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.

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