The War with Chirac
The coarse-ground pork pâté looks like meat loaf studded with walnuts. We eat chunks of it on hot crisp bread that's fresh out of the pizza oven, each bite daubed with a little Dijon mustard. And we wash it down with a sturdy Delas Côtes du Rhône. The hearty pâté, unpretentious wines and elemental entrées at Guerin's Bistro, on Westheimer at Kirkwood, remind me of a restaurant I once visited in Bergerac.
At that little eatery, which serves mostly hungry vineyard workers, they bring you a "pâté board" along with your bread and butter. On the plank, there are three huge crocks of duck, pork and goose pâté; a jar of pickles; a bowl of salt and another of mustard. Knives are stuck into each crock, and you simply help yourself to all you want. The wine is the straightforward claret of Bergerac, which tastes like Bordeaux without the pomposity.
Guerin's Bistro offers the same sort of hearty French country cooking and unfussy wine. Which makes sense, since owner Cedric Guerin comes from Bergerac himself. The roll-up-your-sleeves approach to food that you encounter in the French countryside is one thing I've always loved about France.
"First Iraq, Then Chirac," read a bumper sticker I saw the other day. I laughed at that one. I also laughed the first time I heard the French referred to as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," a nickname coined by Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons. Cracking jokes about the French because of their opposition to the war in Iraq is natural enough. But I stopped laughing when I realized the Bush administration is calling for the French to be punished. And I sobered up even more when I realized that French wine merchants and French restaurants in Houston are in serious trouble.
For a different perspective on the subject, I invited Joël Savary, the cultural attaché at Houston's French consulate, to lunch. Savary used to work in the vineyards of the Jura region before he became an art dealer and eventually an arts administrator. So he appreciates the simple wine-workers' fare at Guerin's. There is only one other party in the restaurant, and by the time we get our entrées, they've already left. Business is very slow these days, we're told.
Over lunch, Savary offers a few ideas about the long-standing love-hate relationship between France and America.
"First of all, it's because we are so much alike," he says. "France and the United States share the same love of democracy and free expression. We share the same goals and values. French people like to criticize America because most French people like the U.S. too much." Just as Americans need to tear down celebrities like Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart, he contends, the French need to belittle the United States in order to make it more approachable.
Could it be that Americans are doing the same thing because, deep down inside, we are so enamored with France? I wonder.
"The French fell in love with Texas when the television show Dallas was popular," Savary recalls. "We loved it, we were intoxicated by it. But then we had to kick you." It's now fashionable among French intellectuals to have a dim view of Texas because of the death penalty, he says.
"Food, wine and arguing are the favorite French pastimes," shrugs Savary. "It's just what we do."
True to form, we segue seamlessly from culture to confit.
The entrée, a roasted duck leg quarter, has been slow-cooked confit-style and then roasted until it's so tender it falls apart with a fork. It's covered with tomato sauce and surrounded by sautéed red potatoes, which are a little too moist. Potatoes cooked in duck fat until golden and crispy is one of my favorite memories of Bergerac. I wish Guerin would bring that tradition to Houston. The duck meat is delicious, but the sauce tastes a little odd with it. "I think tomato is a bad choice," says Savary. "It's too much sugar for the duck."
On another visit to Guerin's, I ordered rillettes from the blackboard specials. Rillettes are an appetizer made of meat cooked in seasoned fat and then pulverized into a paste. The duck-producing region of the Dordogne is famous for a poultry version, and I correctly suspected that this is what Guerin's would serve. The rich minced duck and pork spread is heavily spiced and served in a small crock. You eat it on the hot crusty bread. A beefsteak tomato salad was nicely dressed with blue cheese, but the tomatoes were nowhere close to ripe.
I tried two fish dishes for dinner that night along with a bottle of Louis Latour's Macon-Villages, an inexpensive white Burgundy that blows away the average overpriced California Chardonnay. The grilled red snapper served with a hash of fennel and leeks was wonderful, despite more of the extraneous tomato sauce. The fish was very moist, and the vegetables harmonized beautifully. The pepper-crusted tuna steak with pesto cream and lobster bisque sauce, on the other hand, had way too many flavors going on. The Parmesan in the pesto was all wrong with the lobster in the bisque, and the pepper overpowered everything.
The best dessert at Guerin's Bistro may be the strawberry crème brûlée. "I've eaten this dessert all over the world, and this one is really exceptional," Savary says with his spoon submerged in the stuff at the end of our lunch. We mop up the custard and order a couple of espressos while we continue the conversation.
"A lot of Americans are accusing the French of forgetting that you liberated us from the Nazis," Savary sighs. "But it is not the same situation. We know how much we owe you. But Saddam was not occupying the White House. You can't compare the two wars. And now that we know there were no weapons of mass destruction, the French position is only stronger. There was no justification for this war."
This certainly isn't the first argument France and the United States have ever had. "We disagreed when Pinochet overthrew Allende in the 1970s," says Savary. "We have had a disagreement. These things happen." And there will be many more tiffs in the future, no doubt. But is it necessary to punish those who don't agree with you?
Egged on by talk show hosts like Bill O'Reilly, Americans are attempting to do just that by boycotting French wines, French cheeses and more. People with too much time on their hands are circulating e-mails with lists of French-owned companies you can penalize. According to one I just received, real patriots won't go see The Hulk or Seabiscuit, since the French own Universal Studios. In fact, they can pretty much forget about movies altogether, since the French also own Technicolor. They also have to throw away their Motown records, Dannon yogurt and Houghton Mifflin books. It also says here that Jerry Springer's TV show, Motel 6 and Allegra allergy medicine are all French products.
The last time I visited Guerin's Bistro was on a Friday night. The cheesy fake bricks on the walls and hokey wooden beams mounted over the acoustic tile ceiling never looked more romantic. A Texas guitarist and a Ukrainian violinist were playing jazz riffs on international classics. And I was delighted to see the place was packed. Guerin looked pleased as he led us to our seats. "It's very rare that the restaurant is this full," he said with a smile. Hopefully, this means Houstonians are coming to their senses.
Forget about politics for a second and think what would happen if this idiotic boycott were really successful. What a great city Houston would be with no French restaurants and no French wines! That would hit France where it hurts, huh? Just like we would be devastated if they stopped renting Jerry Lewis movies.
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