Houston Restaurant Weeks 2019 is in its final stretch, so we decided to have one last luxury lunch before it closes its run. September 2 is the last day for the citywide charity fundraiser that extends into Montgomery and Galveston counties as well. Participating restaurants create multi-course meals in which a certain amount of the money goes to the Houston Food Bank and its tributaries in Galveston and Montgomery depending on the location of each restaurant. For the $20 lunch and brunch menus, $3 from each meal is donated. For the $35 and $45 dinners, $5 and $7 are given to the Houston Food Bank.
Houston Restaurant Weeks was founded in 2003 by radio and television foodie and personality, Cleverley Stone. It has raised more than $14 million, making it the number one annual fundraiser for the nation's largest food bank. For readers who are trying to decide where to enjoy a last HRW hurrah, its website, houstonrestaurantweeks.com, has a list of participating restaurants along with the menus available at each location.
It's a tough decision to make, because some restaurants really get into the spirit of the annual event and offer not only a good value, but a delicious sampling of cuisines and dining experiences. I chose Étoile Cuisine et Bar for a Sunday brunch this past weekend. Étoile was opened in 2012 by French-born chef Philippe Verpiand and his wife Monica Bui. The couple also own Brasserie du Parc downtown. Verpiand was named a Master Chef of France in 2015.
Unfortunately, my drive down Highway 290 was a royal mess with the much anticipated rain making its appearance in blinding sheets of water. After some white knuckle driving, I finally emerged into visibility and discovered that at least one exit off 610 is finally completed and, fortunately for me, it was the one to Uptown Park where Étoile is located.
There are a number of restaurants in the complex, so I was prepared to venture elsewhere if Étoile was too busy. When I walked into the restaurant, I was met by guests huddled in the front doorway awaiting a table. It was a tight squeeze, so I told the hostess I was willing to sit at the bar if there was a spot open. Luckily, there was one seat left, so I was immediately placed at the bar with a brunch menu, wine menu and the HRW menu.
I have seen some internet grumblings about restaurants not seeming too enthusiastic about offering the HRW menus, but that is certainly not the case at Étoile. They encourage it, with a chalkboard advertisement complete with Eiffel Tower displayed on the wall. I ordered a glass of Jean-Luc Colombo Cape Bleue Rose ($10) to start and was given quite a generous pour. It was light and floral, not overly complex, but it worked perfectly with the Bisque de Homard that I chose for my first course. Étoile's brunch HRW menu also offers a poached egg with Serrano ham and beef tartare for the first course but, with the rainy weather, a bowl of lobster bisque sounded comforting.
The bisque was served in a very large and heated bowl, which kept it warm the whole time I was enjoying it. The addition of the fresh tarragon added a slight, sweet flavor. The diner to the right of me ordered the same thing, but he was attacking the remains so desperately with his spoon that I knew he must be hungry or was really into the bisque. I decided to use the homemade roll that I was given to sop up the rest of my bowl. The roll tasted similar to my own bread that I make with a sourdough starter.
Soon after, my coq au vin was delivered to me with a quick "Bon Appetit!" I never saw the server as there wasn't much elbow room at the bar, so I could not actually turn around and see him. He was like a flitting food fairy, placing lovely dishes in front of guests and disappearing as quickly as he'd appeared.
I hadn't had coq au vin in a restaurant since Brasserie Max and Julie closed on Montrose. I used to love a day out at one of Houston's many brilliant museums combined with a leisurely lunch at Brasserie M&J. I never had dinner there but the lunch menu was always a decent value and I loved the classic French bistro interior which is sadly no more.
Verpiand's coq au vin was enshrined in a deep, dark wine sauce. My first bite actually brought to mind a boeuf bourguignon. It had an intense meaty flavor. However, it was poulet, or chicken, and it was tender enough to eat with just a fork. The vegetables were scattered around the dish and included seared cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, a couple of slices of carrot and a few English peas. I am normally not a fan of Brussels sprouts, but they had a slight smoky flavor and were also petite, which I imagine was the reason for their freshness. The pommes mousseline were creamy and tinged with just a hint of nutmeg.
This was a hearty dish, perfect for a rainy Sunday. I ordered a glass of the Liberation Cotes du Rhone and again was given a liberal amount. Unfortunately, it seemed a bit off. Not enough to make it undrinkable, but enough to realize it wasn't at its best.
I asked the bartender for a to go box, because I was already anticipating my ile flottante for dessert. The dessert option is an extra $5 in addition to the HRW brunch menu for $20. Ile flottante is not a dessert you see often on a Houston menu and I was not going to pass on the chance to have one of my favorite treats.
The bartender took my plate, had it boxed up and then he put it in a small refrigerator, which I thought was a nice touch. The customer next to me received his chocolate mousse and passion fruit cake from the HRW menu and it was a thing of beauty. I considered asking him if I could take a photo, but he was already well into it before I could say anything. Just as well. The man was truly enjoying his meal and it would have been rather coarse of me to try and sneak a side shot of it.
When the food fairy magically put my dessert in front of me with another quick "Bon Appetit!," I smiled at my pretty meringue confection. I have had ile flottante at Brasserie M&J and also at a small cafe in Lyon, France. I have never had it with sliced almonds and certainly not such a profusion of them. I found myself spooning the toasted almonds into the creme anglaise and happily munching on them before I even dug into my floating island. The egg white meringue tasted of eggs. That may seem trite, but nowadays eggs don't always taste of much. I loved the soft texture of the meringue with the cool creaminess of the vanilla custard sauce. It was
a sweet cherry on top, figuratively, of my lovely French meal.
After the man next to me left, I managed to turn around and view the restaurant itself. I did feel a little regret in not waiting for a table so that I could truly experience Étoile with its chandeliers, stone and rustic painted wood walls. However, I wouldn't have been privvy to the conversation two young women were having at the bar about an upcoming birthday excursion to French Laundry and previous bad dates. Twice during my meal, Chef Verpiand appeared at the bar, surveying his dining room with a watchful eye. As the kitchen door opened and closed, I could see the busy inner workings of Étoile which was rather exciting, though I never did see the food fairy. However, his bon appetits are a charming memory of a delicious meal.
Étoile Cusine et Bar
1101-11 Uptown Park
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