Local Spotlight

Vive La France: Central Market Kicks off Passport France with a Bang

You really have to appreciate it when someone throws a party and goes all out, no expense spared. That's what Central Market did for its Passport France kickoff event this past Thursday evening, which was held in a white tented affair that had the high society feel of the Kentucky Derby.

Indeed, I wouldn't have been surprised to see women in summer dresses with large brimmed hats, because the summer party had a distinctly haute feel to it that belied the $35 cost of attendance. The tented Provençal-themed dinner party came complete with a petanque court, live acoustic French music, beautiful chandeliers, long tables covered in bright blue and yellow linens along with an army of white-clad servers that offered free-flowing choices of Chateau Paradis Rosé, 2011 Chateau L'Ermitage white, and 2010 Domaine Carobelle Gigondas red. And, of course, six courses of delicious, chef-prepared French food as well as a goodie bag to take home.

The evening started out with a buffet table of artisanal bread, cheese, fruit, pate, and French kisses of Armagnac prunes with duck foie gras as guests mingled with one another before choosing a place to sit.

The Consulate General of France, Frédéric Bontems, kicked things off with short speech thanking Central Market for its contribution to the French community and culture of Houston before the evening's headliner took the stage. Then began the live cooking demonstration by guest chef Patrice Olivon, an Iron Chef winner, former chef to the French Embassy and host of the PBS series Dinner is Served.

Chef Olivon was lively, energetic, charming, and very relaxed on stage. Born in Casablanca but raised in Provence, Olivon shared stories of what it was like growing up in Provence -- things like the sound of crickets and cicadas in the evening -- as he deftly demonstrated each of the dishes that made up the six-course meal for the evening.

Served family-style, we started with a delicious puff pastry tart with caramelized onions, sardines, and olives: the Pissaladière. It was the first time I'd tasted this dish, and though the puff pastry had hardened a bit due to the weather, the dish was lovely. Our table quickly cleared away all the slices.

Next up was a twist on the salade nicoise, which is typically made with canned tuna. Chef Patrice created a version using pan-seared filet of tuna, which was sliced and served in large slices with the traditional boiled egg, blanched green beans and vinaigrette over fresh greens. It paired well with the white wine of the evening, a crisp blend of Roussanne, Grenache and Viognier by Chateau L'Ermitage.

My favorite dish of the night would follow, a tomato farci, or roasted tomato stuffed with beef. The roasted tomatoes were so sweet that they almost tasted as if they'd been basted in honey, while the filling -- a cross between the texture of a meatloaf and meatball -- was moist and favorful. The table fought over seconds of this dish.

In between courses, Chef Olivon walked around the room, greeting guests, answering questions, signing autographs and taking photos. Service was very attentive -- on par with what you'd receive in some of the best restaurants in the city. We never wanted for water, wine or utensils. Empty plates were removed promptly, and there was always someone on hand if anyone had a specific request.

After my second glass of wine, the rest of the evening passed by in a pleasant blur. I was already full after the stuffed tomato course, but that night, we were also served black olive-crusted cod with saffron aoili, roasted lamb with ratatouille provencale and potato gratin, and red cherries jubilee, which was flambéed with red wine and served with ice cream and fresh basil.

It was a fantastic evening, made even more so after my post-meal shopping spree inside the store, as I oohed and aahed over hard to find French items and stocked up on things like caramels au beurre sale (salted caramels), l'incomparable croquante de cordes (almond souffle cookies), cornichons by Maille, fig preserves by Les Confitures a l'Ancienne, wild lavender honey from La Roche sur Foron, vinaigre de vin de vin blanc aux herbes de Provence (white wine vinegar infused with Provencal herbs), truffle mousse pate, and a case of Badoit sparkling mineral water.

I went home that night with a goodie bag packed with a glass of wine etched with "Passport France" and a box of artisanal cookies, thinking about the free-flowing wine, the impeccable service, the fabulous food, the entertaining chef and the general spirit of the event. "Central Market did it right," I thought. And now I can't wait to go back and wander the aisles to see what other French goodies I can discover.

For more information on Passport France, the cooking classes at Central Market, and to find Chef Patrice Olivon's recipes from the kickoff event, please visit: www.centralmarket.com

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham