What is it with Texans and French food? I’ve been through two economic booms here, and the same thing has happened both times: When the state’s economy is good and we have money to burn, French restaurants start opening. It’s like one day we wake up with a sudden craving for escargots and coq au vin and confit de canard. We take French cooking lessons; we buy French wines; we practice pronouncing “ haricots verts.” More French restaurants have opened in Texas in the past three years than in the previous ten, and that’s not counting hotel dining rooms or Mediterranean restaurants that slip French dishes into the mix. Houston and Dallas each have close to 10 noteworthy French restaurants. Austin and San Antonio have about half a dozen each, and the Fort Worth area has 2. Even La Madeleine, the Dallas-based chain of country-style French bakeries, is going strong—more than a quarter of its 63 locations (in four states and Washington, D.C.) are new since 1998. So what gives? Of course, French cuisine is one of the world’s greatest. That’s reason enough. But I can’t help thinking that the resurgence of French food has at least as much to do with newly prosperous Texans’ insecurity about being pegged as parvenus, whether they are or not. There’s nothing quite like ordering a bottle of a good Burgundy and médaillons de boeuf aux morilles et cognac to proclaim to the world that you are as sophisticated as the next dot-com millionaire.
What follows is my own highly subjective list of favorite restaurants. Most are newcomers (“new” being loosely defined as having opened since the Texas economy took off), but I sneaked in two or three oldies that are so good it would be criminal not to mention them. Will there ever be as many bistros as taquerías in Texas? No. But I am convinced we will soon see more of the former, because no sooner had my deadline passed than I heard of two new places on the drawing board, in Dallas and Fort Worth. Repeat after me: “ Ah-ree-co ver, see voo play.”
Of all the restaurants I visited, my favorite is Le Rêve, a gem on a quiet stretch of the San Antonio River. With its handful of tables, smart dove-gray walls, and gauzy curtains covering tall windows, it’s the kind of place that people jealously guard as their own little secret. Now that it is two years old, however, the word is out. I don’t want to build it up too much, but it’s one of the few places I visited whose kitchen could pass muster in New York. Le Rêve’s chef and owner, 32-year-old Andrew Weissman, grew up in San Antonio but has Gallic credentials: After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he cooked in France and then, in fact, did a stint in New York, at renowned Le Cirque. Whether it’s Weissman’s training, good karma, or hard work, something’s clicking, because I haven’t eaten French food this spectacular in ages. Hudson Valley foie gras, barely seared, came with a morsel of cara- melized pineapple and an herb-flecked baby buttermilk pancake as light as a dream. A salad of curly endive with nuggets of apple-smoked bacon had a tiny poached quail egg on top, to enrich the warm vinaigrette dressing. The chilean sea bass on braised leeks was so creamy and light, it could have passed for flan. On three visits the only combination that didn’t quite come together was a veal chop served with caramelized fennel and grapes (so far so good) and spicy chorizo (too brash). The desserts were wonderful, two fabulous examples being the stunningly rich, cone-shaped Valrhona chocolate truffle (so intense it was like a flavor bomb) and the decadent, miraculously light sour cream cheesecake. (For information on Le Rêve and other restaurants in this story, plus recipes, see page 124.)
As for San Antonio’s other French restaurants, the only one that really turns me on is L’Etoile—and it’s fifteen years old. I know, it needs a face lift (please, people, lose the pink-and-teal color scheme), but the kitchen is dynamite. Everything I tried, from the comforting hot potato-leek soup to the apple crêpe (actually a puff-pastry tart) in a sybaritic pool of crème anglaise), was extremely well prepared. My lunchtime salade niçoise was a bounty of greens cuddled up to a generous mound of white, flaky tuna, boiled egg, flavorful boiled potatoes, calamata olives, and more, all in a pungent vinaigrette. On another visit I tried the redfish Véronique, an impeccably fresh sautéed filet accented with quartered red grapes and served in a beurre blanc pumped up with cognac and raspberry vinegar. There wasn’t a loser in the bunch. Chef Francis Perrin, who is 41, has his priorities in order.
One of the nice things about the present French fad is that the places are about equally divided between haute and homey. In fact, “French Food Every Day” is the slogan of the biggest and most ambitious of them, Wé Oui, located on Dallas’ McKinney Avenue restaurant strip. (Yes, it’s a silly name, but what do I know? I haven’t created national restaurant chains worth megamillions, and Wé Oui’s founder, Phil Romano, has. Until I can match the success of Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Fuddruckers, and the upscale food-to-go emporium eatZi’s, I think I’ll keep a lid on the advice.)
When you walk into Wé Oui, the first thing you see is a huge Toulouse-Lautrec- style mural of pouty French beauties sizing you up from across the room. The color scheme is a retro red and black, and the music is pulsing. My sampling of the menu, two weeks before the scheduled early June opening, was far better than I expected. The 29-year-old executive chef, Nick Badovinus, is knocking himself out. The Wé Oui salad brimmed with greens, goat cheese, raspberries, sun-dried cherries, and walnuts in a wonderful, light blood- orange vinaigrette. A huge pile of mussels came