First Look at Philippe

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Everything had been going swimmingly at Philippe (1800 Post Oak, 713-439-1000) on Wednesday night when, after the last of our entree dishes had been cleared away, I sensed a subtle shift in the service. Something was amiss.

Up until that point, the service and the food had both been exceptional at Chef Philippe Schmit's brand new restaurant in the Galleria area, a neighbor in proximity and concept to the swanky RDG + Bar Annie. Unlike RDG, however, Philippe's prices are extraordinarily accessible -- for both food and wine -- something that took my dining partner and I quite by surprise.

And while I'd maintained a very low profile that evening, not even making reservations for the crowded restaurant (and waiting a good 30 minutes as a result), I knew something had happened. They'd recognized me in the end.

After our coffee service, I asked our waiter -- Fred, a lovely Turkish man with a mechanical engineering degree -- for the check. Instead, a maitre d' came out and told us that the entire meal was compliments of the chef. My jaw dropped.

For one, my dining companion had ordered a very expensive bottle of champagne (that she planned on paying for). And I simply can't accept free food. We argued good-naturedly with the maitre d' until he finally excused himself, refusing to bring a check. In the end, I more or less forced poor Fred to ring up a cup of coffee, for which I left a "tip" on the receipt that I hoped was equivalent to the cost of the food and the tip itself.

And while I appreciate the sentiment behind the gesture, it was a rather frustrating end to what had been a wonderful evening otherwise.

At first, my dining companion and I were struck by the physicality of the space and how opulently appointed it was. There were small hits and misses among the swanky dining room -- the seemingly wasted space occupied by a grand staircase or the way the silverware felt awkward in our hands -- but there is no denying it has a singular sense of style.

We liked the glass-walled view into the kitchen, the high-backed booths, the plate-glass windows overlooking the Galleria's business district. We laughed at seeing Philippe Schmit's name is on nearly every available surface, along with quotes from the chef himself on the very placemats, but it was all in good fun. The menu itself is a little tongue-in-cheek, listing items under headings like "Flirtations," "Contained Decadence" and "Satisfaction...Guaranteed." It's very likely that the popular French chef knows the effect that his movie star good looks have on his regular River Oaks-y clientele -- particularly the women -- and the menu seems to reflect this with a wink and a nod.

In that same vein, the dining room seemed more like a New York City hot spot, with pretty young things in slinky dresses and handsome men in well-fitted suits. My dining companion agreed. "I keep feeling like I'm back in New York," she said as we glanced around the packed floor.

Happily, the food kept up with the sleek look of the restaurant. A $9 bowl of lobster bisque was the hit of the evening, with a poached cod quenelle on top that was -- as my dining companion put it -- "the size of a tamale." No skimping on portions here. The bisque itself was a refreshing take on the heavy cream-based standard: It was mostly lobster and lobster stock, emulsified with only a touch of cream into a frothy bowl of pure lobster bliss.

Fred happily obliged our request to get one of the dinner specials that evening -- oxtail ravioli for $18 -- as an appetizer portion, without hesitation or question. I also liked that he told us the prices on those specials up front without us having to ask. Little details like this kept me happy all night: dainty yet sturdy cloth napkins that clearly didn't come from your standard Ace Mart, water served in unfussy tumblers, our champagne iced down at the table in a fun, young plastic sack with handles (it's a new trend in the States, one that I hope will continue -- not a drop of condensation ever reached the table!).

Playful twists continued to assert themselves in standards like an $8 platter of beef tartare -- here flavored with harissa and made into a Moroccan-style treat with golden raisins and toasted almonds -- and the "drunken" foie gras, dosed up with Sauternes and Armagnac.

The main courses were the only minor let-down of the night, oddly, as my dining companion's duck shepherd's pie was strikingly bland and my hanger steak was bathing in a Bordelaise sauce of some kind that I wasn't at all expecting. There is nothing mentioned about a Bordelaise on the menu, just an "old-fashioned mustard sauce." It's a shame, too, because the steak was cooked correctly and would have been perfect otherwise.

Luckily, dessert and a smart coffee service with individual French presses made up for any lingering sauce-based sorrows. A jasmine creme brulee with banana ice cream for only $7 was a nicely non-saccharine way to end the evening. I hate overly sweet restaurant desserts that put a chocolate-y film on your palate for the rest of the night; it's nice to see Philippe's dessert program incorporate cleaner flavors like housemade sorbets and a crispy meringue served with pistachio ice cream and grapefruit.

After the check debacle was over, my friend and I were struck with horror when we realized that we'd forgotten to bring cash for the valet (it's $5, although you can self-park behind the shopping center). But there, still waiting to serve us after we'd left the table, was Fred -- a dollar bill in his hand to make up the deficit in the four dollars we'd scrounged out of our purses, and a smile on his face.

With service like that -- despite any bill haggles -- how could I not return to Philippe? And I don't even have to blow my monthly food budget to dine there.

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