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 steaming in a broth enriched with saffron cream. Badovinus has taken liberties with traditional preparations, but they work: The mushroom quiche had a soupçon of Dijon mustard swirled into it; the Monte-Cristo sandwich of Comté and baby Swiss was made with a folded fried crêpe instead of fried bread (they’re crazy for crêpes at Wé Oui). The answer to the inevitable question—”Is this place the prototype for a future national chain?”—is “Mais oui.”
If you continue walking north on Mc- Kinney Avenue, you’ll run into more French restaurants. The most popular with Dallasites is Le Paris Bistrot, a smallish place now directed by chef Victor Garcia, age 38. It has charm to spare, with nooklike rooms and a sunny mural of a flower market on one wall. But it’s hard to reconcile the crowds with the quality—good one time, mediocre the next. Omelets have been great, as fluffy and flavorful as can be, and a simple ham-and-Brie sandwich with good grilled bread was a perfect lunch. Ditto the snails with mushrooms and the skinny french fries. But more challenging dinnertime entrées, like médaillons of pork in apple-brandy-spiked crème fraîche, which were boring despite the select ingredients, made me wonder if I was at the restaurant everyone had recommended. And the braised lamb shanks were horrendously overdone. Best solution: Have lunch and a glass of wine, and enjoy the atmosphere and street scene.
Pretend that you’re a boulevardier and stroll on up McKinney to Watel’s, whose kitchen is presided over by chef René Peeters, age 44. Here a more sedate atmosphere prevails in an appealing small space with white walls, abstract art, and an art deco feel. Even at lunch, the crowd is quite civilized—a few couples, lunching ladies, some business types. The grilled-Belgian-endive salad sounded intriguing, and it was, with thin slices of prosciutto and salty Parmesan for contrast, though the endive had been left on the grill too long, making it rather strong. The cassoulet surprised me; I was expecting the classic long-simmered, robust dish of white beans with sausage and bacon and falling-apart duck, but this was cassoulet lite, with almost undercooked white beans and a firm duck leg confit. As for dessert, someone must have griped that the poached pear was too bland because the kitchen had gone overboard in the opposite direction: My poor pear was overwhelmed by a thick, cinnamony port sauce—nice if you are hooked on Red Hots.
If you live in far north Dallas, or have the time and energy to drive to what seems like southern Oklahoma, you will find two of the best French restaurants in the Dallas area. Although located in a shopping center, La Mirabelle still has a credibly Gallic mien, reminiscent of the days when restaurants looked like dining rooms rather than movie sets. An exploration of the menu turned up a rough-chopped duck pté appetizer, a generous and meaty slice enlivened by bits of walnuts. The cream of asparagus soup emphasized the cream more than the asparagus, with just a hint of sweetness. A magnificent pile of fat little mussels in the shell came bathed in a winy broth, heady with garlic—it was so good I wanted to drink it straight from the bowl. For dessert, all that two of us could manage was a shared lemon sorbet, icy and indisputably light, if a little bland. When we left, owner-chef François Fotré was conferring in French with his wife. Our totally Texan waiter called after us, “Bonjour, y’all.”
For my money, the best of the lot in Dallas is Lavendou, another shopping center venue that has transformed itself into a convincing and rustic corner of Provence, with arched buff brick walls and gleaming bottles of preserved fruits above the bar. Normally I try not to go on and on about something as simple as an appetizer of bread and olive oil, but this oil, spruced up with herbs, was exceptional (and for sale—I bought two bottles to take home). A classic duck liver terrine, coarse-textured and very tasty, was accessorized with tiny squares of Sauternes aspic scattered about the plate, and a seafood terrine found a perfect match in a robust herbed mayonnaise. The chef, Jean-Marie Cadot, age 34, has a fine hand with fish, a case in point being the delicate tilapia filets Provençal topped with a Nyons-olive tapenade and anchovy pesto. Of two dessert tarts, it was hard to choose which I liked better: the apricot with almonds and vanilla-scented whipped cream or the chocolate, on a sugary, shortbreadlike crust.
If you go strictly by the numbers, Houston has as many French restaurants as Dallas. But only three—Café Perrier, Bistro Provence, and Cafe Descours—are places I’m eager to go back to. The first, named for its chef and owner, Frédéric Perrier, is a hangout of the River Oaks crowd, with plenty of cell phones, Hermès scarves, and well-tailored suits in evidence. The look is curvy and modern. Lunch is a great bargain; in fact, several of my favorite dishes were on the $15.50 prix fixe lunch, including the best mussels in the city, pristine and plump in a salty, rosemary-strewn broth. The soup of lentils with duck confit was as satisfyingly meaty as a stew. Dinner is a playground for Perrier’s imagination, with consistently interesting if sometimes dubious results. Seared Hudson Valley foie gras with a balsamic glaze came on a bed of braised cabbage, a potentially good combination except that the reduced balsamic vinegar was too strong and the cabbage was too bland. We were more impressed with the napoleon of red snapper, a lightly cooked filet garnished with bell peppers and niçoise olives. It wore a rakish hat of crisp, thin potato slices. We were happiest with dessert, a soft-centered individual chocolate cake that poured onto the plate at the touch of a fork. It was better than getting to lick the icing off the beaters in your mother’s kitchen.
If Café Perrier is urban, Bistro Provence is unabashedly country. With two off-the-beaten-path outposts, both tricked out in chipper yellow and blue, with black and white tile accents on floors and walls, it is as welcoming as a spring day. Chef Georges Guy, who is 55, offers a menu that’s full of crowd-pleasers: mussels, côtes d’agneau (lamb chops), and Guy’s own version of Provençal-style pizza, with black olives, anchovies, and Swiss cheese. I loved the rich flavor of my confit de lapin à l’huile d’olive, a long-simmered rabbit stew with caramelized onions and prunes, and the meat in a friend’s beef stew was tender to the bone in its tomato-based sauce. The escargots were just the way they should be—drenched in melted butter, garlic, and parsley. If I have a criticism, it’s that some dishes were excessively oily and dauntingly heavy. But if you choose carefully, you can eat well at Bistro Provence. Most of all, it’s a charming place. Even if I weren’t fond of the food, I would go back for a glass of wine and the atmosphere. It reminds me of France.
Cafe Descours also makes a valiant effort to turn itself into a little piece of France despite being located in a new Houston shopping center. An artist has painted a convincing scene from Paris’ Montmarte neighborhood on the wall, with the faces of regular customers at next-door Ptisserie Descours cleverly worked in. Oriental-style rugs cover rustic tile floors, and dark wood panels accent Dijon-colored walls.
Whatever else you order, definitely have the snails, tenderlittle mollusks snuggled into individual savory profiteroles with the usual depraved garlic-butter sauce. The seafood chowder that emerged from the kitchen of chef Yvonne Samudio, 27, wasn’t bad, either, with a creamy base, clams, and nibbles of fish filet. To me, there’s not a creature in the ocean that can beat a big, fat sea scallop when it’s been properly handled and cooked, and these were. Lightly seared, they arrived in a pool of caper-studded balsamic butter, pungent and rich. The pork loin chop, crusted with sun-dried tomatoes, came off well except for some iffy textures. The meat was somewhat chewy, and the novel goat-cheese coulis that accompanied it was rather pasty. As for dessert, tarte Tatin—as French as apple pie—was tarted up with two sauces: caramel and crème Chantilly. It seemed like overkill, but then nobody was holding a gun to my head when I managed to eat both.
In Austin you could organize a progressive dinner with a course at each of the city’s major French restaurants and travel no more than two miles between soupe and nuts. The most casual of the group is Chez Nous, a real French bistro owned by real French people that is so good and reasonably priced I must mention it even though it’s ancient—eighteen years old. The chicken crêpes I had at lunch were so delicious—pancakes as thin as handkerchiefs filled with breast meat and mushrooms in a classic, milky-rich béchamel sauce—that I took my friend the Cordon Bleu graduate there the next week to get her professional opinion. “Perfect,” she said as she speared a piece of duck breast, and then another and another. The kitchen, overseen by chef Eric Pelegrine, age 36, also knows what to do with seafood: Plump scallops in a rosemary-zapped sauce of white wine and goat cheese were like satin. The only things that weren’t up to par on lunch visits were leaden potato puffs and boring steamed broccoli.
Slightly higher on the ambition scale is Jean-Luc’s French Bistro, a small restaurant that peeps out on the street from the half-basement of a downtown office tower. Owned by Jean-Luc Salles, age 39, who is also the chef, it’s much more charming at night, when the low concrete ceiling beams disappear in the shadows and white tablecloths lend a touch of class. A small puff-pastry pizza of pheasant confit, caramelized leeks, and dabs of Texas goat cheese was a dynamic interplay of flavors—salty, sweet, and meaty. It was the hit of an evening that included an impeccably fresh, soufflé-light Dover sole roulade rolled around a rather boring parsnip purée and accompanied by a too-al dente but flavorful minced-potato “risotto.” For dessert, two of us attacked the giant chilled chocolate truffle, served with a raspberry purée and a pungent caramel cream, but the truffle was still standing when we finally waved the white flag.
Despite Sardine Rouge’s rather peculiar name, red sardines are nowhere to be found on its menu. Instead, jaunty little rows of them swim across the stained-glass mural up front, and frosted-glass sculptures of them hang from the arty light fixtures. The menu doesn’t stray too far from its French roots, though chefs Norbert Brandt, 46, and Jimmy Shuemake, 30, like to experiment, and Asian ingredients do show up. In fact, the best dish I’ve tried here was a lovely tuna filet in a wasabi-kissed beurre blanc. Casserole-baked pheasant, jazzed up with morels in a truffled, red wine-laced cream sauce, was like chicken potpie from heaven. But speaking of truffles, think twice before you order the cream of white-asparagus soup (a special); it was so overwhelmed by truffle essence that it almost made me swoon.
Just what is French and what isn’t? I’m sure that in twenty-first-century France, the local chefs are as global as they are in America. But when I’m eating French food in Texas, I want something more traditional, like—well, like the steak with a little nugget of bone marrow perched atop it that I ordered at Aquarelle, the newest French restaurant to hit Austin. What does marrow taste like? Pure fat, which it is. If you can countenance that, marrow is delicious. Cut it thin and eat a morsel with each bite of beef. An oasis of serenity in a converted house just off West Sixth, with buttercup-yellow walls, glossy white woodwork, and formal bouquets on the mantel, Aquarelle is French down to its fingertips. I was happy with what I tried from the menu of the 33-year-old chef, Jacques Richard. I liked my lovely rare steak (in a slightly separating bordelaise sauce), al dente baby vegetables, and a poached Bartlett pear fashionably attired in a crisp puff-pastry chemise with twin puddles of honey and a red-wine syrup. Not everything was perfect, but the restaurant was less than a week old when I visited.
After nibbling around Fort Worth and environs for a few days, I found myself wishing that Bistro Louise could be shoehorned into the Gallic category. Its grilled-salmon niçoise salad was fantastique but, unfortunately, the menu is largely Italian. That leaves two others, Saint-Emilion and Cacharel. Of the two, Saint-Emilion is the more approachable. The little old two-story brick house is simply and agreeably decorated with framed posters on white walls. Judging by the people waving at one another across the dining room, many customers are regulars. The dishes I sampled from the menu of chef Lawrence Klang, age 29, were pleasant enough. Sometimes they were a little bland—a stark white cauliflower soup proved so uncompelling, despite its swirl of dill oil and sprinkling of ossetra caviar, that I kept forgetting it was on the table—but usually they held my attention. A chef’s special terrine of foie gras with a salad of watercress sprouts was a successful and intriguing contrast in textures. One of the more interesting items was a special of (unevenly cooked) honey-glazed duck with a side dish of clove-scented date purée, sweet and spicy. Oddly, the most gorgeous dish was the most disastrous—a casserole colorfully lined with alternating matchsticks of carrot and turnip. Nearby diners peered enviously at my plate, but the contents of the casserole, touted as a yummy baked squab, turned out to be a very tough little bird.
The first clue that Arlington’s Cacharel is not of this century is Bach on the sound system. The second is the mint-green-and-peach color scheme. Even the open kitchen is behind glass (watching the chefs is like looking at fish in an aquarium). And yet this anomaly at the top of an office tower has an unmistakable authority: Our earnest young waiter was as proper as the steadfast tin soldier. The creation of 44-year-old chef Hans Bergmann, escargots Cacharel proved to be a glorious pile of snails, mushrooms, pecans, and red grapes in a mushroom herb butter sauce accompanied by a rectangle of crisp puff pastry. It was far more elaborate than I had expected, and frighteningly rich. As for my entrée, I can’t remember salmon that was more superbly fresh or perfectly cooked (just medium rare), enlivened by a dill-inflected champagne cream. Dessert, an all-but-levitating mocha soufflé, was perfection.
Aquarelle, 606 Rio Grande (512-479-8117). Dinner only; entrées $18-$30. Closed Sunday. AE, DS, MC, V.
Chez Nous, 510 Neches (512-473-2413). Crêpes and entrées $8-$14 at lunch, entrées $15.50-$23.50 at dinner. Closed Monday. AE, DC, MC, V.
Jean-Luc’s French Bistro, 705 Colorado (512-494-0033). Entrées $7.95-$9.95 at lunch, $17-$35 at dinner. Closed Monday. AE, DC, DS, MC, V.
Sardine Rouge, 311 W. Sixth (512-473-8642). Dinner only; entrées $19-$28. AE, DC, DS, MC, V.La Mirabelle, 17610 Midway at Trinity Mills (972-733-0202). Entrées $12.95-$18.95 at lunch, $18.95-$35 at dinner. Closed Sunday and Monday. MC, V.
Lavendou, 19009 Preston at Lloyd (972-248-1911). Entrées $8.95-$18.95 at lunch, $14.95-$22.95 at dinner. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, DC, DS, MC, V.
Le Paris Bistrot, 2533 McKinney (214-720-0225). Entrées $6-$12 at lunch, $6-$23 at dinner. AE, CB, DC, DS, MC, V.
Watel’s, 2719 McKinney (214-720-0323). Entrées $8-$12 at lunch, $15-$23 at dinner. AE, DC, MC, V.
Wé Oui, Crescent Court, McKinney at Maple (214-220-3990). Entrées $8-$14 at lunch, $13 and $18 at dinner. AE, DC, DS, MC, V.Cacharel, Brookhollow II Building, 2221 E. Lamar Boulevard, Arlington (817-640-9981). Entrées $8-$20 at lunch, $22-$40 at dinner. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, DC, DS, MC, V.
Saint-Emilion, 3617 W. Seventh St. (817-737-2781). Dinner only; entrées $21.75-$34.75. Closed Sunday and Monday. AE, CB, DC, DS, MC, V.Bistro Provence, 11920 Westheimer at Kirkwood (281-497-1122) and 13616 Memorial at Kirkwood (713-827-8008). Entrées $7.95-$22 at lunch, $8.50-$25 at dinner. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V.
Cafe Descours, 1330 Wirt Road at Westview (713-681-8894). Dinner only; entrées $8.95-$19.50. Closed Sunday and Monday. AE, DS, MC, V.
Café Perrier, 4304 Westheimer at Mid Lane (713-355-4455). Entrées $8.50-$18.50 at lunch, $17.50-$29.50 at dinner. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V.Le Rêve, 152 E. Pecan (210-212-2221). Dinner only; entrées $22-$33. Closed Sunday and Monday. AE, DS, MC, V.
L’Etoile, 6106 Broadway (210-826-4551). Entrées $8.95-$17.95 at lunch, $17.95-$45.95 at dinner. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V.