Chef Chat, Part 3: Philippe Verpiand of Etoile and His Classic French Cuisine

This is the third part of a three-part Chef Chat series. If you missed our previous posts, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, we sat down for a lively chat with chef Philippe Verpiand of Etoile, a French chef who, from an early age, was immersed into this culture of good food. Graduating top of his class in culinary school, Verpiand worked his way around France, oftentimes in Michelin-starred kitchens.

As a result, it's almost as if the Michelin standard of excellence is ingrained into his soul. Moving to Houston from San Diego and starting over, literally, from scratch, you'd expect a period of struggle. But from the moment that Etoile Bar et Cuisine opened in Uptown Park, it was a hit. In fact, during the first two weeks of its opening, I vividly remember sitting on the patio with his wife Monica Bui, when a group of diners just leaving the restaurant approached our table to rave about their fabulous meal, promising to return with friends.

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All it takes is a taste to appreciate Verpiand's skill. A peek into the kitchen will confirm that he's the one making that delectable tasting sauce. He's the one pan-searing that fish, pureeing those potatoes. The fact that he's a chef that enjoys being in the kitchen makes his food all the more enjoyable, and consistently so.

Let's consider his Raviolis de Champignon, or mushroom ravioli. Presented simply in a wide brimmed bowl, the texture of the ravioli shell -- silky yet elastic -- is the first thing you'll notice before the ravioli's contents burst in this gush of luscious, creamy mushroom. It's one of his signature dishes, and rightly so. And the raviolis are just part of the pleasure. One of my visits previously, my girlfriend and I dipped our French bread into the sauce, lapping up every bit of sauce until the bowl was completely clean.

The same can be said of the Escargots Bourgignonne, traditionally prepared with generous amounts of melted French butter, garlic and parsley. The garlic butter aromas are so strong, they'll hit your nostrils well before the dish hits the table, when you'll want to inhale the delicious smell before you take a bite of the tender escargot. Verpiand adds a dash of pastis to the escargot before serving the dish, the anise flavor the aperitif breaking up the richness of the butter somewhat. Much like the ravioli, bread is your friend with a dish like this: Don't let them take away the plate without lapping up the butter garlic sauce with your bread. It's takes garlic bread to new heights.

To demonstrate the seasonality of his menu, Verpiand chose the classic Sole Meuniere for my first main course. Pan seared with generous amount of butter and served with roasted cauliflower, fingerling potatoes, and fresh snow peas in a lemon brown butter, the fish was extremely delicate in spite of the generous dousing of butter. In particular, the vegetables were crisp and naturally sweet, and though I wasn't drinking that afternoon, would have married well with a crisp white wine.

One of the most popular items on the menu came next, a Plat de Côtes de Boeuf Braisés, or braised beef short ribs over a butternut squash mousseline. Served with roasted summer vegetables, it was the utter word in decadence, the meat kind of caramelized on the outside, and fork tender and juicy when you pulled it apart. The mousseline was incredibly light and smooth, the natural sweetness of the butternut squash a good foil for the hearty braising sauce from the meat. For a carnivore, it really doesn't get any better.

For the finale, Verpiand served his tartes aux pommes (apple tart), which I'd proclaimed the best in the city when I first tried it, months ago. For the record, my proclamation stands. This is one seriously delicious apple tart, and I'll tell you why. First, there's the incredible lightness of the puff pastry crust, buttery and airy and delightfully crisp. Thinly sliced apple are arranged in a circular pattern in classic French style and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, crisp house-made apple chips, a caramel sauce, and a dusting of powdered sugar. You'd think that the caramel sauce and ice cream would tip this dessert into the overly sweet category, but not so. The natural tartness of the cooked apple tempered the sweetness of the topping, so that what you got was an explosion of texture and apple flavor -- crisp tart shell, tartly sweet apple, creamy cold vanilla ice cream, crunchy crisp apple chip. I was loathe to finish the whole thing (not!). I ate it all greedily, and if I had a dining companion, I probably wouldn't want to share.

Etoile is just barely a year old, but even so, it has quickly become one of Houston's best French restaurants. Much of its success is due to Verpiand himself, who gives true meaning to word "etoile" as the true star in his kitchen.

Etoile Cuisine et Bar 1101 Uptown Park Blvd Tel: (832) 668-5808 http://etoilecuisine.com/

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