THIS MONTH WE MADE PILGRIMAGES of the palate and headed for dinners at a nearly extinct species of restaurant, the kind where the chef is owner, king and wizard, where the bureaucracy is gone from the kitchen and where the meal is the thing.
Our first stop is at Foulard's Media , an intimate theater in which an appreciative audience samples the creations of a master chef, Foulard, who reigns and performs in a capsule kitchen behind a tiny window looking out on the diners. Both he and the audience are serious about the business of eating; few of the customers (save an occasional misguided soul) are in for a quick bite before a ball game.
Foulard himself is not chained to the stove, the salaried servant of a New York franchise, but is the raison d'etre of the restaurant. His career began with an apprenticeship in Nantes and has carried him from griddle to griddle in Paris, Miami, Chicago and Houston. You may have recognized his culinary flair during the past decade at Soulari's (the previous tenant of what is now Rudi's on Post Oak), the Petroleum Club, Tony's, at his own establishment in the River Oaks Tower and now at Foulard's Media. Here at the Media, clad in white hat and apron, he often greets guests, helps with menu selections and visits tables for accolades at the end of the meals. Between times, he mans the pans and applies the heat, cooking each order in a kitchen not much bigger than an entrance hall.
The remarkable menu comes in a black loose-leaf notebook and is entirely handwritten. It contains sections devoted to appetizers, lunches, sandwiches, dinners and desserts. At dinner everything is a la carte and cooked to order. You'll find no thaw-'n-serve dishes from the local restaurant supply house at the Media. At lunch the same menu is used with the addition of some luncheon specials.
Foulard is basically an inventive French cook. He uses his culinary artistry to perform amazing saucery and leaves his perional touch on even the most standard French fare. His oysters Rockefeller bear only slight resemblance to the familiar oyster-and-spinach combination. Served in individual ramikins, each oyster is bathed in a sauce redolent of butter, garlic and parsley—almost oysters Bourguignonne, a masterful treatment. Escargots are also offered in ramikins rather than the usual shells. This manner of presentation is a boon to the diner, since not one delicious garlicky dribble escapes. Unfortunately this dish is severely handicapped by the lack of decent bread for sopping—an unforgivable sin in an establishment of French persuasion. For a more subtle beginning, try crepes Foulard, delicate seafood crepes assembled at your table and sauced with sherry. French gooseliver pate and terrine de fois gras aux truffles ($5.50 a whack—a good rooting pig is expensive in these days of inflation) are other dishes in Foulard's repertoire.
The list of entrees is long and varied. Steaks and seafood are included but are not the main drawing card. The section to zero in on is "from the saucier." Here, where the sauce is the thing, Foulard is in his element. He presents an array of veal dishes unequaled in these parts (beginning at $7.75). Veal 1970 consists or pale, thin slices of veal—the kind you can't find at your local supermarket—cooked to perfection with mushrooms in a lemon sauce. This simple but sublime offering has our vote as the dinner winner. Several other tempting veal variations include mushroom, pepper, tomato and even beer-based sauces. Green pepper steak (beef laden with sweet green peppers in a sherry sauce) is another interesting dish. Pork chop Strausbourgeoise, a thick tender chop topped with sweet kraut and a slab of rich pate is a surprising and successful combination. The Duckling 1972 is moist and orangy but on one occasion lacked the crisp skin that ordinarily gives this dish textural interest. Steak Diane is nicely sauced and spectacularly flamed at your table by the maitre'd, but it can be had in many other places where Foulard's veal dishes and delicate sauces would give the chef tremons.
Anyone with a notch left in his belt may want a final flame fling. Choose from crepes Suzette, petit baba, cherries jubilee, or coupes—ice cream served with one of several special sauces. The frozen Media is Foulard's version of a brandy freeze but has on occasion been less than properly smooth.
The final spectacular of the evening is the bill. But remember the old adage "It costs only 85 per cent more to go first class."
As a consolation to those who do have to ask how much it costs to run a yacht, there's lunch, or an after-the-theater treat. The omelets, especially the one filled with fresh mushrooms, and the combination with ham, mushrooms, cheese and onions, are superb and cooked by the same deft hand that turns out those expensive creations at night. Foulard also compiles a rare assortment of sandwiches, most in the $2.25-$2.50 range, that come with the soup of the day.
ON SOUTH COLLEGE AVENUE IN BRYAN we pull into the parking lot of what looks for all the world like an abandoned drive-in. We park under the curb service awning and head for the building described in neon light as The Texan . Undaunted by the seedy exterior, we enter a 1950-hamburger heaven made habitable by candlelight, black paint and partitions. We didn't drive two hours to get a hot dog and root beer, in spite of appearances. Neither did the owners of the Mercedes, Lincolns and Volkswagen buses in the lot. We are a part of a growing group of Texas gastronomes (and a few inverse snobs) who are aware that here in Bryan—where chicken fried steak, burgers and shakes once ran rampant—live lobster, tempura, quail with white grapes and flaming guavas are now the regular fare.
The Merlin responsible for the culinary magic performed here is an extraordinary character who rivals George Plimpton in experience, Hans Christian Andersen in imagination,