Let's do the time warp again: Imagine continental cuisine served without irony, and waiters who do more than recite the day's specials and disappear. Imagine a place where a comfortable darkness settles over everything, where your major light source comes from the flaming dishes prepared tableside. Imagine a place where smokers -- gasp! -- aren't afraid to light up.
Welcome to Fuad's, where the '70s never died.
We entered into a place that was as much tunnel as restaurant. While our eyes adjusted, a tuxedoed maître d' arrived out of the gloom to escort us to our table. A couple of minutes later the waiters placed large slabs of butter on each bread plate (always a good sign) as well as a large basket of thinly sliced, slightly burned garlic bread (not nearly as good a sign).
Wondering where the menus were (and worrying how I'd read mine without a flashlight), we turned to our friends Phil and Peggy, a pair of experienced Fuad's diners, who explained that there were none. At that moment, Chef Joseph Mashkoori arrived at our table. "What do you feel like eating tonight?" he asked. "I've got beef, lamb, duck, veal, chicken and pasta. I can make you a fillet of beef with a cracked black-pepper sauce, or the best rack of lamb in town, or veal chops, or thinly sliced veal with artichokes and mushrooms, or roast duck with black-cherry sauce." (Please note that all items are "gourmet food," circa 1975). "Or tell me what you'd like, and I'll make it for you."
We settled on one beef, one rack of lamb, one duck and one thin veal. "Now, how about a soup or a salad or an appetizer?" Chef Joseph inquired. After hearing the list of possibilities, we opted for a lobster bisque, a lentil soup, the escargots and the shrimp scampi. (Take note: At no time were prices mentioned. I suppose I should have asked, but Chef Joseph was so damn nice that it seemed almost rude to bring up the mundane subject of money. Since it was far too dark in the restaurant to read the check carefully -- or to see what I was eating -- I had to call the next day to get the complete list of prices. I advise you to ask the chef yourself.)
The appetizers were all first-rate. The lobster bisque ($6) was just what you'd want from a restaurant like this: rich, creamy, redolent of brandy and loaded with sweet pieces of lobster; the lentil soup ($4), although perhaps not upscale enough for a place like this, was lighter and more flavorful than usual. And then there were the escargots ($9.50): Sitting in a light garlic cream sauce, rather than the usual garlic butter, they arrived at the table bubbling hot (at least that's what it sounded like). After the snails were gone, our spoons clanged against the plate in a futile attempt to locate the last dregs of the sumptuous sauce.
It was only after we had consumed the shrimp scampi -- really fresh and nicely seasoned with garlic and basil -- that we discovered its drawback: the price. Sixteen dollars seemed a tad expensive for an appetizer-size order of shrimp. (Refer back to my point about asking for prices.)
By this time the restaurant was full; shrieks of laughter could be heard from the bar in the back of the room, and dishes were being tossed and flambéed with alarming abandon. Suddenly Chef Joseph and a team of three waiters appeared tableside. Under the chef's supervision, the partially roasted rack of lamb ($29) was flambéed in rum before being sliced into three individual chops and plated; the other waiters simultaneously served the other entrées; and a platter of perfectly steamed vegetables and a basket of warm (slightly burned again) rolls were left on the table. And as suddenly as they had appeared, the chef and his team departed. I wanted to applaud the surgical precision of their service.
As for the food, the lamb, if not the best in town, certainly ranks in the top five; it was still rare after the flaming, yet deeply flavorful and served with (ugh!) mint sauce on the side. (Standard continental cuisine, of course, but it's a pairing I've never quite understood.) The fillet ($28) was terrific, tender as love, with the promised black-pepper sauce, which had real bite. The duck ($23.50) was roasted as if it were 1975 (before the discovery of rare duck meat, that is); it was moist and tender in a dark, well-balanced cherry sauce. Fortunately the duck was boneless: In the dark, it was hard enough to tell the difference between the duck and the sauce; having to search for bones would have been trouble. And the veal ($23.50), while good, was fairly forgettable.
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After the entrée plates were cleared by our crack team of waiters, desserts were announced. Passing on the cherries jubilee -- I can't even remember the last time I visited a restaurant that offered them, but after the duck, I was pretty well cherried out -- we opted for the flaming bananas ($7 per person) and were thrilled by the show. After flaming the fruit in its chafing dish, the waiter held up a hollowed-out orange, the rind curling down toward the dish. Filling up the orange cup with rum, he set it afire as well, and the flames spiraled down the orange peel coil.
That's when it hit me -- the reason for the darkness. Most restaurants turn down the lights while flaming a dish to emphasize the pyro-culinary display. Since Fuad's flames so many dishes, it follows that the place would keep the lights constantly low, instead of repeatedly turning them up and down. That's one theory at least. Regardless, the bananas, served on ice cream, were quite good -- but not nearly as good as the show.
As I left the restaurant, blinking in the bright glare of the parking lot lights, I reflected on the experience. It was, in a word, a hoot. The food was good and the tableside acrobatics highly enjoyable. It was (hopefully) a one-of-a-kind look at a piece of our culinary history. Frankly it was probably good that the restaurant was so dark, though: The hazy, nostalgic past, after all, can rarely stand up to a clear, dissecting light.
Fuad's, 6100 Westheimer, (713)785-0130.