April in Paris may be the dream of many a romantic soul, but April in Houston can be pretty wonderful, too. We may not have the Eiffel Tower or the Seine, but we've got The Williams Tower and Buffalo Bayou. If longing for champagne in France on a beer budget in Texas is making you sad, it's time to walk out the door and see what Houston has to offer Francophiles and bon vivants. With some glorious weather ahead, Houston just might be your dream destination. For starters, you don't have to take a ten hour flight.
My daughter and I spent a beautiful spring day in the Museum District and I am always taken by surprise at how European the Museum District and Hermann Park area feels on a sunny, blue sky afternoon. There's even a roundabout with the Mecom fountain. The century old oak trees, the Rice University campus and the restaurants lining Montrose all add up to an other worldly feeling. While you can still spend a pretty penny depending on your itinerary, it's much less than a plane ticket and you have your own bed to crawl into at the end of the day.
The Museum of Fine Arts Houston is a perfect spot to start your French experience. In the past decade, its exhibitions have been diverse and well-received by the Houston community. From a stellar showing of French Impressionist paintings from the Clark Art Institute in 2013 to more recent exhibits like the Tudors to the Windors, there's been a definite uptick in quality exhibits that may only be seen in a few museums around the world and MFAH is often one of them. And now, the museum has brought in arguably the biggest of the big guns, Vincent Van Gogh.
Van Gogh's life story is often more fascinating to people than even his art. We all know about him cutting off his ear (or at least, a big chunk) after a row with Paul Gaugin. Besides watching Lust For Life and Vincent and Theo, I was exposed to Van Gogh in a college psychology class. I loved Don McLean's heartbreakingly beautiful song, " Vincent" and it's the name I chose for my son.
My daughter was given an assignment in her college art class to pick a painting from the MFAH for an essay, so we thought we would make an outing of it. The staff member at the front desk told us that we were fortunate to be there when it wasn't so busy, because they had been swamped over the weekend. That's just a little heads up for those making plans in advance.
While walking to the exhibit, we passed some amazing pieces of trompe l'oeil art. What looked like a leather bag was actually ceramic, as was the Jack Daniels box, the gas can and the paintbrushes. We also stood in awe of the ten foot tall sculpture by Luis Jimenez called Border Crossing. It was jaw-dropping and thought-provoking.
When we entered the Van Gogh exhibit, we found ourselves surrounded by facsimiles of his letters lining some of the walls. The exhibit is laid out in a timeline of his artistic story, from his early stage copying masters to developing his own unique style.
The majority of the artwork collected here is from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Some of the more recognizable pieces from other European museums are featured in reproduction form including the rather dark and dreary painting, The Potato Eaters.
Many of Van Gogh's early sketches are here, along with some pieces that museum goers will probably have never seen like A Pair of Leather Clogs. There's a self portrait, one of 27 that he did, plus Irises, which is a more commonly seen masterpiece, often times on note cards and stationery.
I was struck by how different his painting titled The Rocks looked in the dimmer lighting of the exhibit versus its usual spot in the permanent collection at MFAH. It looked almost like a different painting from the one I have viewed for many a year. Rather than a white, almost missable wall in the permanent collection, it glows against a darker wall and a more prominent exposure in the exhibit. There's a free talk about the painting March 30 from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The exhibit seemed rather busy to me despite what the person at the front desk had said. It's inevitable when you have such a compelling artist, but it's wonderful to see so many young people reading the wall texts and listening intently to the audio guides in an age of ubiquitous phone screens.
There were not many small children, which is a good thing for this exhibit. While I believe in exposing children to art a young age, this exhibit is dimly lit (to protect the paintings) and very wordy, which means that it can be slow going in front of the various pieces. I was getting a little impatient myself, so it might be best to bring younger children when the excitement of the exhibit wears off a bit. It's here until June 27, which is a good long time for half of Houston to see it. If you would like to read more about the exhibit, check out Susie Tommaney's write-up here in the Houston Press.
There is an immersive Van Gogh experience as well, which is more child-friendly. The Van Gogh exhibit is free for children 12 and under. There are different stations where visitors can do their own self-portraits, be part of Van Gogh's 'Starry, Starry Night', or sit in a three-D facsimile of his popular painting of his room.
Though the exhibit alone is worth the admission, take advantage of the inclusion of the rest of the museum, or at least wander through another exhibit or parts of the permanent collection. Pretend you are a tourist with the whole day to wander about, only stopping for a bite to eat at a cafe.
And a cafe was where we were headed next. As we exited the museum, we noticed a food truck parked outside. Though we were on our way to the new Common Bond Cafe and Bakery in the Medical Center, we needed a quick snack. The Fork and Truck had elote fritters, which sounded really good at the moment. For $4, we got five fritters, which more resembled mini-muffins filled with sweet corn, peppers and sprinkled with cotija cheese. They were tasty, as was the lime-avocado crema served with them.
As we walked back to the car, we admired St. Paul's Methodist Church with its replica labyrinth which is based on the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France. With a verdant canopy of oak tree limbs overhead and the sunset coloring the church spire, one could imagine oneself somewhere other than the Bayou City.
After a ten minute drive down Main to West Holcombe, we parked in a nondescript retail center and walked into the cafe. A line of pastries, breads and coffees met our eyes and we were immediately welcomed by the young man at the register. We ordered the Common Bond burger to split, knowing that we wanted to save room for dessert.
This second location is quite a bit smaller than the original at 1706 Westheimer, which opened in 2014. The decor leans industrial and simple. On our visit, the cafe did not have its beer and wine license yet, so I ordered a Topo Chico and my companion had an Izze soda. We looked over the pastry case, trying to decide on a treat. The desserts were beautifully decorated, earning their price tags. We sort of made up our minds and sat back down to await our burger.
The Common Bond burger consists of ground beef from 44 Farms, Gruyere and Comte cheeses, Dijonnaise, tomato and lettuce. It comes with Parmesan french fries, as well it should for $15. The fries are an additional $4 for the other sandwiches, which I think is a bit pricey when you're paying in the teens for a sandwich. Come on. Throw in some fries.
Our burger was delivered and elicited a couple of oohs and aahs from us. The knife sticking straight up in the shiny, perfectly shaped bun was a bit of drama. The Parmesan fries were flat like steak fries, but thinner. I don't know if they double fry them, but they were perfectly crispy on the outside with a fluffy interior. The Parmesan and basil topping was generous and a nice touch, but the fries could stand out on their own.
The burger was cooked medium and held together better than almost any burger I have ever eaten. I expected a stronger taste from the cheeses, but the overwhelming flavor was of delicious, old school beef. And it was enough for two. The little gherkins or cornichons or tiny pickles, whatever you want to call them, were a piquant extra.
I suppose we could have been more French and ordered quiche, steak frites or duck confit, but the burger was the right choice that day. Plus, we had les patisseries and les viennoiseries to choose from, so we made our way back to the counter. The young man offered suggestions, but our eyeballs had already made our decisions for us. I went for the Black Forest cheesecake, while my daughter chose the strawberry passion. She also bought a couple of strawberry bergamot macarons ($2.50 each) and some snickerdoodles for a friend. I chose a country sourdough loaf ($5) for the next day's dinner and a croissant ($3.75) for next day's breakfast. Both were huge and definitely worth the dough.
While some of the prices can seem a bit high, the fresh,quality ingredients and skillful execution justify the expense. Just looking at the array of breads, pastries and chocolate desserts makes you feel luxurious. When your choices are placed ever so carefully in a pastel striped box, it somehow seems like a prize you have earned. I may not be able to treat myself to Chanel handbags or Louboutin pumps, but a creamy cheesecake topped with swirls, cherries and chocolate pieces I can do.
The young people staffing the cafe were friendly and actually seemed to be enjoying their jobs. An abandoned table was immediately cleared and other bits of tidying were done the whole time we were there. At Common Bond, all the elements seem to click. The food is beautiful and tastes as good as it looks. The croissant held up well the next morning. Though I could have used a little more salt in the loaf, it had a slight sourdough taste that was not overpowering like some sourdough breads.
Our bags of treats in hands, we said au revoir, not to catch a flight, but to make the half hour drive home. Of course, Houston does not have all the appeal of Paris, but on a sunny spring day, it can be a fine substitute.