Teachings of the Pope

Chef Monica Pope has turned Boulevard Bistrot into both an outstanding Montrose eatery and headquarters for her activist causes.
Troy Fields

We're still shivering when the waitress brings our menus. Maybe it's the January chill that causes us both to want the dish called winter curry, or maybe it's just the most intriguing thing on Boulevard Bistrot's seasonal menu. I gallantly let my dining companion have the curry (provided she allows me a generous "taste") and settle for the traditional French bistro dinner of consommé and boiled meats and vegetables called pot-au-feu.

In French, bistro or bistrot (both spellings are correct) means a humble eatery, a place where you can get a bowl of soup, a sandwich or something simple like steak and french fries. At first glance it seems odd that Monica Pope, one of the most exalted chefs in Texas, would end up running a bistro.

Pope was named a top newcomer by Zagat in 1994-1995, and one of the top ten best new chefs of 1996 by Food & Wine magazine. At the Quilted Toque, she created a grandiose "global cuisine" menu that pushed the fusion envelope. Boulevard Bistrot, which she opened in 1994, was intended to be a less expensive French-Asian spot. But that same year, Pope left the Quilted Toque.

Fusion cuisine ran its course, and her little bistro evolved into something else. Today it is both an outstanding Montrose neighborhood eatery and campaign headquarters for Pope's activist causes. You can stop by for a goat cheese, pesto and arugula sandwich and pick up a form letter to send to your congressman demanding labeling of genetically engineered foods.

Much of the menu reflects her agenda. Heirloom varietals, ancient grains and obscure foreign dishes abound. There's traditional French bistro fare, too, but in truth, it's the restaurant's weakest link. It's the seasonal dishes and nightly specials that are stunning in their originality and awe-inspiring in their execution.

Tasting her winter curry, I feel like I'm having a conversation with a fellow food writer on the subject of why Westernized curry deserves more respect. The dish is a mélange of butternut squash and creamy, tart apple slices folded with chestnuts and buttery cashews into a warm blanket of velvety curry sauce. Instead of the expected rice, the curried fruits, nuts and vegetables surround a pile of chewy barley. Breaking up what might have been a visually boring expanse of deep brown sauce are bold white splashes of raita, the refreshing yogurt-and-cucumber relish that traditionally accompanies curries in Asia.

While the raita may allude to the Indian origins of the spice blend, the dish is more reminiscent of the mild curry dishes that were once so common in English, French and American Southern cooking but have lately fallen out of favor. Once foodies discovered brilliant- colored Thai curries, Indian curries with clarified butter, and East Asian curries made with coconut milk, they started turning up their noses at church picnic offerings like curried eggs, curry dip and curried chicken salad.

But Pope's winter curry took me gently by the hand and led me back to an appreciation of Western curry traditions. The compelling interplay of Asian spices and northern European ingredients provides both a stunning combination of flavors and a heady whiff of nostalgia. The hearty Scottish barley and winter squash blend beautifully with the sweet apples and roasted chestnuts, but it's the sexy whisper of the usually loud spice mix that forces me to reconsider my sophomoric disdain.

Why did I assume that Westernized curry wasn't worth eating? It is, after all, a 200-year-old tradition. The East India Tea Company standardized the Western version of the spice mix in the early 1800s. There is a French curry sauce in the Escoffier Cookbook, and several more in James Beard's American Cookery. But I must admit, as I eat a bite with squash, apple, cashews and barley, I have never had a Western curry as good as this one.

I have been so distracted by my imaginary conversation that my dining companion has to wave to get my attention. We have ordered a bottle of 2001 Burgaud "Les Vallieres" Beaujolais and the waitress is waiting for me to taste it. I apologize and take a sip. It's a simple wine, bright with berry notes, perfect for the kind of food we're eating. I smile at my friend, who looks a little forlorn.

"What's the matter?" I ask.

"You never talk at dinner," she says.

At one o'clock on a sunny Friday afternoon, Boulevard Bistrot seems to be occupied entirely by employees of the Museum of Fine Arts. The restaurant's slate-gray walls are covered with artwork in repeating abstract shapes that look vaguely organic. The entryway brings you into the restaurant beside a massive old wooden bar where I hope to sit and drink pastis someday.  

While there are many fascinating items to consider on the lunch menu, I decide to check out a few of the bistro basics. My companion gets a hamburger on a bread described as "lavender pizzette," and I order steak frites. We both get Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

The french fries that come with our orders are dark brown, greasy and limp. My hangar steak, a tough but flavorful piece of meat that has long been the rage in hip New York bistros, is sliced into several pieces and served with a sweet homemade "steak sauce." It's tasty, but my jaw gets tired working on it. It probably would have been easier to chew if I had ordered it medium instead of medium rare.

The hamburger comes with caramelized onions, applewood-smoked bacon, aioli and blue cheese. It sounds better than it tastes. Unfortunately, the ground meat is very lean, so the patty stays too dense. The lavender pizzette (small pizza) doesn't make an ideal bun either. It isn't a bad burger, but it falls short of the expectations created by the wordy description.

Which brings us to the subject of menu writing. In the evening, Boulevard Bistrot has three menus with varying degrees of difficulty. The bunny slope is called Bistrot Classics and features items such as burgers, omelettes and organic macaroni with cheese. The slightly more advanced Dinner Menu starts off with "cumin-rubbed grilled quail with mzoura." (It's a Tunisian carrot salad.) And then there's the double black diamond, experts only, daily special blackboard where, on another evening visit, I encountered this description under the heading of salad: "farro, green & gold romanos & merlot mixed greens."

Without prompting, I couldn't identify a single thing in this dish. With a little help I remembered that farro is an ancient grain that was once common in Italy; in fact, it was the daily fare of the Roman legion. It had all but disappeared until it became fashionable in gourmet restaurants a few years ago. Come to think of it, I had a wonderful variation on risotto called farrotto last winter.

But what are green and gold romanos? Italian cheeses? No, a passing waitress told us, they're peppers. But our waiter had yet another opinion. They weren't peppers -- they were beans, he said. Romano beans, it turns out, are Italian green beans, a variety of snap bean. But romano is a varietal name that's deceptive without the word "bean" attached, like "beefsteak" without the "tomato." Did chef Pope assume that everyone would know "romano" means bean? Or was she being deliberately obtuse?

It took even more effort to identify the last item in the salad: merlot mixed greens. The waiter said the name had something to do with the use of a "double vinaigrette" -- not a very satisfying explanation. When the salad arrived, I noticed dark purple lettuce shoots mixed throughout.

"Are you sure it isn't called merlot mixed greens because of these?" I asked the waiter, pointing to the purple leaf I suspected was another heirloom varietal. After inquiring in the kitchen, the waiter returned and said vaguely that the name referred to the "whole combination." Judging by this explanation, the chef doesn't know what it means either; it's just something she made up.

The dense farro, full-flavored snap beans and fresh garden greens made a fabulous salad. As a food lover and a crossword puzzle enthusiast, I enjoy decrypting menu descriptions; the more obscure the better. But some of Ms. Pope's clues are undecipherable, even by food geeks.

The blackboard menu that night also included pea soup with a "foie flan," sturgeon with local rabe and nasturtium butter, and hamachi. I knew rabe was a green and nasturtium was an edible flower. The waiter said hamachi was sushi-grade tuna. (Toro and maguro were evidently not challenging enough for today's puzzle.)

"Foie flan is like a bread made with foie gras," the waiter said.

"Bread? But flan is custard," I protested. "You know, pudding, like in a Mexican restaurant?" He had never heard of this kind of flan. So I ordered the soup, just to see what the stuff was.

Maybe this is part of Pope's plan. If you need help to decode the menu, it gives the waitstaff a chance to describe some of her more imaginative dishes. And if they don't know what the hell she's talking about either, well then, curiosity sets in.

But I forgave her the gimmick as soon as I started eating. The specials I sampled were nothing short of phenomenal. The disk of rich yet fluffy foie gras mousse floating in the bowl of brownish split pea soup took the earthy potage to a distant planet. The bitter rabe greens were a shockingly powerful contrast to the sharp marine aftertaste of the meaty sturgeon, and the peppery nasturtium butter, garnished with a flower blossom, provided both a subtle accent and an attractive visual.  

If Fleming's Steakhouse prides itself on never educating consumers (see "Dining by Demographic," February 6), then Boulevard Bistrot is at the opposite extreme. Pope's lesson plan is overflowing. She may be a bit didactic, but I admire her motives. She is part of a movement of politically active American chefs whose agenda is to educate consumers, elevate our national cuisine and champion progressive agricultural alternatives. These are lofty goals that few restaurant patrons in Houston really care about -- until they taste the results.

When you bite into an heirloom vegetable or an obscure grain that's been prepared by a chef as good as Pope, you suddenly realize what we've all been missing. The American agricultural system, with its giant monoculture farms and an ever-shrinking list of varietals, has sacrificed flavor and natural diversity for the convenience of corporate food producers.

At Boulevard Bistrot, Monica Pope is out to change all that, one plate at a time.

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