Stew Weather: Bistro Don Camillo
The duck liver mousse at Bistro Don Camillo near Voss and San Felipe looked like fluffy chocolate pudding. I spread a glob on a slice of toast and savored it with a sip of Cabernet. The luscious combination of fatty duck liver and red wine triggered memories of winter. I felt it as much as I tasted it. The gamy flavor and the unctuous texture of the liver were followed by the fruity acidity of the wine, and then there was a tingling warmth that spread across my chest. It was cold outside, and it felt good to be eating and drinking hearty stuff again.
For his entrée, my dinner mate got a bowl of estouffade de boeuf, a beef stew with black olives and new potatoes in thick brown ragout. I got the oxtail ravioli, four giant pasta pillows stuffed with slow-cooked beef and served in a red pepper cream sauce. The ravioli were a little too al dente for my tastes; the corners tasted stiff and doughy. The cream sauce was no help for moistening, as there was barely a smudge of it on the plate. Since we were splitting the two dishes anyway, I submerged the ravioli in the excess gravy left over after we had eaten most of the beef stew. They softened up after a few minutes and tasted great.
I told the waiter to bring me the best $35 red wine he had. He came back with a Margaux and told me that this was the wine I really wanted. He was right. Too bad it was $90. That game went on for a while, until I ended up with a generic-tasting but economical $35 Cab that was just fine with beef stew on a school night.
But while the onset of winter was putting me in the mood for braised French dishes and red wine, it didn't seem to be having the same effect on my fellow Houstonians. In fact, my dinner companion and I were the only customers in the dining room for the entire evening. And an empty restaurant is not very jovial. Granted, it was a Monday night, but the silence was ominous.
According to national restaurant consultants, the somber mood brought on by the economic meltdown will bring about some changes in the American restaurant industry. Along with emptier dining rooms, you can also expect to see cheaper prices and lower ticket averages. Conspicuous consumption is impolite when those around you are losing their homes and their jobs, the experts observe. So say goodbye to duck liver mousse, foie gras, truffles and other such luxury items. And prepare to eat a lot of comfort food, like meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, for a while. (Hopefully, French peasant dishes like beef stew and oxtail ravioli qualify.)
Fashionable frugality may be the "in" thing this holiday season. But wearing our austerity on our sleeves doesn't have to mean giving up fine dining in favor of fast food. It's a much better idea to go to great restaurants that make you feel like you're economizing. Take the business lunch at Bistro Don Camillo, for example — an appetizer, entrée and dessert for $18.95 — not a lot of money for a three-course meal, right?
A friend and I tried it out the other day. She got the soupe du jour, an excellent chunky tomato basil soup, for her first course. I got an average house salad. The pretzel-shaped bread that comes to your table hot out of the pizza oven with an herb-and-olive oil dipping sauce is a big bonus at Bistro Don Camillo. Bread this good makes any appetizer taste better. Ask for seconds as soon as they deliver the first bread plate — it takes a while to bake.
For her main course, my friend got the pizza du jour, which was topped with fresh tomato sauce, goat cheese, Bayonne ham and artichoke hearts. There was so much of it, she ended up taking a slice home for later. I got a perfectly cooked little chunk of Gulf red snapper filet with green beans and basil sauce. I squeezed a half a lemon over it and scarfed the whole portion. Then I ate a wedge of my companion's pizza. Dessert was a decent apple and pear tarte. To keep costs down, I skipped my usual cup of coffee.
One of the most unusual things I tried at Bistro Don Camillo were escargot wrapped in prosciutto and topped with gooey melted mozzarella. I can't say I have ever had escargot cooked this way before. It was so good that after a couple of bites, I envisioned eating a whole snail pizza. Don't laugh; at Don Camillo's sister restaurant, Bistro Provence, there's a duck confit pizza on the menu.
Bistro Provence and Bistro Don Camillo were opened by Georges and Monique Guy, who also ran the upscale French restaurant Chez Georges on Westheimer. Both restaurants are now owned and operated by Guy's oldest son, Jean Philippe, and his wife Geneviève.
Bistro Provence has long offered the Italian-inflected French fare of the Côte d'Azur. And at first glance, Bistro Don Camillo appears to be a clone. There's the same sidewalk tables out front, the same giant pizza oven in the kitchen, the same cafe tables and bentwood chairs in the dining room, and the same old-fashioned French posters on the walls.
In some respects, the food is almost identical. The kitchen staff at Bistro Provence makes many of the pâtés and conserves for both restaurants, so both have excellent housemade pâtés and rillettes and stellar cold-weather French classics like duck confit over beans and slow-cooked rabbit stew.
But Bistro Don Camillo ventures further across the border into Italian territory with a wide selection of pasta dishes, more Italian-style pizzas and more Italian ingredients. The name of the place is an inside joke — it refers to a series of French-Italian comedy films about a fictional priest named Don Camillo. The movies came out simultaneously in French and Italian.
If Italian fare sounds like a strange thing to eat in a French restaurant, consider the odd history of the French city of Nice on the Côte d'Azur. The impoverished fishing village was still part of Italy in the mid-1700s when British aristocrats made it fashionable for its healthy climate. This part of the French Riviera didn't become part of France until the mid-1800s. The food and culture of the area are still as much Italian as French.
Bistro Don Camillo's French/Italian menu is especially appealing in this new age of frugality. The business lunch isn't the only great deal to be had here. You and a companion can get two salads or appetizers, split a $10 goat cheese, artichoke and ham pizza or a big square of old-fashioned lasagna, and get out of there for an amazingly cheap $25 — plus whatever you spend on drinks. (I recommend a large bottle of Fischer d'Alsace, an excellent French beer.)
And should you get tired of all this conspicuous austerity and want to splurge one night, Bistro Don Camillo is also a fine place for some duck liver mousse and Margaux.
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