The Silver Tower Meets The Shining
The three of us were seated at a table overlooking part of the first floor roof at La Tour d'Argent on Ella. Four or five raccoons were eating table scraps out there under the glare of a spotlight. Since the restaurant looks like a hunting lodge, the wildlife seemed weirdly appropriate.
After an appetizer of foie gras terrine with shallot marmalade, I sampled a salty duck confit and dreamed I was back in Bergerac. In its latest incarnation, La Tour d'Argent is serving the hearty cuisine of the Dordogne. Bergerac is the capital city of that poultry-producing region and the hometown of La Tour's new chef, Cedric Guerin.
The Dordogne is my favorite part of France and over the years I've befriended a duck farmer there named Armel Barthe, who offers table d'hte dinners (dinners for guests) at his 13th-century farmhouse. The Barthes simply sit guests down at the family dinner table to eat along with them.
Although he cans foie gras pt;on the premises, Barthe never serves it at his own table. It's his cash crop -- he can't afford to eat the stuff. His dinner menu for guests is always the same: sturdy red wine, garlic soup, a simple salad, an appetizer of cold duck-meat rillettes and pts, and an entre of hot duck confit with potatoes cooked in duck fat.
At La Tour, Cedric Guerin serves a more refined version of this provincial cuisine, which means no garlic soup, lots of foie gras and more variations in the entres. You can eat light by ordering salads and fish dishes, or you can savor the hearty, rustic flavors of Southwestern France by ordering the poultry.
Guerin's falling-apart tender, long-cooked duck confit was served with pink slices of quickly grilled duck breast. The chef gave the combination of duck cooked two ways a tropical twist with a garnish of tomatoes and tomatillos and a sweet mango sauce. We also tried a medium-rare filet au poivre, which came to the table cooked to perfection. Steak au poivre seems as dated as "veal Oscar" to me, but at least the steak was juicy and the peppercorn sauce didn't overwhelm the flavor.
A third entrée of soft slices of veal tenderloin served with a thick porcini cream sauce and a mound of veal sweetbreads was absolutely delectable, though impossibly rich. The sweetbreads were so tender they fell apart in my mouth before I could chew them. The asparagus risotto on the side was, perhaps, one rich and gooey texture too many.
We accompanied dinner with a bottle of Cotes de Beaune Villages, a comparatively affordable Burgundy. With food like this, red wine is essential. It serves as a solvent to keep the cream and duck fat from clogging your palate.
As we passed around our entres, I found myself nearly sticking my face in the plates to see what I was eating. The only light was the one outside, so the table was dimly lit. It was like eating in a darkened theater. I guess the raccoons were supposed to be the stars of the show. But they seemed a little skanky.
These shabby critters live under the bridges on the White Oak Bayou, after all. While we perused the dessert menu, one of them mounted another. I asked my companions if they wanted to order after-dinner drinks and stay for the porn show.
About a hundred years ago, a French-Canadian carpenter built a log cabin on White Oak Bayou. Various residents since have expanded the building using logs and other rough-hewn materials to maintain the rustic look.
Today, that old building houses La Tour d'Argent. The name means "tower of silver" in French; it's also the name of one of the most famous restaurants in Paris. The Paris original is a legendary haute cuisine restaurant with posh dining rooms overlooking the Seine.
The Houston Tour d'Argent overlooks a ravine in White Oak Bayou. The original hundred-year-old log cabin serves as the central dining room; it's decorated with an unbelievable number of antlers, horns and other hunting and fishing souvenirs. The restaurant also houses a large collection of antiques.
This dense accumulation of dead animal parts and old furniture, along with the musty summer-camp aroma of the log cabin, gives the restaurant the atmosphere of an ancient hunting lodge. Whether that's a selling point or a problem depends on how you feel about old hunting lodges.
"It's creepy," a female companion commented over dinner during a second visit. There were few customers, and the emptiness and silence made each creak of the floorboards sound ominous. "It reminds me of the hotel in The Shining. I expect to see Jack Nicholson with an ax outside the window," she said with a shiver.
It's an intriguing metaphor. The character played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining was no match for the forces that haunted the Overlook Hotel. And as I looked around the dining room of La Tour d'Argent, I wondered if Cedric Guerin's cooking could stand up to the overbearing spirits that dominate this old place.
When you eat Dordogne duck dishes in Armel Barthe's 13th-century farmhouse, the food resonates with a sense of place. At La Tour, Guerin attempts to complement the over-antlered atmosphere with lots of game dishes. But the disparity between the cuisine and the atmosphere still exists.
We ate our second meal in a better-lit dining room next to the raccoon gallery. I started with the salade maison, a substantial pile of frise, creamy sauted chicken livers, squares of bacon (lardons), chopped apples and cherry tomatoes with a mustardy vinaigrette. Unfortunately, the frise was slightly gritty.
With well-washed frise, this unlikely-sounding combination of ingredients makes a spectacular, if slightly heavy, salad. We might eat a salad like this for lunch or dinner in the United States, but in rural France, it's just a first course. And over there, the salad is often served on a bed of sliced, cooked potatoes and topped with a poached egg.
My companion ordered grouper en papillote, a thick chunk of fish roasted over julienned leeks in a parchment-paper package. The fish was wonderfully moist thanks to the steam, which is locked in by the paper. And also because it may have been slathered with a good bit of butter before it was baked.
I tried Guerin's foie gras-stuffed roasted quail. Two of the dainty birds were served with grapes that have been soaked in Armagnac, along with roasted potatoes in a reduction sauce on the side.
I've never figured out how to eat quail with a knife and fork so, since we were the only people in the dining room, I tore the leg and wing sections apart and picked them up to eat them. The gamy bird meat and the unctuous liver stuffing were a sensational flavor matchup. And the brandy-soaked grapes added a crisp, sweet accent. What a perfect meal to enjoy with a big glass of wine.
Ever since I saw the movie Sideways, I've been curious about the Pinot Noir wines of Southern California. So when I saw a bottle of Cambria "Julia's Vineyard" Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley on La Tour's wine list, I decided to give it a try. The fact that it was half the price of the Burgundy we drank on our first visit didn't hurt either.
Wine geeks characterize these approachable SoCal wines as "fat, sweet and cheap." And one sip of the Cambria is all it takes to understand exactly what they mean. The cherry flavors explode on your tongue and the sugar level is higher than I have ever tasted in a Pinot Noir. Okay, so this wine may not be as structured as a great Burgundy, and it may lack aging potential, but it sure tastes great with foie gras-stuffed quail and grapes. And the price is a fraction of what you pay for French Burgundies.
During his recent charm offensive in Europe, George W. Bush kissed and made up with Jacques Chirac. Bush hosted a dinner for the French president in Brussels, serving beef with Bordelaise sauce and french fries. And according to a diplomat quoted in the New York Daily News, Bush even called them french fries.
But even if the boycott is over, the French wine industry will keep suffering, according to Bear Dalton, the fine-wine buyer at Spec's. And it's not so much a matter of politics anymore.
In the two years since the French boycott started, the Euro has risen against the dollar, from a value of about 90 cents to more than $1.30. A bottle of French table wine that sold for $9 two years ago costs more than $12 today.
But there's another factor at work, says Dalton. Because of the boycott and the rise in prices, Americans who used to drink French wines exclusively started sampling New World wines. And they liked what they tasted.
Cheaper, fruitier and more approachable wines like the Cambria Pinot Noir make it difficult to go back to the more austere French style. The wine world may never be quite the same.
But the opening of three new French restaurants in Houston -- Bistro Calais, Bistro Moderne and La Tour d'Argent -- is a sign that at least the local dining scene is returning to normal.
Obviously, Bush was trying to make a statement when he chose beef with Bordelaise and french fries for the dinner with Chirac. The boycott is over. All is forgiven. And if you are a patriotic American who supports our president, you will follow his example.
Run, don't walk, to the French restaurant nearest you; order some french fries, and drink a toast to fraternit.
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