Lunch at Le Mistral

Houstonians have a peculiar relationship with French restaurants. Many Houstonians (and many Texans and Americans) cast a suspicious glance toward anything French. During the 2004 Presidential election, an anonymous source in the George W. Bush campaign remarked that opponent Senator John Kerry "looked French." The characterization, vaguely weak and effeminate in nature, stuck. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The campaign aside, W. never really proclaimed an affection for any particular type of food other than "Mexican food" and perhaps the occasional pretzel. This is in contrast to Poppy Bush, who unabashedly proclaimed his love for the Original Ninfa's Tex-Mex and Otto's Barbecue in Houston. Tex-Mex and barbecue -- that's what Houston food is really all about. French food, and French-ified presidential candidates, have less of a place here.

And yet Houston is home to many respectable French restaurants. Some of the best, like Café Rabelais or Au Petit Paris, are located inside the loop. Other French restaurants have decided to set up shop in the reddest parts of one of the reddest states -- the outer suburbs of Houston. The venerable Chez Nous still serves classic French dishes in the middle of a quiet residential area of Humble. Recently, Albert Roux, one of the towering figures of classical French cuisine, helped create the eponymous Chez Roux restaurant in the La Torretta Del Lago Resort & Spa on Lake Conroe.

On the west side of town, Le Mistral is thriving in the drowning-in-money area of Houston known as the Energy Corridor. Located on Eldridge Parkway, Le Mistral serves very good French food to an affluent (and international) clientele, many coming from the surrounding oil and energy companies. On a recent lunch visit, several tables were filled with groups out for a business lunch, including two talkative Dutchmen at an adjacent table.

I came to Le Mistral to meet friends who work in the area. Le Mistral offers two lunch specials -- an "Express Lunch" featuring soup or salad plus an "express plat du jour" for $7, and a "Business Lunch" with soup or salad, business entrée and dessert du jour for $17. These are fixed menu lunches -- you can't choose your entrée. The day I visited, the express plat du jour was a penne pasta in a red sauce with turkey meat, and the business entrée was a more elaborate Chilean sea bass dish.

Curious as to what I would get for $7, I ordered the Express Lunch. The penne pasta entrée was quite tasty and well-prepared, but glaringly out-of-place among the surrounding dishes of foie gras, escargot and carpaccio. Frankly, the dish reminded me of the pre-service staff dinners I used to eat when I worked in high-end restaurants.

Fortunately, the exceptional soup course redeemed the otherwise banal pasta dish. The soup was a velouté de tomate -- a cream of tomato soup with a basil pesto coulis. This is one of the best tomato soups I've ever tasted. And at $7 for an à la carte portion on the regular menu, it makes the Express Lunch at Le Mistral a good deal.

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