Restaurant Reviews

Étoile Serves the Simple, Hearty French Food You Fell in Love With

Get a closer took at Étoile by checking out our slideshow.

There's a fine line between tradition and stagnation that becomes ever finer when you encounter a cuisine revered for its classic flavors and style. Julia Child breathed new life into French food (at least in America) in the 1960s, teaching us how to make Gallic staples in ways that even those with no culinary training could master. Later, Jacques Pépin introduced La Technique, which helped take the mystery out of some of the world's most lauded recipes, and contemporary chefs like Eric Ripert and Hubert Keller continue to innovate with French food, elevating classic dishes to gourmet status.

But it's easy to go the opposite direction. How many times have you opened a plastic-coated menu at a chain family restaurant — or even a high-end eatery — to find archaic dishes like trout amandine and coq au vin described exactly the same way they were back when Child introduced them to the American public? How often have you ordered one of these old-fashioned dishes and lamented the fact that there's nothing exciting about them? Are meals like boeuf bourguignon to be relegated to the pages of history books along with savory Jell-O molds and SPAMwiches?

Not if Philippe Verpiand has anything to do with it.

Verpiand is the chef at Étoile Cuisine et Bar in Uptown Park, and his thoughtful takes on traditional French food are enough to make you forget all the bad iterations of foie gras au torchon you've ever encountered and rejoice at the fact that, finally, someone has steered away from fusion and overly deconstructed dishes to get back to the simple, hearty French food we fell in love with in the first place.

The foie gras au torchon is just one example of Verpiand's mastery. The French word "torchon" means dish towel — a reference to the traditional preparation of foie gras in which it is wrapped in a dish towel to form a cylindrical shape. Étoile's squat slice of fatty duck liver is presented with a spoonful of dried-fruit mousseline, whose acidity complements the buttery foie. And oh, is that foie like soft butter on your tongue! Pink, smooth, creamy, ringed with a thin layer of light yellow fat, not a hint of grit or veins, no sour flavor, no crumbly texture. As all decent French chefs must, Verpiand makes his own torchons in-house, and the attention he pays to this small but important dish is impeccable.

All the classic French items on the menu here are prepared thoughtfully and with the same finesse as the torchon, from the moules marinière to duck à l'orange. The service, too, is what one expects in a venerable upscale establishment, but with none of the stuffiness that can so often mark typical gourmet French meals. This attention to history without musty arrogance or excessive modern technicality is what elevates Étoile's cuisine from overly passé or avant-garde to simply parfait.

When Verpiand and his wife, Monica Bui, came to Houston to visit relatives in 2012, they saw something here that many outsiders overlook — an exciting and rapidly expanding food scene. After years of working in and running Michelin-star restaurants across France and opening the much-lauded Cavaillon in San Diego, which he sold in 2011, Verpiand decided to take up permanent residence in the Bayou City and start a new venture. He hoped to re-create some of the magic loved by fans of his San Diego spot, which Zagat called a "charming French oasis." One year in, the Frenchman has accomplished that goal.

Even on weeknights, Étoile is packed with people ordering course after course from the menu of both traditional and seasonal dishes. The crowd is squarely in the 65-plus range, but young couples also seem to flock to the small, intimate space for dates, and the occasional solo guest will sit at the bar and sip on some of Étoile's solid but unadventurous cocktails (though the names and descriptions are quite amusing...I recommend the Ron Burgundy, which "reeks of rich mahogany"). The restaurant also includes a back room that's slightly quieter and cozier, thanks in large part to a wall of wine bottles and the warmer hues that color the private alcove.

However, where the menu succeeds in doing classic in an exciting way, the decor is unfortunately just as old-fashioned. "Distressed" wooden boards in shades of white and blue line the walls, a nod to an old French farmhouse, while oversize plush wingback chairs with upholstery that screams hotel-lobby furniture make it difficult to get close enough to the table without getting stuck or to scoot back a little without bumping into guests at the table next to yours. It's not the chicest of dining rooms, but it's functional. Besides, the food is what really matters, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with the tradition inherent in the menu.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kaitlin Steinberg