Madagascar Birthmarks at French Riviera Bakery
The pâté de campagne sandwich at French Riviera Bakery on Chimney Rock comes thickly spread with coarse, country-style pork pâté on your choice of breads. Go with the popcorn-crunchy baguette, lightly dressed with Dijon mustard and decorated with lettuce, tomato and pickles, and sink your teeth into one of the best sandwiches in the city.
A friend of mine created another outstanding sandwich from French Riviera's mix-and-match menu the other day. He got one layer of thick-sliced mortadella and a second layer of thin-sliced Italian hard salami on a baguette with mustard and mayo, lettuce, tomato and pickles. It tasted sort of like a French muffaletta.
The baguettes are incredible, but you can also get your sandwich on wheat, white, sesame-crusted semolina, a country boule, a soft bun, a croissant or focaccia. French Riviera also offers a whole farmhouse loaf to take home, which, along with the baguette and the croissant, is served at other restaurants around the city.
In fact, I was prompted to visit French Riviera Bakery because of the sandwiches I had tried on their baguettes and croissants at French House on Westheimer. The bread was so good, I guessed that the bakery might serve a helluva breakfast and lunch. And I guessed right.
I stopped by early one morning when it was still cool and had an espresso at one of the chic little aluminum tables that line the front sidewalk. There is a veritable jungle of potted plants lining the sidewalk under a canvas awning out there. I love the cartoon of a baguette wearing sunglasses with its arms behind its head reclining under a beach umbrella that appears beside the name of the place on the awning.
The interior is dominated by four huge bakery cases. The walls are painted lemon custard yellow and decorated with a map of France, photos of women drinking coffee and French food advertisements. There are around a dozen wooden tables arranged French-style — right on top of each other. And given the multinational crowd of Asians, Latin Americans, Europeans and locals, hanging out there is like eavesdropping at the United Nations.
The breakfasts at French Riviera Bakery are stellar. On my second breakfast visit, a companion and I tried some scrambled eggs with ham, cheese, mushrooms and onions. I was delighted by the moist, fluffy consistency. An omelet was thin and elegantly folded. The flaky croissants served on the side were sliced in half and toasted. I even liked the butter.
But the best breakfast offerings at French Riviera Bakery are the sweet things — Danishes, brioches and filled croissants. The almond croissant, which contains a thick layer of almond paste, was my favorite. I also fell in love with the pain chocolat studded with chunks of bittersweet dark chocolate.
And to top it off, the bakery serves top-quality Segafredo Italian espresso, properly made with lots of foamy crema, in a Segafredo logo cup.
It surprised me to discover that the owners of French Riviera Bakery were Chinese. Of course, Asians are no strangers to the French bakery business. There are probably more Vietnamese Americans running French bakeries in Houston than there are people of French descent. And since Vietnam spent so many years as a French colony, that seems pretty normal.
But Vietnamese-French bakeries, like Parisian on Gessner and Parisian II on Wilcrest, are famous for Vietnamese sandwiches made with fish sauce and spicy chile peppers. Their shelves are stocked with Vietnamese favorites like rice cakes and dim sum dumplings.
At French Riviera Bakery, the offerings are pure French. You can even find such favorite European products as Bonne Maman Chestnut Spread, Nutella and imported Dijon mustard for sale. One morning I approached one of the owners to see if I could figure out what was going on.
"Are you Taiwanese?" I asked a man who was mixing some batter behind the counter. His name was Louis Wu, and he said that his Chinese ancestors were from Hong Kong. But I noticed that he spoke English with a French accent.
It turned out that Louis and his brother Robert, who have owned French Riviera Bakery since the mid-1980s, grew up on the island of Madagascar. Madagascar was a French colony from 1895 until it became independent in 1960. French remains one of the island's two official languages.
Louis and Robert Wu both grew up speaking French and working in French-style kitchens from an early age. Louis went on to study cooking in Paris and worked as an apprentice and then as a baker there for many years before he came to Houston.
I was so amazed by the story of the French-speaking Chinese Wu brothers from Madagascar that I got carried away telling the story to my dining mates, John Bebout and Jim Herd, over lunch at the restaurant. I went on to describe the colonial history of Madagascar. Maybe I was droning on a bit.
"What a coincidence," Bebout suddenly interrupted in a loud voice. "Did I ever tell you that I have a birthmark in the shape of Madagascar on my left hip?"
I guessed Bebout was harassing me because I was being pedantic. But I'm never quite sure when an Aggie is pulling my leg. So I made the mistake of calling him on it.
"Let's see," I said.
The next thing I knew, Bebout was on his feet beside the table unfastening his belt. Discreetly pointing his ass toward the wall, he quickly dropped his blue jeans to show us a two-and-a-half-inch café au lait-colored birthmark just below the leg line of his tighty-whities.
"It does look like Madascar," the ever-dignified Herd said, adjusting his rimless glasses to get a better look. Luckily, there was no one in the far end of the restaurant where we were seated. Otherwise I am quite sure Bebout would have been arrested.
The only disappointing sandwich I tried at French Riviera Bakery was a roast beef with lettuce and tomato on focaccia bread. The focaccia was too thick and too soft on the bottom. I discarded the bottom half of the sandwich and ate it open-faced.
Bebout raved about his pâté sandwich and the hot lentil soup he sampled with it. The menu on the wall behind the counter offers Swiss, ham and Swiss, ham and butter, mortadella, turkey, salami, tuna salad, chicken salad, egg salad, grilled chicken and hot dog sandwiches. Weirdly, Herd ordered the hot dog. (Who gets a hot dog in a French bakery?) He said it was so strange, he had to try it.
The gamble paid off. The fat porky wiener was served on an excellent crusty roll with Dijon mustard, lettuce, tomato and pickles. I can't say I have ever tasted a hot dog quite like it, but I would gladly eat another one right now.
We were all blown away by the desserts. At the bakery case, it's the chocolate éclair that catches your eye. First runner-up is the overstuffed cream puff. Both were quite good. But the big surprise was the innocuouslooking powdered sugar-topped Napoleon. The rich rectangle featured several layers of crunchy pastry with lots of sweet, but not too sweet, Bavarian cream in between. The contrast of creamy and crunchy was absolutely sublime.
French Riviera Bakery isn't a trendy restaurant; it's just a bakery. And it's hardly a new discovery — it's been around for 30 years. But if you haven't been there lately, you owe yourself a treat.
On your way out, grab a loaf of bread to take home. The baguettes are wonderful, the boules are awesome and the semolina bread is very nice toasted. But the best of the lot is the big Italian-style "farmhouse" loaf. If you see one, grab it right away — they sell out fast.
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