She was staring at my omelet. And for good reason: it wore the sunny, glistening face of eggs that have been coaxed rather than manhandled; tendrils of stewed red pepper and onion crept from its gilded rim. She snared a bite, considered the way fresh basil snapped everything into focus. "That," she decreed, "would be the perfect thing to eat if you were meeting your lover for a late lunch. Along with a glass of white wine," she amended, blushing furiously.
We laughed. My friend is happily married, but 30 minutes at Monica Pope's new Boulevard Bistrot had turned our heads, inviting us to spin scenarios. "If we were in Paris, every place would look like this," my friend asserted, eyeing the crisp white linens and pure white plates, the creamy walls and wine-red wainscoting. We gazed through French doors and high transom windows upon the kind of street scene Houston sorely lacks: umbrellaed tables overlooking a green and presentable stretch of Montrose Boulevard. We imagined how the room would feel on a rainy day.
And we ate. Happily. Chestnut-colored soup, an unbearably suave puree of cannelini beans charged with rosemary. Asian salad in a tricky vinaigrette ("Fish sauce?" we speculated), its chic baby greens Oriental by virtue of cilantro and shiitake mushrooms, photogenic by virtue of ruby-veined leaflets, scarlet peppers, pickled pink onions.
Just a few weeks old, Boulevard Bistrot already traffics in the bold, inventive flavors that distinguish chef/owner Pope's food at her nearby Quilted Toque. The Bistrot space where Kathy Ruiz last held forth is newly devoid of ornament, freshened by a process of subtraction. White ceiling fans wheel against an ivory-glazed ceiling; a single dramatic bromeliad is poised to blast off astride its intergalactic twig basket. Not that the past has been banished. The endearing floor of scruffy, checkerboarded linoleum lingers, and the stately 19th-century wooden bar still anchors the room with quiet gravitas. The results feel neither new nor old, but timeless.
Cleverly, Pope has devised a restaurant you can use and use and use -- a four-in-one compendium of breakfast spot, lunchtime bistro, all-day bakery and evening wine bar. It works in all its incarnations. The food seems most exciting at night, when a revolving list of first courses, salads and the odd entree takes effect. Best of show: a high-spirited goat cheese tart lightened with créme fraiche, livened with fresh thyme and housed in a fragile, many-leaved pastry shell. The big surprise is its relish of shallots, red grapes and capers -- sounds precious; tastes great.
Pope's rare gift for bringing off outlandish combinations is as evident in this teeny-tiny kitchen as it is up the street at the pricier, showier Quilted Toque. What makes the graceful cream of carrot soup so haunting? Squiggles of cilantro pesto and a mysterious bass note of vanilla essence. One of my more perspicacious guinea pigs -- call him Laser Palate -- discerned the same vanilla note in the subtle and delicious marinated eggplant, faintly sweetened with rice wine vinegar and cinnamon. A big garlic afterburn made it finish with a bang.
That eggplant was a centerpiece for one of the Bistrot's most appealing items: a constantly changing Mediterranean salad plate served forth in a wide, shallow mega-bowl. We felt lucky to get a seriously garlicked hummus of mashed chickpeas; wonderfully astringent little green beans pickled with lots of ginger; and a bouncy salad of lentils and feta mellowed with fruity olive oil. We chased all this around the bowl with grilled triangles of the strikingly moist, substantial pita bread made by the Toque's bakery. We competed for the last few marinated beets and red onions. We cracked our teeth on itty-bitty olives with the pits still in them. When our waitress attempted to remove the bowl, Laser Palate, one last pita triangle still in hand, did a fine impression of a bear protecting its cubs.
There was a promising dish of green-curried mussels that night, aswim in a hot, garlicky broth that conjured up Thailand. But the mussels themselves tasted ferociously strong; lately the kitchen has replaced them with shrimp, which don't go south quite so easily.
Count on the Bistrot's fat-edged pizzas du jour to sport interesting ingredients: sliced fennel bulbs, provolone, and portobellos sauteed in red wine came on one night's version, marred only by slightly doughy innards that could have stood a minute or two more in the oven. Don't count on terrific wines by the glass, though; so far the daily selections seem only adequate. And desserts here are a crapshoot. You win with a crunchy apple-cinnamon tart bound in vanilla custard; you lose with a lifeless cream cheese tart containing moribund pieces of strawberry. You split the difference with a chocolate raspberry cake: it's moist and dark as pitch, but what are those annoying chocolate sprinkles doing on its edges?
Glitches aside, this is exactly the sort of food I want before a show, after an opening, at those awkward junctures when a full-course meal doesn't suit. (For the ravenous, the Bistrot always has at least one Toque-ish entree on tap, whether it be one of Pope's inspired beefsteak treatments or a neo-bistro plate of duck confit with flageolet beans and caramelized apple.) I only wish the place kept later hours; Houston is so short of good places to go after evening events that staying open beyond 11 p.m. would constitute a real public service.
In the morning, the Bistrot has taken over the distinctive breakfasts the Toque once served -- the classy poached eggs with toasted state-of-the-art breads; the opulent scones; the expansive bowls of cafe au lait. And the room is easier to take at an early hour than the high-style Toque: intimate, desultory, as comfortable as a broken-in leather shoe.
At noon, the menu turns breezy and cheap, with excellent daily soups, plus a clutch of sandwiches, pastas, egg dishes and salads (including that fine Mediterranean kaleidoscope-in-a-bowl). Chicken salad on the Toque's homemade bread puts most local versions to shame: it requires nothing more than fresh tarragon and toasted almonds to transcend its genre. Gentle Asian noodles tossed with orange peel, slivered vegetables and black sesame seeds exert a subtle pull (just don't imagine you're ordering Szechuan-style noodles).
A frittata of whisper-thin grilled vegetables and goat cheese escapes the spongy texture that can afflict these hard-to-pull-off egg dishes; and the omelets can be downright spectacular. Not always, though -- late on a weekend afternoon, the kitchen produced a version laced with insipidly sweet red-onion confit and bland cheese, its underside cooked to a rubbery dark brown. The new potatoes on the plate were unseasoned and half-cooked. My gloom was tempered when the staff, noticing I hadn't eaten much of it, voluntarily took it off the bill.
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Which brings me to good news. People who gripe about the Quilted Toque's service will find its sibling's staff more engaged and attentive. The menu remains in flux; you may lunch one day on a salad of gorgeous red endive with fresh pears and Roquefort, its walnut vinaigrette bolstered by sweet, chile-spiked nuts. A few days on, you may find it has vanished. The place has some settling down to do: the lighting in particular fluctuates inexplicably, from warmly intimate to levels more suitable to police interrogation. But unlike many brand-new restaurants, Boulevard Bistrot manages to charm coming right out of the chute.
Bread-heads should note that the Quilted Toque's breathtaking (and breathtakingly expensive) loaves are available every day here, heaped into baroque piles near the Bistrot's cash register. The leftovers are half-price the next day, which makes them just about affordable. At last: apricot-pistachio sourdough without guilt; Austrian seed bread without having to check with your banker. Nifty T-shirts, too, at $15 a pop.
Urbanologists should note that Boulevard life passes through these inviting French doors in all its bewildering variety. You may lunch in the company of well-dressed matrons fresh from docent duties at the Museum of Fine Arts, or sup among the young and the restless. You may look up from your omelet into the million-dollar countenance of Louisa Sarofim or the dazed eyes of a barefoot kid who has wandered in from the street, his nose and mouth covered in spray-paint, only to be gently ushered out the back door. It's all part of the Montrose package -- one that Pope continues to make more civilized.
Boulevard Bistrot, 4319 Montrose, 524-6922.