Restaurant Reviews

Ten Years of Provence

When's the last time you were greeted in Italian when you visited an Italian restaurant? Can't remember, right? Another question: Have you ever gone to a Chinese restaurant and been welcomed in Cantonese? Of course, you haven't. It simply doesn't happen. But drop by Chez Georges, and you'll most certainly be greeted in French.

And it's not your garden-variety Bon soir, monsieur; comment allez-vous? stuff, either. They act as if French were your mother tongue. When a friend and I had dinner here recently, the man who showed us to our table rattled on so much, I began to think he'd mistaken me for Balzac.

Some people revel in this sort of thing, of course. To judge from the conversation at two nearby tables, people go to Chez Georges not just to eat, but to practice what little they recall of the French they learned in high school.

Chez Georges sees itself as an outpost of France and attempts a total cultural immersion. After that Gallic greeting, we were shown into a dining room that might have been transported from a small town in Provence -- one of those places the awful Peter Mayle is ever going on about. And the menu, naturally, is as French as it gets: authentic French cuisine with the emphasis on authentic. Like myself, Chef Georges Guy is true blue where tradition is concerned. None of your nouvelle cuisine nonsense for him. His hero is Auguste Escoffier, known as the emperor of chefs, whose book Le Guide Culinaire (1903) doubtless enjoys a prominent place on your night table. (It does on mine!) Guy, by the way, has this in common with Escoffier: Both began their culinary education at the age of 13.

Chez Georges, now celebrating its tenth birthday, is very attractive. There are homey tables, homey curtains and homey pictures. There's even a homey fireplace. It's so homey, in fact, it's possible to forget that, just yards away, cars are speeding pell-mell down Westheimer as if on some wall of death. Be warned, though: The place is likely to make you feel romantic. A couple near us sat in stony silence until dinner arrived -- and then it was all love and light. Halfway through the feuillete d'escargots Bourguignonne, they were holding hands and blowing kisses.

We also ordered the feuillete d'escargots Bourguignonne ($7.50): snails sauteed in a garlic and herb butter sauce and served in puff pastry. Most snails are so overcooked, you think you're eating cuff links, but the ones at Chez Georges are pleasantly supple. Overall, though, I thought the dish lacked structure. Nothing here grabbed the attention. It was an ensemble piece badly in need of a leading player.

My companion ordered mosaique de legumes au foie gras -- vegetable pate stuffed with foie gras on a bed of chopped tomatoes. This was unavailable, we were told. But there was an off-menu if we were interested: Escalope de foie gras Californien sauteed with apples and barrel-aged vinegar. Quite wonderful, it turned out. The foie gras is cooked quickly because, exposed to too much heat, it melts. But we forgot to ask the price. While the mosaique cost only $10.95, the escalope cost $24.

Civet de lapin ($16) -- rabbit stew -- was first rate as well. Traditionally, a civet is a game stew prepared with red wine and thickened with pig's blood. Guy dispenses with the blood -- it is, he says, hard to find -- and cooks the rabbit in a wine-enhanced pepper sauce.

Our other entree that first night was darne de saumon grillee ($19) -- fresh Norwegian salmon grilled with pure virgin olive oil on a bed of sauteed spinach, tomatoes, lime and basil. The fish-- a thick cutlet -- was delicious, but the big surprise was the spinach. Its texture (it's cooked very lightly) plays very nicely off the salmon. Le Prudhomme in Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idees reçues didn't eat spinach. "I dislike it," he said, "and am happy to dislike it because if I liked it I would eat it, and I cannot stand it." If he ever tasted this spinach, I dare say he'd change his mind.

Lunch at Chez Georges is less formal than dinner. Men eat in their shirtsleeves -- at dinner, jackets are de rigueur -- and people are even to be seen brazenly drinking iced tea. For appetizers, we ordered the excellent salade du Berger ($6.50), a mixed salad topped with bacon, caramelized onions and walnuts and served with medallions of goat cheese set on croutons -- and soupe de pois casses St. Germain ($4.50) -- familiar to you, no doubt, as split-pea soup. The soup had a scalded taste to it, making one wonder if it -- or the milk that is a salient ingredient -- had been allowed to boil.

Confit de canard aux haricots panaches ($10.50) -- duck-leg confit and mixed beans "cassoulet style" -- was a mixed bag. The beans, which should have been a creamy, glutinous mass, were underdone. But the duck, full of intense flavors, was terrific. A little too much salt, perhaps, but top notch, nonetheless.

Papillotte de saumon aux petits legumes ($11.95) -- Norwegian salmon and baby vegetables -- was exquisitely fragrant. Sheer heaven. The fish and vegetables, cooked and served in grease-proof paper, are, Guy says, a diet item. But I don't think he approves of people losing weight. The dish comes with lemon butter on the side.

I look forward to Chez Georges's 20th birthday -- and its 30th. I doubt if better French food is served anywhere in Houston.

Chez Georges, 11920 Westheimer, (281) 497-1122.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Lawlor