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Roasted duck with orange gastrique; photography by Debora Smail
A Star Is Bornby John DeMers | Houston magazine | January 29, 2013
The accents I hear are familiar as I step into the dining room of rustic wood and stone on this chilly night, having passed through windswept tables on the patio into a zone that all but announces with hand-lettered signs, “French Spoken Here.”
Indeed, I recognize several waiters, if not always by name, from the wandering bands of French-born servers who help launch each new eatery that celebrates their homeland in this foreign country known as Houston.Etoile Cuisine et Bar is the heartfelt effort of a French chef with more than a dozen successful years in San Diego at giving Texas the unpretentious, affordable and authentic French restaurant it has been dreaming of. The best of France comes to Houston. Its name—etoile means star in French—hints at this, as in Lone Star.
“What we had in mind was a not very big place,” offers chef-owner Philippe Verpiand between heavily accented utterings at a table with his American-born wife Monica Bui. “We wanted someplace where people could feel comfortable. About the food and the room.”
Verpiand brushes his hand across two renditions of foie gras—one with a side of fresh-baked brioche and the other alongside a Basque-style calamari stew. “I’ve been in this country 13 years now,” he says. “And even in that time, I see a big difference in what Americans want in a French restaurant.”
Before Etoile opened in October, it was Bui’s job to create a space that would make visitors forget generations of French cuisine being considered pretentious, fattening and expensive—a negative perception that, interestingly, is the opposite of what she and many other Americans experience in actual visits to France. Having sold their two restaurants in southern California and committed to the good life with their young children in Texas, the couple wanted to build in a warm welcome for Texans.
There’s one large, open dining room in front, with a sleek white bar along one side and a long, comfortable sofa backed with sky-blue cushions on the other, and then a smaller dining room beyond that. That back space is most notable for the five wooden triangles hanging from the ceiling, forming the points of a star around a blue circle. Both rooms exude comfort more like that of a nice home than a business, between the stone that Texans associate with the Hill Country and the new wood paneling that’s been painted, torched and finally sanded to look quite old. It’s so thoroughly well-worn that even white tablecloths can’t make Etoile seem too fancy.
The menu and wine list delivered by our waiter (“Didn’t you used to work at Philippe? Or was it Brasserie Max and Julie?”) are bound in stiff, wood-grained covers that translate the surroundings into something we hold in our hands. Inside, everything that’s best about the French kitchen awaits. The left side titled “La Tradition” offers standards of the national, or in a few cases regional, repertoire, while the right side, “La Saison,” lets the chef play with seasonal items—and also nod to his roots in the Provençal village of Cavaillon.
I suggest you start with La Tradition. It will show you immediately how much we’ve had to settle in the past for listless assaults of cream and butter when presented with la cuisine classique. All the must-haves are here at Etoile, done right for a change, from the bubbly escargots bourguignonne awash in garlic and fresh herbs to the lush lobster bisque finished with brandy, and onward to moules (mussels) done either as traditional mariniere in white wine and cream or sporting a touch of Spain just across the Pyrenees, with chorizo, leeks, and the Basque mountain pepper called espelette.
In these cooler months, you might also venture across to the right side of the menu, where dishes as terrific as foie gras Poele await. If you’re on record as not liking foie gras, this creamy mousseline of duck liver, caramelized apple and port wine syrup is likely to prove your starter drug. So might the salad of warm goat cheese with sliced almond, beets, pickled shallots and a peppery pile of arugula—and that’s even if you’re on record as not liking goat cheese.
For main courses—yes, in lieu of today’s “small plate” fetish, Etoile has a traditional menu leading to a plat principal—either page serves up wonders. From the traditional side, classics like coquilles Saint-Jacques Provencale, coq au vin and steak frites are easy to love, but my favorite is the excellent cassoulet in the style of Toulouse. Arguably the ultimate warmer-upper in all of France, this duck stew also has slow-cooked pork, sausage and white beans. It’s as terrific and soothing as I remember it being in my fifth-floor boarding house in Paris, more than four decades ago!
Etoile’s seasonal menu is rife with new favorites, including a mushroom risotto, and the au courant braised beef short ribs. For all that, I find the true drama of Etoile in its magret de canard a l’orange—yes, the same duck a l’orange trotted out overcooked with some tired citrus sauce throughout the long history of French food in America. This time, though—oh, this time—the duck breast is gracefully sliced medium rare and served with a bright orange mousseline of butternut squash, a thatch of forest mushrooms, and actual segments of orange in a sauce spiked unexpectedly with hints of Asia.
Desserts are a kind of French-American conversation—or maybe a debate—with the French tradition of not-so-sweet and not-so-large finding common ground with a more, well, Texas, approach. My favorites so far include the dark chocolate pastilla (a nod to the French colonial adventure in Morocco, where pastries probably started out French anyway) with raspberry coulis and sorbet.
And then there’s the tarte fine aux pommes. Light-years removed from the all-American apple pie it must have inspired, and lighter than the time-honored French tatin, this beauty is thin and crisp and rich in apple flavor, served warm beneath vanilla ice cream (“a la mode,” the menu puts in quotes, as though the phrase hadn’t been French before it entered our vocabulary). The caramel sauce is quite sweet, but it gets a French-style sense of balance from a sprinkle of fleur de sel.
We are living, Etoile seems to be telling us as we sip the last of our Gigondas with the last of our dessert, in a new golden age of French cuisine in America. In Houston, no less. And this time, goes the underlying promise of chefs like Philippe Verpiand, it’s going to be the food everybody eats back home in France, without big wallets, tuxedos or bad attitudes.
Etoile Cuisine Et Bar
1101-11 Uptown Park Blvd.
Lunch 11am-3pm daily; dinner 5-10pm Sunday-Thursday and 5-11pm Friday-Saturday
Main Courses $18-$34;
Chef-owner Philippe Verpiand takes a “down-home” approach to French cuisine classique, crafting new dishes with local, seasonal ingredients while also giving fresh life to beloved oldies.
Uptown Park offers ample self-parking in the lot, even if not always close to the entrance.
Etoile’s efforts at being unpretentious are answered by a come-as-you-are attitude among diners. A few jackets here and there, but jeans are de rigueur.
On the Grapevine
Sticking with the truism that French foods go best with French wines, the chef-owner presents a list that’s predominantly from his homeland—excellent, affordable vintages from Bordeaux and Burgundy, of course, but also with Rhone Valley discoveries from his old neighborhood.