Restaurant Reviews

Raising the Bar Too High

In his classic book The Physiology of Taste, writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin boldly stated, "The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star." In the same bold spirit of overstatement, we'd like to suggest a corollary: The discovery that a restaurant does not live up to expectations does more damage to the human condition than the discovery of groundwater radiation. Okay, we exaggerate, but you get the point: We were disappointed with Pâtisserie Descours and Café.

It's a shame, really, because this Spring Branch eatery has a great deal going for it. It's owned by Luc and Marilyn Descours, who, after 12 years of running one of the city's best bakeries, recently expanded into the restaurant business. I immediately liked the feel of the place, an intimate cafe with charming murals of Paris. But more than that, I loved the bread that was promptly brought to the table -- warm, yeasty and crusty -- the kind that reminds you why the grain-based food is called the staff of life. Things only got better when executive chef Yvonne Samudio's menu arrived; it was a pleasure to read, short and concise, a roster of traditional and contemporary bistro classics. It had me licking my lips in anticipation and eagerly planning future visits.

The meal began promisingly enough with baked oysters casino ($7.50). The spicy crumb topping was an ideal counterpoint to the rich sauce and ethereal oysters, which were an adequate replacement for the traditional clams. We also enjoyed the escargots ($7) encased in savory profiteroles and served with garlic butter. (Sure, the pastry was soggier than I would have liked, but it's hard to go wrong with escargots and garlic butter; in fact, it's hard to go wrong with just garlic butter, so never mind.)

Problems started to surface, seemingly at least, with the French onion soup ($5). As the bowl was passed around the table, a succession of startled looks appeared on the visages of my guinea pigs, er, friends. The general consensus was, "Well, that was certainly interesting." Finally it was my turn to sample it. Served with a nice cheese and Holland rusk crust, the soup itself was very glossy, cooked down practically to a syrup. The first taste was intense, with an almost shocking sweetness, followed by a sense of richness and a somewhat elusive onion flavor. After the first spoonful, other elements emerged; still, the sweetness dominated everything. I later learned that this was, in fact, the mother of all French onion soups, the way it was supposed to taste; yet after thinking about it for days (literally), I decided that as traditional as it may be, I just didn't like it. The soup was interesting, certainly, but to my tastes it needed a bit more acid to balance the nearly dessertlike sweetness.

We also ordered a Boston bibb lettuce salad with a housemade bacon and blue cheese dressing ($7). But it didn't arrive with the rest of the appetizers, and we promptly forgot about it (probably still in shock over the onion soup). Shortly after the appetizers were cleared, house salads arrived, along with the bibb salad. Apparently house salads come with all entrées. (The menu doesn't mention this, and neither did our waiter.) We still would have happily ordered a fourth appetizer had we known there was a salad course, so why not tell us? (By the way, the house salad was better; stick with the freebie.)

Among the entrées, the sea scallops ($13.50) were the clear winner, their caramelized exterior encasing the juicy morsel, served with a nicely turned-out caper-balsamic butter. Also good, though far from dazzling, was the chicken breast ($15) layered with oven-roasted tomatoes, Muenster cheese and cippolini onions; it was well prepared, but slightly boring (sort of like a French take on Italian chicken parmigiana, but with about 30 percent of the flavor removed). It was, however, nearly redeemed by the delicious orzo and mushrooms that accompanied it.

Not even the pope, though, could have saved the beef short ribs ($16.50). I was eagerly anticipating short ribs braised in red wine until the meat was so tender and flavorful that it would virtually melt in my mouth. What I was served was tough meat that could barely be pried from the bone, swimming in a raw-tasting, floury sauce. It was nothing that a couple more hours of cooking (and perhaps a bit of seasoning) couldn't have helped.

After the main courses were cleared away, the service, theretofore hit-and-miss, fell apart almost completely. After waiting patiently, I called our waiter over and asked if we could get dessert menus. He disappeared, and after another five minutes had passed, I signaled a second waiter over and repeated the request. After finally receiving the menus, we placed our orders. A few minutes later, the dessert silverware was dumped unceremoniously in the middle of the table. I don't mean to appear persnickety, but when I'm dining at a restaurant of this price level, I do expect someone else to set the table.

It would be nice to report that the desserts were worth the wait, but surprisingly enough, given the bakery's reputation (the spot recently received coverage in a national food magazine), they were fairly ordinary. The chocolate cake was decent, as were the fruit tart and crème brûlée ($4.50 each), but I've had better of each. I'm willing to wager that you have, too.

I left the restaurant feeling curiously disappointed. Had I set my expectations too high? I don't think so. Will I go back again? Of course. Given the reputation of the parties involved, I can't believe they won't get their act together -- and soon.

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Dennis Abrams