A new wave of French restaurants is coming to Houston
When the cuisines of other cultures have their moments plugged in in the United States, they are likely to get stuck there. We still eat the same California rolls and teriyaki that we enjoyed when they were popular in the 1960s, the same Pad Thai and coconut milk curries that peaked in the 90s. And Russian cuisine, overall. , still lives in the 1920s, when the opening of New York’s Russian Tea Room sparked a post-Romanov trend.
But few international traditions suffer from this syndrome as intensely as French cuisine. While it experienced a lighter and brighter second wind in the 80s thanks to a new wave by chefs like Guy Savoy, most French dishes in the United States owe even more to Julia Child and James Beard than the modern dishes currently being cooked in France.
Fortunately, however, Houston is not all about Burgundies and cassoulets. In the last few months of last year, two unique French concepts made their debut at Space City. In September, young Nice-trained Sidney Degaine and his Brazilian wife and front desk manager Maria opened Café Azur, a modern take on southern French coastal cuisine, in the Montrose space that once belonged to the much more traditional Brasserie. Max and Julie. In July, Rise # 2 debuted on Post Oak, a sequel to Dallas # 1, a restaurant built almost entirely on soufflés, both classic and very unconventional.
In an unprecedented fusion of Gallic and Houstonian design, that green substance on the patio floor of Café Azur is AstroTurf surrounded by bushes imported from France, which simulates the meaning of dining in a bucolic setting, as long as you don’t look in down too close. Inside, there’s an all-white dining room enlivened by touches of azure, supervised by a young Brigitte Bardot in black and white, pre-activist, gazing languidly at a mural.
When Degaine opened the venue, his aim was to serve only modern French and Mediterranean dishes, but demand from former Max & Julie regulars quickly prompted the addition of a few bistro classics. The bad news is that the too finely chopped steak tartare cylinder – one of those hastily glued classics – reminded me both visually and verbally of the Mustard Alpo with a caper berry on top. The good news? Pretty much everything else.
Degaine reaches his greatest heights when he indulges his creative side. Among the appetizers, the stars are as delicious in their theatricality as in their intense flavor. The perfect egg was baked for 45 minutes at 150 degrees and served in something that looked like a fishbowl painted by Picasso. The albumin melted in white-on-white ecstasy with a buttered and truffled mash so light it embodied its description of “potato mousse.” Beech mushrooms and salted Parmesan shavings intensified the impact of umami. Eating it with an audience was almost obscene.
Umami is also the spearhead of the foie gras taco, whose crispy strands of duck confit mixed with a mushroom sauce and bittersweet apricot jams impart an irresistible complexity. Another superlative starter is the lighter carpaccio branzino, dyed pink with bittersweet blood orange, crunched with breadcrumbs and fennel shavings. And the fried artichoke slices anchored in lemon ricotta should have come with a warning: don’t take them if you’re afraid of refueling before the main course arrives. Even after my partner and I used the crostini provided, we continued to dab the cheese with the toasted squares from the bread basket, sourced from West Houston’s famous French outpost, Le Mistral.
Bouillabaisse appears to be a natural star at a restaurant in the south of France, but while the chubby mussels, tender shrimp, beautifully seared scallops, and flaky cod were in great shape in their fennel-tomato broth, the personality of Degaine is best seen in other dishes. Its most gourmet dishes are often the best, despite the reputation of the south of France for lighter dishes.
Witness its tendency to perfectionism in pasta, especially the thin and almost translucent fettuccine cooked al dente, then bathed in a stew of beef cheeks and red wine that sticks to the lips. Appreciate its ingenuity with an update on the classic Rossini tenderloin, which layers pan-seared crispy beef with almost runny foie gras and surrounds it with islets of mashed potatoes plated over a black truffle-like sauce. savory floating islands– but don’t stop there.
The sense of spectacle of these first courses returns to the dessert, while Degaine prepares ice cream at the table using liquid nitrogen. Watch as, in a puff of smoke, the chef turns brown porridge into chocolate-orange ice cream. Or happily crush in a bomb of chocolate mousse covered with a glazed-shiny ganache sprinkled with curry powder and fleur de sel, prefiguring the curry scent génoise which serves as a spongy base for dessert.
This powerful mousse is ideally combined with a Winter Manhattan flavored with bitter chestnuts and chocolate. Also order the drink to help temper the excessive sweetness of the wonderful pistachio mousse, which looks like The hungry caterpillar redesigned for dessert: Day-Glo green, segmented and punctuated with a single sprinkled cherry in each of its three round sections. The plate is finished with a layer of burnt meringue, for a little garnish.
Up nº2, beaten egg whites are more than a garnish: they are lunch, dinner and dessert. This makes for a smart formula, especially for those watching their waistlines in the New Year: diners can indulge in two courses for potentially less than 600 calories, as the dishes are mostly airy. In fact, this concept qualifies for a sort of special Nobel Prize.
A more cynical awareness may arise amid the dining room decor at Anthropologie: the place is as much a product showroom as it is a restaurant. Here, diners can purchase one of the tea towels (tea towels) used as napkins – woven on 18th-century French looms, one waiter told me – as well as the guillotine-esque contraptions used to slice freshly baked buns, or the Rise cookbook, on the hostess stand. It would be a dreadful idea, the elegant culinary equivalent of a tourist trap, if the cooking weren’t so well executed.
In three visits, no souffle passed my lips which were anything but airy, moist and tasty. Most restaurants get one or two of these perks when serving soufflés; a small handful achieves all three, but generally with less reliability than Rise offers.
That said, these are the classics that the restaurant does best. Among these, the indulgent ham and gruyere the soufflé, which resembled a chewy and fancy quiche Lorraine, was the most successful savory bite. Non-traditional soufflés, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. An orange duck soufflé, woven evenly from shreds of duck and just a hint of citrus, was excellent, reminiscent of Paris’s famous La Tour d’Argent dish if eaten on a cloud. But the southwest chicken, which didn’t contain any chicken, was topped with salsa verde which tasted weirdly metallic mixed with the pleasantly supple and peppery soufflé.
My bread pudding dessert soufflé only produced two pieces of bread the same way, but a nice nutmeg flavor. It’s a much better choice to stick with the raspberry, which tasted like warm berries eaten straight from the patch and additionally benefits from a lavender-hued berry cream drizzle on top; the chocolate-rich version with a sticky, barely sweet, dark chocolate sauce; or the equally excellent iteration that adds some refreshing mint to the mix.
There is, in fact, little reason to eat anything corn soufflé to Rise, except for an equally airy marshmallow soup. The steamed artichoke we tried was spread with citrus butter on just a few leaves, completely plain elsewhere. The classic ham sandwich was no more exciting than it would be in any other French place with good bread, except for a nice side salad topped with apple matches.
But this soup was a pleasure. The tomato-carrot bisque was fortified with enough black pepper to keep things interesting, but its purpose was a pair of small goat cheese soufflés shaped like toasted marshmallows.
If the recipe was in the cookbook out of stock, I would buy it.