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Seriously French

When I hear that an eating establishment is one of only four Relais Gourmand organization restaurants in North America, and that the seriously gourmet menu is in French, I expect to find a dining room that's terribly formal and just a bit off-putting. Perhaps there'll be a sneering maitre d' to set the tone; maybe a sommelier with a golden key to the wine cellar decorating his person. But at La Colombe D'Or I encountered neither, which is one of the reasons I was so taken with the place's weirdly Montrosian charm.

The lack of affectation may in part be due to the mix and match of business that comes from Houston's lack of zoning; surely it's hard to keep your nose too high in the air when you share a neighborhood with numerous tattoo parlors and a beyond-Pluto live music venue such as Numbers, even if the museum district is but a stone's throw away and the dignified architecture of St. Thomas University begins near your back door. This worlds-colliding ambiance seeps into what was once the home of W.W Fondren, a founder of Humble Oil. La Colombe D'Or's dining rooms, which seem to have been Fondren's living room and sun porches, are decorated with a wonderful hodgepodge of antiques, potted palms, good art, bad art, several periods of decorative woodwork and, in one section, some amazingly red wallpaper. The whole effect is rather like being plunked down in a European country house that's been in the same family for centuries. Things just ... accumulate. The end result is charmingly haphazard, and surprisingly homey.

More than a decade and a half ago, New Orleans transplant Steve Zimmerman purchased Fondren's home and turned it into his dream hotel. To feed the boldface types he hoped to attract -- and has ended up attracting -- he created the eponymous in-house restaurant along Continental lines, with a menu both rigorously French and firmly rooted in the haute cuisine tradition. This isn't bistro food or country cooking. These dishes are classic, often complicated and carefully presented. The kitchen is now under the supervision of chef Franck Chouette, who apprenticed at Le Grand Bras and Hotel du Roi Rene before working in two of France's most prestigious culinary establishments, the Hotel Crillon and Restaurant Taillevent.

This last experience is the source of La Colombe D'Or's splendid pommes surprises ($12.95), a lunchtime dish that's a specialty at the Taillevent. The apotheosis of the lowly stuffed potato, it features three plump and moist, tangerine-size, red, boiled spuds hollowed out and stuffed with sauteed lobster and tarragon. The delicately flavored lobster meat is prepared in a light cream sauce that is unobtrusive yet complementary, and the whole is finished with the merest sprinkle of finely chopped chives. Presented with an artistically arranged medley of fresh, blanched green vegetables -- miniature broccoli florets, petits pois, baby haricots verts and a pair of crossed baby carrots for color -- it is a delight to the eye as well as to the palate.

So is the luncheon appetizer salade de l'impulsion ($4.95). With its artfully wilted greens and lettuces in shades of purple, celadon and yellow; its deep-green bits of broccoli; its spring green snow peas; its sunny cantaloupe, orange slices and baby carrots; and the American Beauty red of its strawberry slices, this is truly an impressionist painting of a salad.

And it isn't the menu's only splendid salad. The dinnertime crevettes fumees en salade de roquette et vinaigrette balsamic ($12.50) is enough to convert even the most rabid hater of verdure. The smoky jumbo shrimp are plump and tender, and the garden-fresh roquette is blanched just long enough to drape artistically, though not enough to prevent the pungent, vaguely mustardy taste of the green from coming through. But the real secret of the salad's success is its exquisite dressing. It teases diners with the kind of dominant, woody-dark sweetness that can only come from true balsamic vinaigrette, one in which the Trebbiano grapes have been aged to expensive perfection.

Were seafood lovers to search Larousse Gastronomique for the definition of perfection, they would likely find a picture of La Colombe D'Or's bisque de homard ($6/$7.50). During a number of visits, this satiny lobster/cream soup with just a breath of white wine and cognac and sweet morsels of tender Louisiana lump crabmeat never failed to impress. It is not just the best lobster bisque I've found in Houston; it's the best I've found anywhere.

Not all of La Colombe D'Or's dishes are quite that successful, but many are exceptional. Terrine de poissons rotis au parfum de raifort ($7.50/$9.50), for example, is a picture-pretty pate comprising roasted and smoked salmon, roasted snapper and flounder bits. The puzzle pieces are artfully assembled and bound in fresh dill and leeks; the seafood flavors are enlivened by a hint of horseradish.

Fortuitous shades of flavor also brighten the filet mignon de veau entier a la confiture d'echalottes et gingembre roti ($29). The fork-tender, charbroiled veal tenderloin sits atop a pillow of nicely garlicky spinach, the whole surrounded by a plate-circling halo of thready, sweetly caramelized shallots that are unexpectedly animated by a suggestion of ginger.

But the suggestion of Grand Marnier in the marquise au chocolat, one feature of the chocolate palette dessert ($8.50), is, I'm afraid, the best thing about it. Unless chocolate's your passion, this sampler featuring small scoops of white, dark and cappuccino mousse, as well as the incredibly butter-rich marquise, won't show La Colombe D'Or in its best light. It would be better to ask the waiter to suggest something else; they seem eager to help. Most of the time, anyway. On my visits it was never necessary to request a slice of warm, crusty baguette; an assistant server watched each bread plate like a raptor, appearing magically with the silver bread basket and tongs as the last crumb disappeared. And on one visit, my fresh-brewed, nicely raspberry-flavored iced tea was unobtrusively replaced when the waiter noticed that melted ice cubes were diluting its flavor. But on another, the glass was left unrefilled. And once the old-fashioned silver creamer bore unmistakable evidence of having been used earlier. Crusting cream striations ringed its sides.

Still, slightly fuddled service somehow seems to fit with the odd charm of the place. When you're here, it's as if you're a character in a Second Empire novel -- indulging in a splendid meal while listening for ghosts of the ancient regime.

La Colombe D'Or, 3410 Montrose, 524-7999.

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miles
Restaurant CINQ at La Colombe D'Or Hotel

3410 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006

713-524-7999

www.lacolombedor.com


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