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, Ralph Nader in quality control and certainly Foulard in culinary skills. He created, owns and operates The Texan, our vote for the most intriguing restaurant in area code 713.
Robert Tapley’s story begins in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where his father has been a violinist with the Boston Symphony for 55 years. While his father fiddled, his mother collected international recipes and skills from wives of the symphony members and experimented at the family table. She used wire whisks and crepe pans to entertain little Robert, probably influencing him to ask Santa for a Mouli grater along with his cap pistol when he was a toddler. At eleven he cooked an entire Thanksgiving dinner single-handedly. Robert continued to cook into his marriage, his hitch in the Air Force at Wichita Falls and his entry into Texas A&M in 1955 as a student in animal husbandry. The outlook for an animal husband without an animal or a place to put one looked pretty bleak, so Robert eased into physics and garnered a B.S., a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, an M.S. and three children.
With no monies available for further study and an incidental talent for target archery, he got a job as a research scientist for the Bear Archery Company where he rose to plant manager after labor struggles and lots of bow designs. Somehow, archery was not his quiver, so he was easily lured back to A&M to teach. His philosophy of physical science course was the first philosophy course offered on campus. Unfortunately, he was caught in the publish-or-perish hassle of the early 1960’s and school emphasis seemed to be on the printed word instead of the seated student. Right in the middle of his investigation into molecular spectroscopy (freezing matrix on windows at liquid helum temperatures). Robert Tapley resigned from not teaching.
Faced with the mundane problem or earning a living, he capitalized on his talent and ability to cook. With 20 years of dinner parties under his belt, he made the day of a real estate agent by buying the albatross of Bryan, the dying Texan Drive-In.
Robert’s wife Diana hopped cars for two weeks before she got fed up and curb service came to a screeching halt. For the next few months they kept the same short order menu, striving to upgrade the quality or what was offered even in the face of “soup, salad, two vegetables, potatoes, choice of six meats—including, steak—and dessert for $1.00” (tip not included but usually excluded). A typical slow day during this period saw the Tapleys slinging gourmet hash from 11 A.M. to midnight for a gross of $32.
Perseverance brought customers though not necessarily profit. But even with a dedicated quarter-pound-of-ground-round following, the sly Tapley’s were able to begin The Texan’s metamorphosis by scratching a lettuce with glob of mayonnaise here and adding a heart of palm there. Eventually, backed by a growing coterie, the Tapleys confined their efforts to dinner hours and their own menu, an eight-page parchment folder describing an international array of dishes that are the result of two generations of cooking interest.
Each entree on the menu has three prices: a la carte; supper, which includes a light appetizer and salad of your choice; and dinner, with more substantial offerings in the appetizer and salad categories. Appetizers range from a house pate to a taco de picadillo—a soft tortilla artistically and scrumptiously laden with onion, cheese (no Velveeta), picadillo and sliced jalapenos. French onion soup is baked to order in a ceramic ramikin and arrives with a magnificently crusty cheese topping. Chinese curried chicken, beef teriaki (tiny slices of marinated beef you cook on a miniature hibachi called a konro), escargot, clams, enormous fresh Louisiana oysters and blue crab claws are also included to whet your appetite.
The salad offering is perhaps the most inventive group on the menu. Thirteen salads are described, most having their own integral dressings. (You’ll miss the waiter plopping a dollop of French, thousand island or blue cheese onto the iceberg shavings.) Choose from a preserved fruit with avocado dressing, polynesian pepper salad and avocado salad with garlic French dressing. Several special salads are made only for two and make it worth bringing a friend. The Silver Lining consists of lettuces, green onions and avocado slices dressed with Vietnamese Nuoc Mam sauce and roasted sesame seeds that are ground in a mortar right before your astonished eyes. Kubla Kahn, a variation of a Caesar salad, puts Swiss cheese and shaved bonito where the Parmesian and anchovies once reigned. A regulation Caesar salad is also beautifully executed for the traditionalists.
Selecting an entree is a herculean matter of eliminating 31 of the 32 tantalizing choices. Surprisingly for Bryan, The Texan has live lobsters and chef Tapley boils them, broils them, steams them, teams them (with steak), or turns them out exotically as lobster Cantonese in a sauce of black beans and pork. Beef is chosen, cut and cooked meticulously by—you guessed it—the chef himself. We haven’t found better meat anywhere. Along with sirloin, filet mignon and rib eye, Tapley offers a cleaver innovation, a top butt anterior cut which comes off the forward end of the top sirloin butt. This cut is particularly flavorful. Dishes less common in Bryan (New York or Paris for that matter) than steak include ho yow bok opp (which translates as Chinese squab with oyster sauce), tempura (served with an authentic sauce made from dashi kombu and katsuobushi—dried kelp and shaved bonito to us), chicken saute Marengo, quail with white grapes, and chicken cacciatore (served over chi-chi beans) to mention a few.
Service is impeccable. Young men, most of them Aggies, serve you smoothly, graciously and knowledgeably. Mrs. Tapley acts as hostess and oversees the dining room. Back in the kitchen, Robert Tapley, looking like James Coburn in boots, string tie and apron, personally cooks every entree. You won’t see him punching the cash register or chatting with customers. He cloisters himself in the galley where he keeps a steady hand on the culinary tiller. Not unlike the mystic who disciplines himself in order to attain an ideal level of existence, Tapley directs his energies to producing the most perfect meals possible. He goes to great lengths to assemble the finest ingredients available. In fact he shops for salad makings and vegetables at the supermarket, having found that bulk produce is often less than prime; and he sends back meat that isn’t up to his standards. (The only thing he hasn’t successfully come to grips with, in our opinion, is the bread.)
The chef-owner combination is the crucial ingredient in the success of both The Texan and The Media. Tapley and Foulard are as different as soup and nuts—one the philosopher, the other the artist. Yet, to both cooking is away of life as well as a livelihood. Dining at either The Texan or Foulard’s Media is an experience well worth the trip.
Foulard’s The Media
3901 Westheimer, Houston
Luncheon: Monday- Friday, 11:30 A.M.-2 P.M.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, beginning at 6 P.M.
All major credit cards except Carte Blanche.
3204 South College Avenue, Bryan
Dinner: Monday-Saturday, 5 P.M.-Midnight
All major credit cards.