I am a bit of a Francophile. My brother lived in France for a year and when I visited him in the small town of Vichy I was hooked. The language, the laissez-faire attitude and in particular the food drew me in. I even took eight years of French, but please don't ask me to say anything.
So for someone like me who enjoys all things French it's great that Houston has its share of French restaurants: Cafe Rabelais, Brasserie Max and Julie and recently Philippe and Brasserie 19 come to mind.
And now there is L'Olivier Restaurant and Bar, the new baby of Chef Olivier Ciesielski, formerly of Tony's. Chef Olivier describes his new restaurant not as specifically French but as more of a European brasserie with an American twist that will draw from his French background. This is important to know, as you shouldn't expect the typical French fare at L'Olivier.
I visited the restaurant on the Friday of its first week officially open. Word had spread, as there were a good amount of people -- even a large group of 12. The space is beautiful, with no trace of its former resident (an adult bookstore) to be found, except for maybe the sultry red tones that evoke a bit of romance. The aesthetic is more modern than it is European, the soft lighting and light chairs are more feminine, with the darker bar area a nice contrast. The beautiful, glass-walled wine room is the eye-catcher.
When we visited, the service was friendly, if a little scattered. We weren't quite sure who was going to be our waiter since three different people greeted us in succession. The menu is still a work in progress as they try to figure out what works and what doesn't, so it is still quite limited. We decided to share a few appetizers and an entree. Unfortunately, it was the last day of Lent and my dining companion was still unable to eat meat, so most of our dishes that day were seafood-based.
The first to arrive was the beef tartare ($9): hand-cut tenderloin served with toast. The tartare was a small serving hidden under some greens. It sadly did not look very appetizing, the color of the beef a little gray. The flavor was not clean but rather a little tangy, and the texture was mushy. My companion wasn't able to eat it, of course, and I could only manage a few bites. What is usually one of my favorite dishes was a disappointing beginning.
The next dish however was far better. The homemade chicken liver pate ($11) -- although not much to look at presentation-wise -- was utterly delicious. It was creamy and smooth, and the touch of brandy added a slight sweetness. The only thing that would've made it better would perhaps have been some cornichons on the side to break up the richness and add a bit of acidity and crunch.
The next appetizer was the tropical ceviche ($12), one of the "twist" dishes on the menu. The ceviche consisted of white fish, scallop, shrimp and pineapple with yuzu juice. The seafood was fresh but a little overcooked, and the combination of the pineapple and yuzu was far too fruity and sweet. It is not a dish I would order again.
For the entree, we also ordered something that was a twist, this time Italian: the sauteed shrimp with black risotto, Brussels sprouts and garlic white wine sauce ($19). The dish smelled amazing and was beautifully presented. It was a very flavorful dish -- garlic was infused into every bite, and the black risotto was al dente, just to my liking. It was a good dish but not spectacular. And that was pretty much my impression of the whole meal.
I was really expecting to be wowed but came out rather underwhelmed. Granted, the restaurant is still new, so I am willing to try it again. I would definitely return to try the steak frites or the Boeuf Bourguignon, the more traditional French dishes. One thing to note, the menu is affordable; nothing is more than $22. But don't expect huge portions.
Regardless of my lackluster first visit, I will be returning to L'Olivier once it gets its bearings. It's a welcome addition to Houston's new "restaurant row."