The French Conundrum: The Culinary Idiosyncrasies of Salé-Sucré
Get a behind the scenes look at Salé-Sucré by checking out our slideshow.
It's clear from the first bite of creamy, pungent cheese, a little wedge cut out of an entire wheel rolled in spices, that the chef knows his way around a Camembert. The squat cylinder of cow's-milk cheese is marinated in Calvados apple brandy, rubbed with herbes de Provence and pan-fried, then served warm with a drizzle of honey and a few rounds of toast. It develops a protective crust as it's marinated and fried, so when I cut into the wheel, the warm cheese in the center practically oozed out. It was all I could do to catch it on my knife and a piece of toast and hurry it toward my mouth before it had a chance to drip onto the table. Once it cooled a little, it sliced more neatly, and I abandoned the toast entirely in favor of eating the warm, nutty cheese like a slice of pie, crust and all. It's intended to serve two, but the three people at my table couldn't quite finish it, in spite of the fact that each bite of ripe, moldy rind and creamy, sour interior sank us further into a gleeful cheese coma.
The Camembert appetizer is a standout platter at Salé-Sucré French Bistro, a restaurant in a small strip center on White Oak in the Heights. And no wonder, as chef Philippe Harel is a descendant of Marie Harel, thought to be the original creator of Camembert. According to legend, Marie was a farmer living in the village of Camembert in Normandy during the French Revolution. In 1791, she saved a priest from the village of Brie from death by guillotine when she hid him at her farm. As a thank-you, he taught her how to make cheese.
The story of Marie and her cheese enhances the feeling of tradition surrounding Harel's food, as well as the general vibe of Salé-Sucré. Though the French gave up on making tourists linger through two-to-three-hour meals a few years back in favor of a more modern approach to dining, Salé-Sucré has the feeling of a small French bistro right out of the 1990s. The recipes are traditional, the flavors are traditional, the plating is traditional and the wait is oh-so-traditional.
Dinner at Salé-Sucré has just about everything an evening at a small bistro in a quaint French city should have — personable but professional waiters; chic, cozy atmosphere; lots of time for long conversations over good wine; and plenty of culinary idiosyncrasies. Some, like serving superfluous chopped salads on every plate, are forgivable. Others, like using canned or frozen ingredients, are just confusing.
Salé-Sucré, French for "savory-sweet," has been open for a little more than a year in a space formerly occupied by the White Oak Bakery. Harel and his wife, Béline, manage the kitchen and the house, and their pleasant but perpetually overloaded son, Romain, takes orders and makes drinks. Though it's not the most organized front-of-house service I've ever seen, it's charming, and it makes the experience feel almost like dining at a friend's cottage when he's a little too busy for guests.
Salé-Sucré is a bright, airy restaurant with pop art tables featuring lacquered paintings of saucy showgirls, collages of old newspaper articles and abstract flowers bursting with color. In contrast, two walls are anchored by quilted burgundy booths that invite diners to sit and stay and be enveloped by the cushions. There's a revolving door of local art on the walls, some of it pleasant, some of it undeniably tacky, but this only adds to the sense that you're eating at your French cousins' house where they happen to have tacked their children's art to the walls.
A large wooden bar fills one entire wall of the restaurant, displaying a small collection of liquor and a multitude of French wines, all of which have been hand-selected by Harel. Every wine in stock, as far as I could tell, is an excellent example of the French penchant for producing some of the best wine in the world. From the vast variety of flavors present in a single glass of Domaine la Suffrene Bandol to the bright but creamy acidity of a Baron de Hoen pinot gris from Alsace, the wine list is full of stand out bottles, each of which is available by the glass. If you're unsure of what wine to order with your meal, just ask. Romain will be happy to bring you samples or to make suggestions, as he knows his way around tannins and terroir.
If the wine menu, without any descriptors or flavor profiles, is difficult to navigate, the food menu is exactly the opposite. The names of all the dishes are listed in French with translations and explanations below in English for those who might not be familiar with moules marinières or escargots en persillade.
On the evening my friends and I dined at Salé-Sucré, Romain was the only one working the restaurant, and he apologized numerous times for being overworked (apparently they're looking for more waitstaff). He needn't have worried, for the lull between being seated and placing our orders was tempered by a basket of mini loaves of herbed bread made in-house. The small, round rolls are crunchy on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside. They're topped with bits of dried rosemary and possibly lavender and served with a small ramekin of sweet, dreamy European-style butter. This bread was one of the highlights of the meal, and fortunately, it's served with a number of other dishes including the Camembert chaud and the soupe à l'oignon.
Traditional, beloved French dishes like moules marinières or escargots en persillade are given the respect they deserve, but neither was overwhelmingly magnificent. The mussels were soft, flavorful and not at all gritty, but the white wine and onion sauce promised on the menu was more of a heavy cream sauce that overwhelmed the delicate brininess of the mussels and didn't properly display the acid of the dry white wine. It's a generous portion of mussels, but several of them were unopened and thus inedible. The snails also had a great texture and flavor, if a little salty, but lacked the oily herbal sauce that's so great for sopping up with a piece of baguette.
Another well-known French item, steak frites, featured an unfortunately chewy piece of ribeye that was otherwise well seasoned and plated nicely. The fries that came in a mini fry basket with both the steak and the mussels were divine, though, and I was incredulous when Romain informed us that they are pan-fried rather than deep-fried, because the ratio of crispy outside to soft inside was about as close to perfect as I've seen. We didn't finish anything on our plates except the fries. In fact, we had to ask for extra ketchup because we were so enamored of the incredible frites. Call it gauche. We didn't care.
A few inconsistencies are forgivable, but the sourcing of ingredients at a restaurant that seeks to exemplify French food culture is of utmost importance. The best meals I ate in France were the ones where I watched the chef meet with the cheesemonger right before dinner and choose the freshest pyramids of chèvre or traipse out to her garden to retrieve some vine-ripe tomatoes for a dinner salad. The quality of ingredients is everything to the French.
Which is why the use of lesser elements in a few dishes was so baffling. Before I even took a bite of my crêpe forestière, I could tell just by looking at them that the mushrooms stuffed inside were canned. Canned mushrooms are somewhat gray and have a slimier texture than fresh cooked mushrooms. Why anyone would use canned mushrooms when fresh ones are readily available is bewildering. I also noticed that the olive slices in my salad seemed to come from canned olives, and the fruit in a dessert crêpe tasted as if it had been previously frozen. Why, Chef, why?!
The most mystifying ingredient, though, was in the desserts. The crème brûlée was tasty enough, as were the crêpes themselves, but both the crêpes and the mille feuilles framboise, a stack of puff pastry, fresh raspberries and whipped cream, used canned whipped cream. Again, I ask, why? It's so simple to whip up some fresh cream and add a touch of sugar. Is it because canned whipped cream and canned vegetables last longer? Did they think people wouldn't notice? I just don't get it.
I would go back for that Camembert platter in a heartbeat, and I'm still dreaming about the divine crêpe Suzette, a simple dish of orange zest, orange juice and flambéed Grand Marnier poured over a gently folded, paper-thin crêpe with the edges just slightly crisped.
Dishes like these make it clear that Harel knows what he's doing. He's a French native and a classically trained French pastry chef. But somewhere between the concept and the execution, a bit of what makes French cuisine and flavor combinations so delightfully natural and wholesome is lost.
Unlike many French restaurants in Houston, Salé-Sucré doesn't put on any airs, and I appreciate the relaxed atmosphere and pleasantness of the people and the space. But the French expression "Il y a quelque chose qui cloche" comes to mind. It essentially means that something is amiss, but clocher literally translates to "to limp."
Salé-Sucré is limping a bit, but I desperately hope it's on the mend. Houston needs an unpretentious little pocket of France nestled in the Heights almost as much as the French need good cheese, good bread and good wine. And that, as the French would say, is beaucoup.
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