Compared to those farmhouse inns, Café Rabelais in the Rice Village serves virtuously dainty portions. But otherwise, the new restaurant has done a faithful job of re-creating lovable peasant dishes from the French countryside. I thank Joan, executive director of L'Alliance Française de Houston, for bringing me to this remarkable place. It is owned by Joan's old friend Laurence Paul, whose parents, Georges and Monique Guy, are the proprietors of the beloved Chez Georges [11920-J Westheimer, (281)558-5095] and Bistro Provence [13616 Memorial Drive, (713)827-8008]. Laurence once taught French classes at the Alliance Française. She owns Café Rabelais in partnership with her husband, Christophe Paul.
"So what is the Alliance Française?" I ask Joan, a lively blond with sparkling eyes, pouty lips and a taut athletic physique. It's a nonprofit organization that was founded in Paris in 1883, she tells me. The Houston office opened in 1923. Its mission is to promote French language and culture around the world by teaching French classes and sponsoring lectures and cultural events. "But what really works best are wine tastings and French cooking classes," Joan says with a sly grin, as she watches me wolf my grilled salmon and oiled potato salad.
Joan certainly has my number. But I am too busy chewing to ask about the details. I suspect this salad is inspired by the traditional French harengs pommes à l'huile, a salad of pickled herring and potato slices with oil. Café Rabelais's salad has a moist slice of salmon fillet cooked in parchment paper on top of greens and potato slices. It isn't as salty and oily as the old-fashioned dish. Of course, if you love those old-fashioned flavors (I do), Café Rabelais has lots of other variations on that theme -- like a Bayonne ham-and-butter sandwich, merguez et frites (lamb sausage and french fries) or a goat-cheese-and-olive tart. Today at lunch the blackboard menu also includes steak salad, warm goat cheese salad and a blue cheese, apple and walnut salad. If you're in the mood for a salad, it's a little overwhelming.
The mottled cream-colored walls at Café Rabelais resemble old plaster, and somehow the rural look is absolutely charming, despite the inevitable shopping-center parking lot outside the window. I suspect the French rustic thing works so well because the employees barely seem to speak English. On the front window there is a likeness of the namesake French writer with an accompanying slogan, which Joan tells me is old French for "Do whatever you like." This was the phrase on the archway over the entrance to L'Abbaye de Thélème, the utopian community that François Rabelais created in his writings. Thélème was an inspiration for some of the utopian societies in Texas.
"Rabelais's writings were known for combining earthy humor and sophisticated themes," Joan tells me. Sounds like a cool guy, although I have to confess I have never read anything he wrote. Joan has. In fact, she earned an advanced degree in French literature at the University of Houston.
"Are you French?" I ask her.
"No, fifth-generation Texan," she says.
"So where did you learn French," I ask.
"Tokyo," she giggles.
In response to my give-me-a-break expression, she explains that she did start learning languages in the expat community of Tokyo, where she lived as a kid. But mostly she learned French during her undergraduate studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. The decision to make French a career came on a visit to Paris.
"I saw these people sitting in a cafe, drinking wine, and I decided that what I really wanted was a job that allowed me to sit in the cafe every day, just like they did."
"Well, here we are," I say with a laugh. "All that's missing is the wine."
The people at the next table are drinking Beaucastel Chäteauneuf-du-Pape, one of my very favorite Rhônes. But when I ask for the wine list, the waitress apologizes. Unfortunately the cafe doesn't have its liquor license yet -- the people at the next table brought their own. (Café Rabelais has since received a beer and wine license.)
After raving about the restaurant, I ask if Joan has any other French lunch spots to share with the Houston Press.
"Well, Cafe Perrier [4304 Westheimer, (713)355-4455], of course," she replies. "I love to get moules frites (mussels and french fries) there. And then there's the Sofitel [425 North Sam Houston Parkway, (281)445-9000], if you are out near the airport."
The Sofitel is a French-owned hotel, she explains, which has a prix fixe lunch for $15. "There is always a nice appetizer, like a terrine," she says, "and they have lovely entrées -- it was bouillabaisse the last time I was there. The service is excellent. There is another cafe in the hotel called Chez Colette, where you can get a croque-monsieur [French grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich] or something light. I am always on the lookout for more, because I need French chefs to teach our cooking classes," she says.
"You said you get guest lecturers, too. What do they talk about?" I ask.
"Well, Polly Platt was here recently; she's a cross-cultural trainer and the author of French or Foe, a book about the culture gap between the French and Americans."
"So give me an example of the differences between us."
"Well, she tells a great story about EuroDisney. They evidently had a terrible time trying to get their French employees to smile. Polly Platt said that's because French people think you're dumb if you smile too much."
This makes me laugh, but I'm not sure why. "Maybe that's why the French like Texas," I guess. "Cowboys don't smile a lot."
"Yes, that's right. The French are very fond of Texas and cowboys."
"I think the feeling is mutual. I have some wine-geek friends in Austin who wear black on Cinco de Mayo because that's the day that Texas lowered the French flag and raised the Mexican one."
"That's funny," Joan says.
"Who does your wine-tasting classes?"
"Bear Dalton from Spec's -- he's great. You can look up our schedule for cooking classes and wine tastings at www.afde hou.org. Bear Dalton is also going to be leading a wine tour of France this spring that Spec's is sponsoring, and I am going along as the translator. The Houston Alliance also does a spring workshop in the Riviera every year, which I lead; it's a nice trip and a great intensive French lesson."
"What a nice job you have," I say with a stupid smile.
"Yours isn't bad either," she says.
I am about to explain the travails of a food writer when a wine-poached, chocolate-covered pear standing upright amid ornately swirled stripes of white wine-flavored cream and dark chocolate sauce is delivered to the table. The juicy fruit cuts easily with a fork, and I dunk big pieces into the sauces and race them to my mouth before they can drip.
Okay, I have to admit, at the moment it is a pretty good job.