Sunday, August 22, 2010

Out with the old . .

French restaurant brings to mind dishes I can’t pronounce, snooty chefs, and rude wait staff. Recently SoVino at 507 Westheimer changed its name to Café Moustache and advertised that it was now a French restaurant. My knowledge of French Cuisine was limited to what Julia Child brought me every week on Channel 8 locally. I’d had snippets or bastardizations of French food in the past, but now I wanted to try the real thing.
Walking into the restaurant I had an idea that this might be out of my comfort zone, but I was wrong. The dim lighting, the cavernous dining room, the candles on the table were all familiar to me. There was a barbecue joint like this back home in Texas City, but the food was a little more down scale than this. A server wanted to sit me at a table, but after my last dining experience, I didn’t want to be seated at a table in some forgotten corner of the dining room. Instead I chose to sit at the bar.
I’ve found that when dining by myself, there’s no in between in service. I either get really great prompt service, or I get ignored. Tonight it was the former. Monday night was slow at the restaurant. Maybe one or two other tables in the whole place were busy, and I didn’t see the need to burden the one server with one more table. I was brought the dinner menu, the wine list, and the special menu.
It was explained to me by my server that I could get three courses for $35, and I had three options per course. The bonus here was that a portion of that money would go toward the Houston Food Bank. I remember an Italian restaurant back home had escargot on the menu, but it was never available, and that’s what I chose as my first course.
For my second course, there was chicken Provencal – been there done that – trout – no thanks. My eyes went straight for the duck with cabernet cherries in port wine demi glace . I chose that as my second course. Crème Brule I’d had once before, so I went for the chocolate instead. I figured that since I was in a French restaurant, I should at least try some wine, but I was confused as to what I should order.
My server suggested the wine flights. What it amounted to was three different wines to compliment each course. She suggested reds, and that’s what I went with. Each wine paired perfectly with each course. The escargot reminded me texturally of mushrooms, the butter decadent, and I had to soak some up with my baguette. I had to restrain myself from just taking the sauce and pouring it out all over the bread.
With the escargot out of the way, I could cleanse my pallet with bread and water. The same routine was repeated with my second course. I was poured my wine, and a matter of minutes later, I received the main course. With the dish came mushroom risotto and vegetables, but they were an afterthought.
Duck I’d never tried, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was fatty, the sauce out of this world. I’d never had anything this rich in my life and I couldn’t get enough. I ignored my side dishes until I couldn’t stand it anymore. The mushroom risotto was perfect, and the vegetables weren’t overdone. For once I actually got fresh vegetables and not the frozen reheated kind served in most restaurants. I felt like I’d truly spoiled myself this time.
I savored each bite, fought with some of the tougher parts of the duck, but it was all worth it in the end. The merlot was strong, but the pairing didn’t overpower the flavor of the port wine demi glace or the cabernet cherries. With mushroom risotto and the vegetables, the flavor was a little off putting, but easy to overlook.
I’d ordered dessert not sure what chocolat por de crème was. All I knew is it had chocolate in it, which is my drug. I’d had chocolate in many different forms before, but I wasn’t sure what I’d gotten myself into until my dish came out to me. I saw sliced strawberries, crème fresh, and underneath was the chocolate. For a minute I was apprehensive, but then I dug right in.
All these sensations came rushing to me all at once. There was the strawberries for one. They were tart and sweet all at once. Then the crème, and finally the chocolate. It was so rich I thought I’d pass out. The wine that went with this course was mild and light so that it didn’t overwhelm the flavor of the dish. For a moment I felt the urge to do something childish like wipe the dish out with my finger and lick it off, but again I held back. This was after all, a fine dining restaurant.
I felt a little light headed. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was the rush of all these new flavors to the brain. Either way I nearly food comatose, and I hadn’t even seen the bill yet. In fact I didn’t care how much it cost this time. I got my money’s worth for a change. No reheated frozen ingredients here. Everything was fresh and tasteful. The atmosphere was an added bonus, but the lighting was almost too dim for me to read my menu at one point.
I had to take a moment and drink some more water to make sure I could walk again after this meal. If I ever travel to France, I hope my experience will be similar to the one I had at Moustache. I did look over the menu and I was intrigued by the hamburger as one of the offerings. If I do go back, it’ll be at the top of my must try list.
As I step back out onto the street, I look around and see more opportunities for another fine dining experience. Of course, that’ll be sometime down the road. Hopefully these restaurants will be around once I have the money again. I see Japanese, Indian, and pizza just within a one block radius of Moustache.
As I walk along lower Westheimer, the neon from Katz’s Deli and the Ruggles Restaurant light up the street. Within the next couple of years, there’s talk of a sushi restaurant going into the former Felix Mexican Restaurant, a Spanish style building at Westheimer and Grant.
It’ll compete with Bibas to the east, and Aladdin to the west. Further up the road, the former Tower Theater and most recently Hollywood Video, is a planned Tex Mex restaurant. It’ll be a venture of former Houston Press restaurant critic Robb Walsh. Just two more places I’ll have to try if and when they do come to fruition.
These are uncertain times economically speaking, and I’m not pessimistic as much as I am realistic. La Strada, a long-time Montrose staple at Taft and Westheimer, shuttered and sat empty for months until restaurateur Tony Vallone took it over. Recently it reopened as Caffe Bello and generating all sorts of buzz. Not so much because it’s Vallone, but because he’s set up shop down the road from three of his former protégés. I imagine for Vallone it’s a chance to start over again after selling off some of his restaurants to Tillman Fertitta of Landry’s.
Houston is a constant work in progress from its neighborhoods to its roads right down to its restaurant scene. Moustache is an example of that. One concept didn’t work, so instead of shuttering, they shifted gears. It remains to be seen how the new concept will work out, but judging from the amount of cars in the lot on weekends, it appears to still be popular. My hope is that these restaurants down lower Westheimer will hold on long enough for me to try them at least once maybe twice even.

Foraging for Food 7/29/2010

I am restless once again in the asphalt jungle. Summer is in full swing and it’s hotter than – well, it’s hot. The weekly routine of lunch at the local fast food restaurant has grown tiresome. I want something more, something that doesn’t come on a plastic tray in a paper wrapper. Something that would fill me up, but also something that wouldn’t cost a lot of money either.
Each day I ride by or walk by dozens of local eateries down on lower Westheimer. I’ve watched them come and go, and I felt like now was the time to give it a try. The reason I wanted to try it is because Washington Avenue in the Heights has transformed from a run-down string of dives, used car lots, and abandoned buildings into the trendy place to be. The plague of townhouses that sprouted up around the corridor has now spawned a big box apocalypse of sorts.
First Target opened in the Heights, then Kroger expanded its South Shepherd location to accommodate the newcomers. Now HEB threatens to encroach on the Montrose, and Wal-Mart looms on the horizon. In spite of efforts to push them back, them and even Whole Foods want to cash in on the trend while they still can.
When I moved to Montrose the first time over ten years ago, the neighborhood was in transition. Gone were the discos and the gay bars, and eventually even Mary’s Lounge faded into the collective memory of the old timers. The bars and discos were replaced with strip malls and trendy restaurants. It’s a virtual United Nations along the street before reaching the crossroads at Montrose and Westheimer. There’s cuisine ranging from English to Italian, even Greek, Mediterranean and even New York. I started at Belgium.
At 106 Westheimer sits Jeanine’s Bistro. This is where my journey begins as I attempt to eat my way through the Montrose, or at least lower Westheimer. I have to admit I have my apprehensions about eating at some of these places because I worry too much about the impact it’ll have on my pocketbook. Then again I have to figure at least once a week - or even once a month – can’t do too much harm.
Most restaurants on lower Westheimer now offer lunch whereas before they were dinner and weekends only. I really had no idea what to expect walking into Jeanine’s. It sat at the end of a strip center at the confluence of Neartown, Montrose, and Midtown. I was seated immediately and brought a menu and poured a glass of water. Sometimes I walk into a restaurant and ask to see the menu before I eat, but not this time.
Instead I opened the menu and found exactly what I expected, but I was also surprised at the selection. The menu opened with soups, salads, and sandwiches – the three things I could get at almost every other chain sandwich shop. I flipped to the dinner section, and as expected, it was steep. Included were chicken, filet mignon, the usual fare. Then I flipped back to the front of the menu and stopped. There was a lunch special for $10.95. Included in the deal were soup or salad, an entrée, and a dessert.
I figured I couldn’t go wrong and asked my server about the options available My choices on this visit were a house salad or watercress soup, bacon quiche, and a caramelized apple crepe. I’d had salad for dinner the night before, so I went with the soup. For a drink I got iced tea, but there were beer and wine selections available. Maybe if I went back at dinner, I might look into the alcohol selection, but it was too hot for that when I went.
The server brought me bread and iced tea followed by the soup. It was only a cup, but it was flavorful, maybe a little too salty, but I could overlook it. There was watercress in each bite, and the bread helped in cleaning out the cup. I cleansed my palette with water and waited for the entrée. Even though it took some time, the wait was worth it.
The server brought me a generous portion layered with bacon, bell peppers, and I think cheese too. On the plate was some tomato sauce, but it proved to be more or less an afterthought. My focus was on this enormous wedge of quiche. The only time I found the tomato sauce helped was in digesting the crust. I was full, but I remembered dessert was on its way, so I stopped with the bread. Even though the crust was a little chewy, it wasn’t dried out in the center.
I had some more water, some more tea, and waited for the dessert. By this point I salivated at the thought of that caramelized apple crepe. When it arrived at my table, it was smaller than I expected, but the right portion for this meal. Where most places would drown the desert with vanilla ice cream, this was served with just a dollop. It didn’t overpower the dish, and it melted nicely into the butter, cinnamon, and crepe.
I even scooped the juices off the plate with my iced tea spoon rather than pouring it down my gullet. Some of it was stuck to the plate, and I wanted to get at it badly, but decided against it. I calculated the bill in my head to be around twelve bucks, which was close. With the tip, tax and drink, the final bill came out to $15.86.
I walked out feeling like I’d robbed the bank because it was so much for so little. On my way out, I had to avoid getting run over because of people trying to back out of the tiny parking lot. The only other gripe I had about the place was accessibility from the street even though I had no problem getting there on foot.
If you’re driving up Westheimer, it isn’t like you can pull into the parking lot from that part of the street. The other thing is it takes some turns around the block to get to Jeanine’s from Bagby because it is one way outbound. Going eastbound on Westheimer, swing a left at Brazos, make a left onto Tuam, and then a left onto Bagby and the shopping center’s on the right. Another way to get there would be to hang a left at Taft, a right at Avondale, and then a right at Bagby.
Jeanine’s is open from 11am to 3pm for lunch, and then from 5pm to 11pm for dinner during the week. On weekends it’s a half hour later for lunch and dinner. The atmosphere was nice with pop music in French playing softly on the sound system. I went around 1pm on a Thursday afternoon and there were only a hand full of diners, so finding a table shouldn’t be that much of a problem.
After my experience at Jeanine’s, I’m not as apprehensive about dining out at some of the nicer restaurants. My only dilemma is where I should eat next. There’s a couple of places left for me to explore, but Westheimer is a long street, and stretches west to Highway 6. I think for now I’ll stick to this end of Westheimer, and look into those places I’ve overlooked in the past.