David Garrido hacks off a huge piece of steak and then uses the already loaded fork to stab a few crispy french fries. The Austin chef is an old friend of mine, so he isn't shy about opening wide for the oversize mouthful. He washes it down with a slug of Cline Mourvèdre, a hearty, inexpensive Rhône-style red from California. Garrido is amazed by Laurier Café. So am I. The hip new eatery across the street from the Pink Pussycat is turning out Paris-style bistro food at Paris, Texas, prices.
"I really love these vegetables," Garrido says, waving his fork over the lightly sautéed spinach leaves and brilliant emerald asparagus. I nod politely, but it isn't really the perfectly done vegetables that are gleaming in his eyes -- it's the 12-ounce, Niman Ranch, dry-aged, medium-rare New York strip.
Garrido is the chef at Jeffrey's, the Austin restaurant that recently opened a branch in Washington, D.C., to keep the Bushes in Texas victuals. As we drove around Houston last week, I tried to figure out what the chef wanted for dinner: Cutting-edge cooking at Aries? Avant-garde curry at Indika? He thoughtfully considered each suggestion.
"Or how about steak frites and cheap table wine at some little bistro?" I asked.
"Steak frites?" he said, perking up. "That sounds perfect!" It was probably even fancier than what he was hoping for. You'd be surprised how many great chefs eat hot dogs, Domino's pizza or tacos on their day off. But if I took a visiting chef out for fast food, I'd never hear the end of it. The simple fare at one of Houston's new bistros was the perfect compromise.
A bistro, according to my handy French restaurant translation guide, the Marling Menu-Master for France, is generally a "small place with atmosphere," which is "intimate" and "family-run." That was the old definition, anyway. The meaning of "bistro" changed in the 1990s, when famous French chefs, dismayed at declining revenues, decided to open less expensive satellite restaurants. The smaller outposts were called bistros, but they were much more elaborate than the meat-and-potato eateries the term once implied. The only thing you can safely say about bistros now is that they are less expensive. But you're up in the air again when you ask the inevitable question: less expensive than what?
In 2002, a Space City bistro can be nearly anything, but odds are, whatever it is, it will serve that Paris bistro classic, steak frites. For a proper pile of french fries and a rare steak, I immediately thought of three possibilities: Laurier Café, where I had never been; Mockingbird Bistro Wine Bar, which has hit-or-miss fries (see "Inside Baseball at the Bistro," March 7); and the dreadful Two Chefs Bistro.
No way I was going to take Garrido to Two Chefs. I've eaten there only once and would need to make at least one more visit if I were going to write a full-fledged review. But I think it would be better for everybody involved if I just explained here and now why I don't want to go back.
Two Chefs is located in Dish's old space on Westheimer. I once complained that the minimalist decor at Dish didn't resonate with its hearty American comfort food. Two Chefs didn't make that mistake. Instead, it created a stuffy, maudlin atmosphere that harmonizes perfectly with the menu's boring and outdated French "classics." Imagine eating tasteless escargots and fussy venison chops oversauced with cranberry glop in the bereavement room of a funeral home, and you've got the idea. Live musicians performing bad lounge music on weekends add the perfect Six Feet Under touch. But I must admit, Two Chefs does have pretty good steak frites.
Nevertheless, I opted for the unknown: Laurier Café. I knew the place had steak frites, and I knew it had some tables outside on a patio -- just the sort of relaxed atmosphere I was looking for.
Laurier was nearly empty when Garrido and I arrived on a Tuesday night around seven. The menu and decor were both refreshingly simple. Soups and salads from $5 to $7, a short list of entrées in the $12 to $20 range, and a remarkably inexpensive wine list filled the front and back of a single sheet of paper. The dining room was square and unadorned, its chairs in that glorified lawn-furniture style and its walls decorated with a FotoFest exhibit. It's not a big-deal restaurant, but it's the perfect place to take a chef who's tired of fancy food.
We started with salads. Garrido was a little nonplussed by the starkness of the arugula -- whole leaves drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil -- but I loved the bitter flavor and lemony undertones of the naked greens. I opted for the goat cheese salad, field greens tossed with sherry vinaigrette and lots of sweet pecans. The goat cheese comes on a little piece of bread. It's a nice blend of flavors, but next time I'll get the bolder arugula.
I ordered roasted Niman Ranch pork with mashed potatoes, spinach and asparagus for my entrée. The waiter asked me how I wanted my pork done. I must admit, I'm a little mystified by the question these days. The worst experience I've had with rare pork was at the aforementioned Two Chefs. The middle of the roasted pork dish we ordered that night was red and gooey. "Is trichinosis extinct?" one of my dining companions asked me. After some sample bites, we concluded that, trichinosis or no, pork doesn't taste good this rare, and we sent it back. When it came out again, it was still semi-raw in the middle, so we gave up and the meat went uneaten.
At Laurier, the waiter suggested medium, and the pork came out just right: firm but a little pink. The free-range pork sold by Niman Ranch (see "Pig in the City," by George Alexander, November 22, 2001) is more flavorful and deeper in color than the water-injected stuff they sell in the grocery store, and it tastes much better roasted. The spinach and asparagus were the same ones Garrido was raving about, and they were excellent. But the thin au jus sauce in the bottom of the bowl was boring. I suppose it was flavored by the chipotle-citrus marinade the pork was soaked in, but the sweet taste didn't go well with the mashed potatoes.
On a subsequent visit to Laurier Café, two friends and I sat out on the deck on a cool spring evening and had a bottle of tart Sancerre. I ordered the roasted chicken, which was extremely juicy. Dried herbs had been stuffed underneath the skin so that every bite was wildly aromatic. It was served on a large heap of crisp, sweet snap peas, lightly cooked spinach and roasted potatoes.
We also tried roasted grouper, which was incredibly fresh but cooked perhaps too simply. Some "pico de gallo" was perhaps meant to spice up the fish, but the salsa was little more than tomatoes and herbs. Generous servings of roasted carrots and snow peas on the side helped, but the overall impression was blandness.
The biggest disappointment at Laurier was the mushroom and asparagus risotto. It was made with long-grain rice instead of the traditional short-grained Arborio. Arborio stays nutty through the long cooking process, while long-grain rice tends to get too mushy. But that wasn't its biggest problem. There were plenty of mushrooms and asparagus in the rice, and the dish also had enough cheese to give every bite a melted cheese tail. But the rice tasted like it had been cooked in a thin vegetable stock rather than a rich chicken stock.
I suspect that the risotto was prepared with vegetarians in mind. Such is probably also the case with the pasta, a penne with tomato and basil. With the seasonal vegetable plate and lots of meat-free appetizers, vegetarians have plenty of options at Laurier -- which will give them something to do out on the sunny patio while the rest of us sink our teeth into a glorious piece of roasted meat. That's the main attraction here, just as it should be at any bistro worth its sea salt. The pork and chicken are both excellent choices, but the steak is outrageous. And the portion isn't skimpy either -- Garrido couldn't even finish his.
What makes the steak frites exceptional isn't the crispy french fries or the perfectly cooked vegetables, it's the quality of the beef. I've raved about the nutty flavor and tender texture of dry-aged beef before [see "Aging with Grace (and Science)," August 30, 2001]. But this hormone-free, custom-fed, dry-aged Niman Ranch beef is in a class by itself. In fact, it's so much better than French beef that I can honestly say the steak frites at Laurier Café are better than any you'll get in Paris.
Cline Mourvèdre, Contra Costa, Ancient Vines, 1999
Mourvèdre is a Rhône varietal especially popular in the French region of Bandol, where it yields such exceptional wines as Domaine Tempier. It is called Mataro by the Italians, and it was under this name that the grape was planted extensively in California in the late 1800s. It did well in hot and sunny regions like Contra Costa County, where few other wine grapes thrived. Although it fell out of favor in France and elsewhere because it is difficult to cultivate, the California vines survived. These Mataro vines were rediscovered in the 1990s, when California Rhône varietals came into fashion. The grape yields a rich, wild cherry-scented wine that has lots of structure and a deep purple color. At $24 at Laurier Café, it is an exceptional value.
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