Chez Nous

July 23, 2013 – We turned into a residential neighborhood in Humble, Texas, just a few miles northeast of Houston.  The First United Methodist Church was on the corner. We’re in southeast Texas.  Land of brisket and beer.  And anything fried.  This evening we’re looking for a fine French restaurant in a residential neighborhood.

We drove two blocks past neatly kept houses to a red building with several cars parked in front of it, more cars parked in front of the house next door, also red.  We had arrived at Chez Nous.

For the first time in many years I was with my mother, Mari, on my birthday.  She and her husband, Paul, were treating me to a birthday dinner the evening before the big day.  Knowing my love of good food, she had dutifully researched the restaurants in the area.  She found a winner.

The building had been a Pentacostal church until 1984 when Gerard Brach turned it into an exceedingly fine French restaurant.  Brach himself is French and learned his way around the kitchen in his native land.  Eventually making his way to New York he found himself in the kitchen of the Four Seasons Restaurant.  He spent the ‘70s working as a restaurant consultant but found he missed the hustle and bustle of the kitchen.  So he sold his business and, he says, just “for the fun of it” made his way to east Texas to open Chez Nous.

He was eventually joined by current Executive Chef and Texas native Stacy Crowe and her husband, Maitre d’ Scott Simonson, who became co-owners.  Stacy and Scott had met when they were both learning their trade in France.  They now live with their daughter in the house next door to the restaurant.  That explains their patience with the cars parked pretty much in their front yard.

Chef Crowe was in charge on this night.  When I visited the small but efficient kitchen later in the evening I found an attractive, all-American young woman with an infectious smile who exudes enthusiasm.  Clearly a woman who loves what she does for a living and is very good at it.

Stepping out of the hot, humid Texas evening into the quiet cool of Chez Nous, we were immediately impressed with the room.  Nicely appointed.  Comfortable.  Elegant.

Settled at our table and opening the cocktail menu I was very pleased to see the Chez Nous 75, a version of the French 75, my favorite cocktail.  Had to try it.  The Chez Nous 75 uses the traditional recipe for a French 75, making it their own by adding a touch of peach liqueur and a dash of Grand Marnier.  It’s refreshingly peachy.  Delicious.  I ordered another.

But my eyes really lit up when I saw the foie gras on the menu.  Served with caramelized apple, berries, and a honey vinegar gastrique, it was smooth and creamy.  So pleasing to the palate.  Just made me want to close my eyes to focus more on the delicate flavor.

I ordered rack of lamb for an entrée.  The ribs were sliced at table by Rebecca, who arranged the small marvels in a beautiful circular presentation, accompanied by a side dish of mashed potatoes, a packet of haricot vert and a mélange of yellow squash and zucchini.  While the ribs were closer to medium than to the rare I prefer, they were tender and tasty.

Since it was so close to my birthday, I thought I deserved a chocolate soufflé and had so advised the kitchen earlier.  It came personalized with a birthday greeting, in French, of course.  Light and delicate as a soufflé should be.  A quick slice through the top by our waiter to add a bit of crème anglaise.  The word ambrosial comes to mind.  The perfect ending to a celebratory meal.

Fine French food in east Texas.  It was my day.  Or close to it.  Happy Birthday to me!

The Monocle

July 15, 2013 – “I live by my principles and one of my principles is flexibility.”   That phrase from another  time is written in gilt on a white-painted beam at the Monocle in Washington, D.C.

It was Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois who is credited with saying it.  Or something very close to it.  In his lifetime Dirksen was thought by some to be a bit of a clown, and he was extraordinarily witty.  With a voice like a foghorn and prone to hyperbole and dramatic oratory, he was a star performer on the political stage.  But he was also one of the finest legislative operatives who ever strode the halls of Congress.  As the Senate Minority Leader from 1959 until his death ten years later, he had much to do with every piece of major legislation that passed into law in the ‘60s.

Much of the legislation of that tumultuous decade, and of every decade since, has been discussed in the bar, the main dining room and the upstairs private rooms of the Monocle.  Only steps away from the Hart, Dirksen and Russell Senate Office Buildings, the Monocle is the premier dining destination on Capitol Hill.  Its very walls are steeped in the history of the past 50 years.

Opened in 1960 by the late Connie Valanos and his wife, Helen, in a building that was erected in 1884, the Monocle is now owned by the second generation, John Valanos.  The star of the Monocle’s show, however, is Maitre d’ Nick Selimos, a master of hospitality.  I have dined there many times over the years, without a reservation more often than not, and each time Nick has found a table for me, no matter how busy the restaurant seemed to be.  Nick takes care of his guests.

And those guests run the gamut from the famous to the common.  The last time I was there I ran into a former governor of Alaska.  It’s not unusual to see the faces of the famous scattered around the room.

And on the walls, covered with pictures of men and women whose names are, or were, household names.  Names often heard on the nightly news.  The movers and shakers.  Members of Congress, including every president since Kennedy.  Joe Lieberman looked down over my right shoulder as I had lunch with a colleague on this day.  Across the room I could see Alaska’s late Senator Ted Stevens.  Everyone who is anyone, or was anyone, is on the wall at the Monocle. And everyone who is anyone, or was anyone, or wants to be someone, shows up at the Monocle.

The crab cakes make up the signature dish of the Monocle.  And they are wonderful.  Full of Maryland crab and little else.  Lightly breaded.  Delicately seasoned and sautéed to a golden brown on the outside.  Sweet and juicy on the inside.  The perfect crab cake.

The Monocle also offers calf liver with bacon and onions, one of my favorite meals.  If I don’t have crab cakes when I’m there then it’s usually the liver.  But on this day I wanted something different.  Lighter.  I ordered the tenderloin of steak salad.

Strips of tenderloin ideally charred with a truly rare center laid over a bed of mixed greens.  Slices of roasted red pepper and a slab of blue cheese added zing to the plate.  The drizzle of Balsamic vinegar contributed tart and sweet.

My colleague ordered the crab cake sandwich.  A good choice.  It meant the basket of incredible rosemary bread was all mine.

We had a memorable lunch.  We had important things to discuss.  We were at the Monocle.

Jardiniere

July 6, 2013 – “Good evening.  My name is Gordon.  Welcome to Jardiniere.”

The young man who would be tending our table was set aback when we started laughing.  At least until my wife said, “Gordon, let me introduce you to my husband, Gordon.”  Then both Gordons were laughing.  And so began an amazing evening at Jardiniere, Chef Traci Des Jardin’s flagship restaurant in San Francisco.

Des Jardin’s paternal grandfather was from Louisiana; her maternal grandparents from Mexico.  She was born into two of the world’s great food cultures and has made the most of both.   Jardiniere was opened in 1997.  It has endured for 16 years as one of a select group of restaurants that set the standards for quality in a city famous for fine dining.

The menu at Jardiniere leans toward the eclectic.  A fusion of France and California with an emphasis on ingredients that are locally available on a seasonal basis.  That includes the beehives on the restaurant’s roof that make their daily contribution to the offerings of the evening.

We had arrived a few minutes early and took seats at the bar to enjoy a before dinner cocktail.  The second cocktail on the menu was called Vieux Carre.  The third was  Alaska.  A native Louisianian who loves New Orleans but who grew up in Alaska and calls the 49th state home, my loyalties were split.

“Guess you’ll have to try them both,” my wife suggested.  She’s so wise.

I started with the Vieux Carre.  Anchored by a shot of Kentucky’s Rittenhouse rye, buoyed by a little of the craft-distilled Pierre Ferrand cognac and the Italian Carpano “Antica Formula” sweet vermouth, with a touch of both New Orleans’ own Peychaud’s and Caribbean Angostura bitters for good meaure, it is a dusky and complex cocktail.  Slightly sinful like the Vieux Carre itself.  Reminiscent of a narrow French Quarter street shining darkly in the late night rain.  I loved it.

My wife opted for the Pamplemousse Aperitivo.  Pamplemousse is French for grapefruit, hence a bit of pamplemousse liqueur, some bitter orange and rhubarb flavored Aperol, a touch of sparkling wine and a hint of grapefruit bitters for good measure. 

Having been shown to our table on the second floor of the intimate restaurant and having made the acquaintance of Gordon, I was ready for the Alaska.  The Botanical Islay dry gin, yellow chartreuse and orange bitters was a bright, light combination that put me in mind of glacial streams running under shards of ice; of the Aurora Borealis dancing through a cold November night sky; of the low winter sun reflecting off January snow.

We decided to try the seven course tasting menu.  Counting the three additional courses that the chef sent out unexpectedly and the soup of English peas, morels and pancetta overlaid by a sunny side up egg that we requested, our dinner stretched to 11 courses over four hours.  Four of the most pleasant hours either of us had ever experienced in a restaurant.

Among the highlights of the meal was the wild salmon tartare with avocado and coriander flower.  It was a life-changing experience for my wife.  Not a fan of tartare in the past, Jardiniere’s version left her feeling much more open to it in the future.

Abalone is a wonderful shellfish.  Always a taste treat.  Jardiniere’s chef laid slices of aged abalone over a small bed of tomato flavored with horseradish and celery flower.  While I would ordinarily shy away from using strong flavors like horseradish and celery flower with the subtle abalone, this was a perfect marriage.  The combination of flavors lingered on the palate for minutes after the plate was cleared away.

And we’ll long remember the small piece of A5 Wagyu beef accompanied by slices of heirloom tomato, potato puree and roasted padron peppers with a Bordelaise sauce.  It was the first time my wife had eaten Wagyu beef.  Both Gordons told her it would melt in her mouth.  She was delighted to find that we were absolutely right.  It did melt in our mouths.  And it was so deliciously rich that a small piece was satisfyingly sufficient.

Our time at Jardiniere went by quickly.  We were surprised when we realized that we had been there for four hours.  The food was over the top.  But more than that the service was incomparable.  The staff made us feel welcome.  At home.  We enjoyed their company when they stopped by the table.  Which they did often.  Not in an intrusive way.  Simply doing their jobs.  Making us feel welcome.

Gordon was thoroughly professional.  He knew the restaurant’s food.  He answered our questions, listened carefully to what we were saying and made suggestions based on what he heard.  Sommelier Jai Wilson stopped by the table just to check in with us.  His assistant Betsy took very good care of my wife, the wine connoisseur of the family, even convincing her to depart from her usual collection of preferred California chardonnays to try a glass of Provo Regia, a Portuguese white, and a red from the Bordeaux region of France.

Astonishingly good food.  A professional staff so talented as to make you feel like a welcome guest, seemingly effortlessly.  I felt like I was leaving the home of old friends.  I was tempted to say, “Next week at our house.”

My wife said it better.  “This staff rocks.”

Happy Fourth of July!

 

July 4, 2013 – I love American holidays.  Thanksgiving.  Christmas.  New Year’s Eve and Day.  And the Fourth of July.   All those wonderful memories of parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered around to celebrate family and country.  Home and history.

It was the great revolutionary and America’s second president John Adams who set the stage for celebrating the Fourth of July.  In a letter to his wife, Abigail, Adams said Americans should always celebrate what he knew was a date designating independence, a date marking the establishment of a nation and a government unique in all of history.  And he thought it should be celebrated raucously.  “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade,” he said, “with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of the Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”  Far be it from me to argue with a hero of Adams’ stature.  I’m gonna celebrate.

The Fourth of July is about the American dream.  Firing up the grill in the backyard because we have backyards and grills.  It’s about lemonade and watermelon; barbeque and burgers; ears of corn and baked beans.  It’s about music and fireworks.  It’s about being an American.  About being thankful for being an American.

My wife and I celebrated alone this year.  We came up with our own All American menu and spent the day prepping, cooking and consuming.  Enjoying each other’s company.

We wanted a cocktail to mark the occasion.  I came up with the Red, White & Blue.  It was a refreshing cocktail to sip in the heat of a July day as I tended the grill.

Red, White & Blue Cocktail

1 ½ cups lemonade                                      1 cup California dry sparkling wine

        ½  cup vodka                                                Watermelon, blueberries, blackberries

Mix the lemonade, vodka and sparkling wine in a pitcher.

Pour into a frosted glass filled with ice.

Garnish with chunks of watermelon, blueberries and blackberries.

My wife developed an All American salad to provide a cool accompaniment to the hot food coming from the grill and the oven.  Grilled corn and red onion.  Avocado and tomato.  How could it get more American?

My Wife’s Grilled Corn Salad

3 ears of fresh corn                                                         ¼ cup cilantro, chopped

2 thick slices of red onion                                                Juice of 1 lime

2 avocados, chopped                                                       2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar

20 cherry tomatoes, cut in half                                        Salt & pepper to taste

Olive oil

Brush the onion slices and corn with olive oil and lay them on the grill.  Grill until they develop a nice char but aren’t cooked through.  Remove from the grill.  When they’re cool enough to handle, cut the kernels from the corn and chop the onion.  Place them together into a large bowl.  Refrigerate for half an hour so they cool completely.

Add the avocado, tomatoes and cilantro.  Squeeze the lime juice over the mixture and add the Balsamic vinegar.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Mix well.

Terrific with the babyback ribs and  sausage from our grill, with the baked beans from our oven, and with the music and fireworks that mark the celebration.

Happy Birthday, America!