The house-made pâté du chef at Georges Bistro comes in a small glass canning jar. Its petite appearance belies what sits within: A very generous four-inch slab sliced into six tranches of smooth, rich, mildly flavored yet oh-so-good pâté -- plenty enough for two to share over a glass of wine and conversation and an excellent way to start a meal at this Gallic little gem on Lower Westheimer.
Georges Bistro is the latest incarnation of the rustic, renovated house that once housed Chez Georges, and later, the critically acclaimed Feast. It is also the newest of the restaurant concepts in Houston created by Georges Guy and his wife, Monique (they also opened Chez Georges, Bistro Provence, La Brocante, Bistro Don Camillo and, most recently, Bistro Des Arts), since they first arrived in the States more than 30 years ago.
Chez Georges was a fine-dining restaurant with white tablecloths. Georges Bistro has less lofty aspirations, aiming to be a mid-priced neighborhood place serving traditional French fare. As it happened, Monique Guy was our server during one of our visits on a slow day at the restaurant and volunteered without being asked, "Our customers wanted a bistro. They wanted this kind of menu -- these types of dishes -- instead of fine dining."
A picturesque order of escargots à la bourguignonne arrived, served on a white porcelain escargot plate with an emulsion of butter, parsley and garlic pooling over each snail and a single twig of marjoram laid across the plate. It smelled as divine as it looked, artfully arranged atop a white paper doily and a beautiful charger plate with a pale green and yellow lattice-patterned rim. The butter sauce could have been better seasoned, but that was a minor quibble. It came with authentic French bread -- crusty on the outside, moist and slightly elastic on the inside -- so that dipping the bread into the garlic butter sauce was a pure joy.
In fact, that Thursday afternoon, just about everything was praiseworthy. Though the boeuf en daube (a Provençal beef stew) displayed a somewhat stronger gaminess than one would expect from beef, the hunks of meat were moist and tender, with enough fat and cartilaginous fibers in them to trap the flavor of the intensely flavored wine-based braising gravy. Served in a lovely green stoneware bowl and garnished with masterfully cooked disks of golden-crisp potato fused together like the top crust of a scalloped potato casserole, the dish was a fine example of traditional French cooking.
Even better was a daily special of duck confit salad, perfection in the form of a quarter leg of duck served with fresh mixed greens, vibrant red wedges of farm-fresh tomatoes, a larger portion of those killer pan-crisp potatoes and a poached egg. Dusted in an aromatic herbed salt mixture, the skin more soft than crisp, the savory preserved duck meat -- eaten with a dollop of creamy egg yolk or with satiny-crisp potato -- was simply exemplary, precisely what one would want to find in a small French bistro.
There's a certain timelessness to George's Bistro that is utterly charming. This is not one of those modern restaurants where cool young chefs sport tattoos and ponytails, wearing fashionably colored aprons and looking like the new wave of kitchen rockstars. Georges is like discovering that quaint little bed-and-breakfast in the heart of the French countryside where one is welcomed at the door by a modestly dressed French-speaking granddaughter who acts as both the hostess and the waitress, her grandmother overseeing the front of the house while her grandfather cooks and sends food out from the kitchen.
Georges Guy doesn't come into the dining room much, but glimpses of him can be caught through the open kitchen doorway. He wears pristine chef's whites in the old tradition, with the long white apron in front, his gray hair slightly wavy and hanging loosely in a '70s-esque fashion. He can't seem to hang up that apron. He has "retired" no fewer than three times in recent years, each time coming back to the kitchen.
In the kitchen, shiny copper pots hang above an old-fashioned hearth with a framed black-and-white wedding portrait of the owners. Sunny yellow walls accented by dark brown crown molding are complemented by hanging chandeliers and yellow Provençal table runners in the anterior restaurant space. Antique-style chairs upholstered in a dark maroon pattern are matched with maroon tablecloths and napkins elsewhere in the restaurant.
During the day, custom-designed stained-glass windows -- two of which are replicas of Toulouse-Lautrec's dancing can-can girls -- glow incandescently from the front, center and back dining room, the last of which can be closed off for private dinner parties. It's an absolutely lovely setting for lunch. At dinner, the ambience alternates between romantic (when the trill of Édith Piaf comes across the sound system) and austere (when the music is turned off and the room becomes almost oppressively quiet).
Evenings also seem to bring with them some issues surrounding consistency and execution. A starter of bouillabaisse (fish stew) did not live up to what it could and should have been one evening, the broth exhibiting a lack of depth and an unpleasant metallic aftertaste. Even the garlic roux spread, provided on oblong pieces of toast to accompany the bouillabaisse, seemed somewhat off. Instead of the sweet, pungent bite of the roasted garlic, the roux tasted flat and bland in a stale kind of way.
A beautifully plated magret de canard au confit d'orange (roasted duck breast in orange sauce) -- framed by precisely cut slices of orange arranged in arched curve along the upper section of the plate -- was also a huge disappointment. It came out overdone and tough, the meat showing no hints of pink despite the fact that a medium rare temperature had been specifically requested.
On another night, the same duck confit that had been outstanding on a previous visit was virtually drowned in salt as part of a classic cassoulet. Upon request, the dish was removed and replaced with a well-portioned, artfully plated pan-seared red snapper filet, but the incident left a troublesome impression of the night, especially when a braised rabbit special was marred by the addition of potatoes that were uncooked to the point that they tasted raw.
Another area needing improvement was the wine service. On one evening, a house Cabernet Sauvignon looked and tasted past its prime. Though our server repeatedly visited our table to ask, "How is everything?" when we very nicely suggested that the wine was not drinkable, she insisted that this could not be so. The wine glass therefore sat at our table, full and untouched for the duration of dinner straight through to the end of dessert and coffee service.
Red wine at Georges Bistro is also served at room temperature, warmer than what's rec-ommended for serving red wine, which falls -between 57 and 65 degrees for medium to full-bodied wines and even cooler for lighter reds. When we asked that our Châteauneuf-du-Pape be chilled, it was placed in a plastic wine bag filled with ice, a practice more befitting a -casual restaurant than the old-world elegance of Georges.
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Wine service and the occasional kitchen errors aside, the daily chalkboard specials are generally solid. A cold foie gras torchon appetizer, served with a confit of onions in a seasonal fig glaze, was smooth and luscious. A daily special pâté appetizer with pistachios was also excellent, the large rectangular serving impeccably seasoned and homemade in taste. Items like these serve as reminders of Guy's long-running success as a restaurateur and chef.
Classics such as his deftly rendered soupe à l'oignons gratinée (French onion soup), crusted with a layer of just-browned Gruyère cheese, the light brown broth opaque and chock-full of naturally sweet onions; or the filet de bœuf aux 3 poivres cardinal (beef tenderloin with three peppercorn brandy cream sauce), the beef tenderly bathed in a delectable sauce; or the wonderfully spongy and moist baba au rhum (sponge cake with rum syrup) dessert demonstrate why Georges Guy enjoys such a strong following among Francophiles in the city and why, even though he goes in and out of retirement, the Houston dining community embraces him again and again.
Georges Bistro is not perfect. It's not a slick, modern restaurant with multiple investors and a huge budget. But even when mistakes are made, this place -- a mom-and-pop in the truest sense of the word -- has heart. Here is a French-born chef cooking time-honored French classics served on French plate ware by French-speaking staff in a setting that is quintessentially French in decor and design. Nowhere in Houston does it get more authentically French than that.
La petite bouillabaisse $9.95 Pâté du chef $11.95 Pâté du jour $7.50 Escargots à la bourguignonne $9.50 Soupe à l'oignons gratinée $8.95 Cuisse de confit de canard en cassoulet $16.95 Bœuf en daube $18.95 Filet de red snapper $24 Magret de canard au confit d'orange $24 Filet de bœuf aux 3 poivres cardinal $32 Baba au rhum $6.95 Bavarois au cassis $6.95 House Cabernet Sauvignon $6.50 Café gourmand $12