In a rave review of the new restaurant called Rouge (812 Westheimer, 713-520-7955), Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook says, "For what I presume are marketing purposes, the place bills itself as serving New American food. But as far as I'm concerned, it's the best French restaurant in town."
It's easy to see her point. There are a lot of words like confit, gratin and velouté on the menu at Rouge. And the place certainly has a Francophile's wine list. Overall, the place feels like a French restaurant.
When I get executive chef Edelberto Gonçalves on the phone, he has a thick French accent -- just as I suspected. I proceed to interrogate him mercilessly. "Why do you call Rouge a 'New American cuisine' restaurant instead of a French restaurant?"
"Somebody else called it a New American restaurant, and I went along with it, " the chef explains. But clearly, that's not the only reason. Gonçalves can supply plenty of justifications for the New American moniker. The Caesar salad, the Black Angus steak, the local lamb -- these are all American, he argues. There's even a gourmet take on buffalo wings on the appetizer list (hot drumsticks served with Gorgonzola, celery and apple salad). Pasta, polenta, risotto and lots of Italian flavors enter the mix, too. "America is a mix of many nationalities and flavors, and that's what I do," the chef says. "Seventy percent of the menu is Mediterranean, and 30 percent is Asian, American and North African."
If an American chef had written the same menu, there might not be any reason to doubt the New American moniker. But Edelberto Gonçalves isn't American.
"Are you French?" I ask pointedly.
"That's a good question," he waffles. He was never considered French in France because of his family name, which is Portuguese. Both of his parents are Portuguese, and many of his inspirations come from their homeland. The tiny calamari called suppions in French and calamaretti in Italian, which are stuffed and served as an appetizer at Rouge, are a good example. "That's actually my mother's recipe," Gonçalves says. If he could find some decent chourico (Portuguese sausage) and bacalao (salt cod) in Houston, we food critics might be calling this the best Portuguese restaurant in town, he jokes.
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But Gonçalves has no problem with being called a French chef, either. "I was born and raised in Paris," he says. "Certainly my culinary training is French." And he certainly has no beef with anybody who wants to call Rouge the best French restaurant in town. So are there any plans to drop the New American label?
"We haven't really talked about it," the chef says. "But I think we will leave it the way it is."
It's hard to fault that logic. Rouge opened last June when George Bush was eating "freedom toast" for breakfast, and his supporters were encouraging Americans to boycott French wines and restaurants. Houston may have the dubious distinction of being the only city in America where vigilantes escalated the anti-French boycott beyond graffiti and broken bottles into acts of serious criminal violence. In a chilling episode reminiscent of the Nazi rampages of Kristallnacht, a French bistro in the Theater District had its front window smashed. After receiving more threatening phone calls, the eatery dropped its French name to avoid further harassment (see "Le Fracas Français," June 5).
The situation has calmed down since then, but you can't blame the owners of Rouge for remaining wary. What happens to French restaurants and French wine if Bush and Chirac get into a shouting match at the United Nations? With its "New American cuisine," Rouge hopes to stay out of food fights.