Lunch Parisian-Style at Étoile Cuisine et Bar

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My first experience at Étoile Cuisine et Bar happened a few months ago, my girlfriends and I chose a new restaurant at random and went in without any expectations or preconceived notions. We left that dinner enamored of the space, the front-of- house service by Monique Bui, and the simple yet elegant menu of traditional French fare cooked by Bui's husband, chef Philippe Verpiand.

Bui and Verpiand recently moved to Houston from San Diego to open Étoile, drawn here by Bui's family ties, the growing food scene and the city's strong economy. The food, although traditional, it also draws from the light and fresh ideals of California cuisine.

My second visit didn't happen soon enough but I eventually made my way back. This time, it was to experience lunch outside on Étoile's front patio, enjoying one of those beautiful spring days our fair city throws our way every so often.

The dinner menu at Étoile has two sides: La Saison (seasonal) and La Tradition (traditional). During lunch, the small menu is made up of dishes from both sides as well as sandwiches and salads. We decided to order three dishes and share them with the table.

My first visit to Étoile left me dreaming about the next time I could have its mussels, so an order of the moules marinières ($13) was a must. The plump mussels are in a creamy white wine sauce sprinkled liberally with parsley. On the side are thin crispy pommes frites with a garlic aioli that begged for every last fry.

The beet salad ($10) was a beautiful springtime dish, with gorgeous red and yellow beets atop bright spring greens, dressed with vinaigrette and pickled shallots -- so light yet so bright in its flavors. The almond-crusted fried goat cheese added a creaminess and slight funkiness to it. It may just be one of the best salads I've had at a restaurant.

It doesn't get anymore French than coq au vin and if how good this dish is is the mark of a great French restaurant, Étoile has nothing to worry about. Rarely, do I order chicken when I go out to eat but this isn't just any chicken dish. Although, it was a warm day the coq au vin ($14) at Étoile did not feel heavy. The chicken thighs braised in red wine were fall-off-the bone tender and each bite a bit of sweetness and smokiness. The thighs were served in a skillet with a side of creamy potatoes that were buttery and rich but -- again -- didn't feel or taste heavy. Bright orange carrots and slightly crunchy brussels sprouts rounded out the beautiful dish.

Étoile is one of the restaurants that will always spring to my mind when someone asks where to dine, as one of my favorite new restaurants in Houston.

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