Houston is home to many excellent French restaurants. But compared to other large cities, our bistro-heavy leanings dwell in an era somewhere between the fall of nouvelle cuisine and the modern, Joël Robuchon-influenced cooking that arose from its ashes. The Parisian-style steak-frites and croques madames of the world are also far more common in Houston than the lighter dishes of the French Riviera. Café Azur, which opened last month in the Montrose space formerly occupied by Brasserie Max & Julie, bucks both of those trends by serving youthful, creative takes on the flavors of chef co-owner (with wife, Maria), Sidney Degaine's native Côte d'Azur.
Max & Julie devotees have demanded a few throwbacks (including a version of steak-frites), but on the whole, Café Azur's bill of fare bears little resemblance to other French menus in town. Perhaps the best example is the Perfect Egg or, as Maria Degaine introduces it, l'oeuf parfait, which sounds far more elegant but also suggests the confectionary pile of ingredients.
Served in something like a fishbowl with an angled opening, the dish's centerpiece is a single egg cooked for 45 minutes at 65 degrees Celsius (149 Fahrenheit). The albumen surrounding the creamy yolk melts with little disparity into a bath of buttery potato foam. Chanterelles lend a smoky edge that could almost sub for bacon, while Parmesan shavings bring a tantalizing smack of salt.
But not everything on the menu will confuse your grandmother. The ox cheek fettuccine arrives at the table with a whiff of beef tallow, (my aphrodisiac of choice. TMI?) and strands of pasta so thin it's an engineering feat that they don't tear as they thread around a fork. The beefy ecstasy is serious stuff—between bites, my lips were literally sealed by the sticky collagen cooked down from the tender chunks of cheek. Want an upscale take on a Lord of the Flies moment? This is it.
Duck confit, which by definition is fatty meat that cooks in more of its own fat, isn't usually a sprightly dish. Degaine finds a way, with swirls of apple-vanilla purée and orange sauce with crisp-jacketed, herbed potatoes sautéed until their insides melt.
But Degaine's forward thinking cuisine is best represented by his desserts. The four items are listed on the menu only by their main ingredients: pistachio, chocolate, lemon and NO2—as in nitrogen dioxide.
Yep, the chef is happy to whip up some ice cream tableside using liquid nitrogen. But his other desserts make that seem downright quotidian. There's a gleaming bombe of chocolate mousse with Bourbon cream sitting atop a layer of curry genoise. The patent leather shine of the ganache surrounding it is only marred by more curry and shreds of fleur de sel.
The Day Glo pistachio dessert looks as much like a giant caterpillar as a mousse. A thin slice of pistachio-almond dacquoise serves as a base for intensely flavored (and intensely fluffy) pistachio mousse. Each of the three segments hides a cherry that bursts with fruity liqueur. On the side, a bit of toasted meringue adds texture.
For now, diners can sample Degaine's cuisine at dinner either inside beneath a wall-sized photo of a Gainsbourg-era Brigitte Bardot or on a turf-covered patios upstairs and downstairs. Café Azur will add brunch the weekend of October 22. Lunch isn't yet on the schedule, but once guests taste what's now going on at 4315 Montrose Blvd., demand will likely arise.