The $10.95 lunch special at Bistro des Amis, a tiny French cafe in Rice Village, started with a soul-warming vegetable potage. Dunking buttered baguette slices in the hot and creamy carrot, broccoli and mushroom soup while we waited for it to cool was the perfect pastime on a cold and rainy afternoon.
The special also included tea or coffee. We got iced tea, which was served in the French mode — raspberry flavored and with hardly any ice. When my dining companion asked the waitress for more ice, she didn't understand at first.
"Hielo? Ice?" he said, assuming she spoke Spanish.
Bistro des Amis
2347 University Blvd., 713-349-8441.
Hours:11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Lunch special: $10.95
Savory crepe: $7
Sweet crepe: $3.50
"You want yellow ice?" she said in amazement. I asked where she was from.
"Kazakhstan," she replied.
The lunch special main course was called beef paprika, which is apparently the French version of goulash. But instead of the usual noodles, the stew of tender beef chunks in red pepper and tomato sauce was served over couscous. The satisfying beef and chile stew was mildly spicy, which is amazing for a French restaurant. The owners of Bistro des Amis, Odile de Maindreville and her brother Bernard Cuillier, are from Biarritz in France's Basque region, the only part of France where chile peppers are traditional.
Matronly Odile is the omniscient front-of-the-house manager of the tiny ten-table cafe. When I used my teaspoon to sample my dining companion's soup, she appeared out of nowhere with the proper utensil in her hand. After lunch, when my friend asked if she had any cookies, Odile brought us a complimentary slice of gâteau Basque, a moist single-layer cake with a rich pastry cream baked into the top.
"We don't have cookies, but maybe you'll like this cake; it's a specialty of our region in France," she said.
Odile's brother Bernard does the cooking. He is a French-trained chef who spent most of his career cooking on cruise ships. Bernard bakes all the pastries, which include charming apple tarts in the shape of apples, and the gâteau Basque. He's given up on baking the bread — the baguettes come from French Riviera Bakery on Chimney Rock.
Bistro des Amis is incredibly charming yet utterly humble. It looks like the sort of small-town French cafe where you stop to get a coffee and a pastry or an ice cream while shopping in the village. The little front room is filled with round marble-topped tables, and the windows are covered with lace curtains. The artwork includes tiny panels painted with scenes of the French Basque region (check out the jai alai fronton), and the gleaming dark wood and glass pastry case is always well stocked. There's also a deck and lots more tables outside, which will come in handy when the sun comes out.
There is nothing clever about the dinner menu at Bistro des Amis. The food is straightforward, and everything is housemade. The chunky pâté has sweet currants in the middle and is served with mustard, cornichons and a tiny salad. The soupe à l'oignon comes in a brown ceramic crock with melted cheese on top, and while it may look like every other French onion soup, it still tastes terrific on a cold winter night.
Standouts include succulent escargot in garlic butter sauce served in a crock covered with puff pastry and a mesclun salad with Roquefort cheese, apples, grapes, croutons and tiny cherry tomatoes with the skins removed. On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, there's an amazingly cheap $20 dinner special that includes an appetizer, soup, entrée, two vegetables and dessert.
A filet mignon in wine sauce was one of the best entrées I sampled in two dinner visits. A seafood casserole with shrimp and scallops in mango cream sauce was a wonderfully delicate change of pace from the fiery Cajun seafood dishes we eat so much of around here. Duck in grapefruit reduction sauce was served with grapefruit sections tucked in between the slices of duck breast, but the duck was a little rubbery.
The savory crepes at Bistro des Amis might remind you of a French quesadilla — the pancakes are stacked with the cheesy béchamel filling in the middle rather than rolled up like enchiladas. I liked the crepe stuffed with French ham and brie.
I also ordered the intriguing-sounding salmon carpaccio sandwich. But what I got was a mayonnaise-spread baguette filled with cooked salmon, lettuce, tomato and cucumber. It was tasty, but now I can't get the idea of a raw salmon carpaccio sandwich out of my mind. The "tapenade Niçoise," a tuna salad sandwich with olives and capers on a baguette with basil, sounded good too.
Bistro des Amis seems to draw more of a crowd at dinner than at lunch, which seems odd until you notice all the wine bottles. The restaurant has applied for a liquor license but has not received it yet, which means it's BYOB for the moment. There's an $8.90 corkage fee per table, and the restaurant will supply glasses.
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The first time I visited Bistro des Amis for dinner, I didn't know about the wine situation. I asked Odile how far it was to the nearest store. While she was mapping out the route, a guy at the table next offered me a glass from his bottle of Stags' Leap, a far better wine than any plonk I was going to buy. I gladly accepted.
Looking around, I noticed one table with a couple of bottles of French Bordeaux and another with a Perrin Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These seemed like awfully fancy wines for the $20 Tuesday night dinner special everybody was eating. But there is something about an inexpensive French restaurant that lets you bring your own wine that stokes cork dorks into a frenzy. Hopefully, Bistro des Amis can continue the BYOB policy even after they get their license.
Bernard Cuillier's desserts are as simple and homespun as the rest of his old-fashioned French cooking. While I like the gâteau Basque and the apple tart, my favorite is the plain old dark chocolate mousse, made with bittersweet chocolate. I like to follow the mousse with a cup of coffee, although I wish they would replace the chemical coffee whitener with real half-and-half.
The humble atmosphere and inexpensive prices at Bistro des Amis are perfectly suited to the post-holiday doldrums we find ourselves in these days. I'm saying, if you're going to feel blue, you might as well do it in a French restaurant.