaurants is taking its toll.
Dinner begins with cream of asparagus soup. In the center of the bowl, an island of white Parmesan flan floats in a sea of bright green. The miniature island is forested with tiny baby asparagus tips. Barbara Farrar is offering the soup as a special tonight. The elegant vegetable puree has a remarkably fresh flavor, and a little bite of the Parmesan pudding accents it with a sharp tang.
Actually, I didn't order the soup. Two bowls were sent to my table, compliments of the chef. Normally if this happened, I would assume my cover had been blown. But the chef is actually trying to impress my dining companion, Douglas Skopp, one of the restaurant's wine purveyors.
Skopp is president of Dionysus Imports Inc., a company that specializes in wines from France's Rhône valley. In fact, the Côtes du Rhône we're drinking is one of his wines. Domaine de Mourchon is a highly allocated wine, which means wine buyers start fighting over it before it's even released. It was in great demand all over town until a few months ago. But now all bets are off.
"Sales of all French wines are way down in Houston," Skopp tells me.
"By how much?" I wonder.
"As much as a third at some Houston liquor stores," he says as our second course arrives.
I get an unusual salad of baby greens and roasted fruits including apricots and grapes, with Parmesan shavings in a vanilla-lime vinaigrette. It sounded intriguing, but it's too sweet for my palate. I look longingly at Skopp's plate.
He ordered seared foie gras served over a wild mushroom bread pudding with asparagus and white truffle oil. He cuts me a little piece. I close my eyes and a dream bubble of the greatest Thanksgiving turkey stuffing ever invented floats through my mind. Then it pops and my little portion is all gone.
With this full-bodied wine, I am craving a steak. Luckily Chez Nous is one of the few Houston restaurants that serves USDA Prime, dry-aged beef. Skopp orders a rib eye marchand de vin, which means, appropriately enough, "wine merchant-style" and consists of steak in red wine sauce. I order steak au poivre, a New York strip coated in cracked peppercorns and served with a touch of cream. The rib eye in wine sauce is magnificent, but toward the end of my New York strip, the volume of black pepper overwhelms me.
"The boycott makes no economic sense," Skopp seethes as he cuts his beefsteak. "The punishment is hurting us more than the people we are supposed to be punishing."
"How so?" I ask.
"Take this bottle of wine," he says, holding up the Domaine de Mourchon Côtes du Rhône. "You pay the restaurant $36 for it, but only about $5 of that actually goes to France." The rest is the restaurant's markup, the American importer's profit, the Texas distributor's cut, shipping charges of an American trucking company, and United States customs and duties.
"And besides, this particular winery is owned by a British guy!" he rails. "The French make nothing on it!
"Meanwhile, how many California wineries are owned by the French?" he asks. "Opus One, Windham Estates, Chandon -- they are all French." The French have also invested in wineries in Chile and Australia. And as I learned by reading French boycott lists making the rounds on the Internet, the French entertainment conglomerate Vivende owns many of my favorite single-malt Scotch brands, as well as all of my favorite Irish whiskeys.
Houston has gone beyond boycotts. Our own local terrorists are employing threats of violence and vandalism against French restaurant owners. The restaurants are reluctant to speak up for fear of further reprisals. But one confirmed casualty was the Theater District restaurant formerly known as Papillon Bistro Français.
After a broken window and several threatening phone calls, the non-French owners decided to ditch the French name. "You can't protect a restaurant 24 hours a day," owner Zack Ateyea told me over the phone. "And the harassment was getting worse. So we decided to go ahead and do it." Shortly after the incidents, Ateyea bought out his partner and changed the restaurant's name to Zin, a nickname for the decidedly American wine Zinfandel.
On my first visit to Chez Nous a few weeks ago, I didn't need a reservation, either. That dinner started off with an astonishing asparagus risotto appetizer. The rich, creamy rice was stunningly crowned with sautéed mushrooms and fresh greens. After fighting over the risotto, my dining companion and I also sampled a chilled baby carrot soup with spring vegetables.
"What do you think?" I asked after she tasted the soup.
"I'm having a Gerber baby-food rush!" she giggled. I agreed: The soup was a little too bland and a little too sweet.
Our wine that night was a Gentil Hugel 2000, a crisp white wine with aromas of lilac and tropical fruit. Hugel is the wine maker. Gentil refers to the blend of grapes: Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Muscat and Sylvaner, which are vinified in the dry Alsatian style. Like most Alsatian whites, this made-to-be-chilled wine is great for hot weather and with spicy food.
It went perfectly with an entrée of firm baby scallops lightly seared and served in a mild curry sauce with sautéed pears and wilted spinach. This dish was one of the best I tried at Chez Nous, an accomplished combination of flavors and textures.
Shrimp provençale came artfully arranged over a bed of chopped pasta with tomato and pesto sauce. It was quite good, although using piped mashed potatoes to cement the shrimp into place seemed awfully dated. Tasty though it was, the Escoffier-era presentation didn't seem to come from the same kitchen as the innovative asparagus risotto and the chic scallops and pears in curry.
I suddenly understood Chez Nous's split personality. The menu is literally divided down the middle, and I'd made the mistake of ordering from the wrong side: the right side, where you find the French onion soup, the escargots and the steak au poivre. Those dishes were exciting in their day, but now, in their advanced years, seem dowdy and dull. I should have stuck with the left side, where the daily specials are vivacious, sexy and au courant.
We still had some wine left after the entrées, so instead of diving into dessert, we went for a cheese course. We asked our waitress for cheeses that would match our wine. The server returned with a plate covered with three cheeses -- a blue, a Gruyère type and a goat cheese -- along with an array of sliced fresh apples and a little crock of red onion marmalade in the center. We lingered a long time over the cheese and wine, and in the French tradition of leisurely dining, the waitstaff left us alone. It was a delicious interlude between dinner and dessert.
With our coffee, we split a Provence sundae, scoops of chocolate and coffee ice cream covered with figs poached in red wine and topped with fresh and crystallized lavender petals, a traditional spring treat in Provence. We left smiling.
As tonight's dinner draws to a close, Skopp sums up his position. "In the era of global business, boycotts like this don't make sense. You can't draw the lines between nations anymore." For dessert, I order a chewy walnut tart, which tastes like the French answer to pecan pie. It comes with a very rich Jack Daniel's ice cream. Skopp has an aromatic lavender crème brûlée.
Ironically, the rest of Skopp's political views are mostly conservative. "Personally, I support our government and the war in Iraq," he says. "And I was disappointed in the French. Chirac was taking care of his political agenda."
"So you support your government except when it costs you money? Isn't this all about your self-interest?" I ask cynically.
"Partly," he agrees. "But that doesn't change the fact that a lot of innocent people are getting caught in the crossfire." I nod my head in agreement as I steal another bite of his dessert. Lavender is an absolutely magical touch in desserts, and a very French one.
I agree that Houstonians should abandon this boycott nonsense, and that it is indeed unfair to wine sellers and French restaurants. But another bite of lavender crème brûlée offers a more compelling argument. When you boycott a place like Chez Nous, you are punishing only yourself.
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