"I really love these vegetables," Garrido says, waving his fork over the lightly sautéed spinach leaves and brilliant emerald asparagus. I nod politely, but it isn't really the perfectly done vegetables that are gleaming in his eyes -- it's the 12-ounce, Niman Ranch, dry-aged, medium-rare New York strip.
Garrido is the chef at Jeffrey's, the Austin restaurant that recently opened a branch in Washington, D.C., to keep the Bushes in Texas victuals. As we drove around Houston last week, I tried to figure out what the chef wanted for dinner: Cutting-edge cooking at Aries? Avant-garde curry at Indika? He thoughtfully considered each suggestion.
"Or how about steak frites and cheap table wine at some little bistro?" I asked.
"Steak frites?" he said, perking up. "That sounds perfect!" It was probably even fancier than what he was hoping for. You'd be surprised how many great chefs eat hot dogs, Domino's pizza or tacos on their day off. But if I took a visiting chef out for fast food, I'd never hear the end of it. The simple fare at one of Houston's new bistros was the perfect compromise.
A bistro, according to my handy French restaurant translation guide, the Marling Menu-Master for France, is generally a "small place with atmosphere," which is "intimate" and "family-run." That was the old definition, anyway. The meaning of "bistro" changed in the 1990s, when famous French chefs, dismayed at declining revenues, decided to open less expensive satellite restaurants. The smaller outposts were called bistros, but they were much more elaborate than the meat-and-potato eateries the term once implied. The only thing you can safely say about bistros now is that they are less expensive. But you're up in the air again when you ask the inevitable question: less expensive than what?
In 2002, a Space City bistro can be nearly anything, but odds are, whatever it is, it will serve that Paris bistro classic, steak frites. For a proper pile of french fries and a rare steak, I immediately thought of three possibilities: Laurier Café, where I had never been; Mockingbird Bistro Wine Bar, which has hit-or-miss fries (see "Inside Baseball at the Bistro," March 7); and the dreadful Two Chefs Bistro.
No way I was going to take Garrido to Two Chefs. I've eaten there only once and would need to make at least one more visit if I were going to write a full-fledged review. But I think it would be better for everybody involved if I just explained here and now why I don't want to go back.
Two Chefs is located in Dish's old space on Westheimer. I once complained that the minimalist decor at Dish didn't resonate with its hearty American comfort food. Two Chefs didn't make that mistake. Instead, it created a stuffy, maudlin atmosphere that harmonizes perfectly with the menu's boring and outdated French "classics." Imagine eating tasteless escargots and fussy venison chops oversauced with cranberry glop in the bereavement room of a funeral home, and you've got the idea. Live musicians performing bad lounge music on weekends add the perfect Six Feet Under touch. But I must admit, Two Chefs does have pretty good steak frites.
Nevertheless, I opted for the unknown: Laurier Café. I knew the place had steak frites, and I knew it had some tables outside on a patio -- just the sort of relaxed atmosphere I was looking for.
Laurier was nearly empty when Garrido and I arrived on a Tuesday night around seven. The menu and decor were both refreshingly simple. Soups and salads from $5 to $7, a short list of entrées in the $12 to $20 range, and a remarkably inexpensive wine list filled the front and back of a single sheet of paper. The dining room was square and unadorned, its chairs in that glorified lawn-furniture style and its walls decorated with a FotoFest exhibit. It's not a big-deal restaurant, but it's the perfect place to take a chef who's tired of fancy food.
We started with salads. Garrido was a little nonplussed by the starkness of the arugula -- whole leaves drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil -- but I loved the bitter flavor and lemony undertones of the naked greens. I opted for the goat cheese salad, field greens tossed with sherry vinaigrette and lots of sweet pecans. The goat cheese comes on a little piece of bread. It's a nice blend of flavors, but next time I'll get the bolder arugula.