A New Wave of French Restaurants Hits Houston
When cuisines of other cultures have their trendy moments in the U.S., they’re apt to get stuck there. We still eat the same California rolls and teriyaki we enjoyed during their vogue back in the 1960s, the same pad Thai and coconut-milk curries that peaked in the ’90s. And Russian cuisine, by and large, still lives in the 1920s, when the opening of New York’s Russian Tea Room brought about a post-Romanov trend.
But few international traditions suffer as intensely from this syndrome as French food. While it experienced a lighter, brighter second wind in the ’80s thanks to a nouvelle vague of chefs like Guy Savoy, most French fare in the United States still owes more to Julia Child and James Beard than the modern dishes currently being cooked in France.
Thankfully, though, Houston is not all Bourguignons and cassoulets. In the final months of last year, two singular French concepts debuted in Space City. In September, young, Nice-trained Sidney Degaine and his Brazilian wife and front-of-house manager, Maria, opened Café Azur, a modern take on Southern French coastal cuisine, in the Montrose space that formerly belonged to the far more traditional Brasserie Max & Julie. In July, Rise nº2 debuted on Post Oak, a sequel to Dallas’s nº1, a restaurant built almost entirely on soufflés, both classic and highly unconventional.
In a heretofore unseen fusion of Gallic and Houstonian design, that green stuff on the patio floor at Café Azur is AstroTurf surrounded by bushes imported from France, which simulates the sense of dining in a pastoral setting, as long as you don’t look down too closely. Inside, there’s an all-white dining room brightened by dashes of azure, overseen by a young, pre-activist, black-and-white Brigitte Bardot, staring languorously from a mural.
When Degaine opened the place, his goal was to serve only modern, Mediterranean French fare, but demand from former Max & Julie regulars quickly prompted the addition of some bistro classics. The bad news is that the too-finely chopped cylinder of steak tartare—one of those hastily tacked-on classics—reminded me both visually and texturally of mustard-spiked Alpo with a caper berry on top. The good news? Pretty much everything else.
Degaine reaches his greatest heights when he’s indulging his creative side. Among the appetizers, the standouts are as delightful in their theatricality as they are in their intense flavor. The Perfect Egg was cooked for 45 minutes at 150 degrees and served in something that resembled a fishbowl as painted by Picasso. The albumen melted in white-on-white ecstasy with a buttery, truffled mash so light it epitomized its description as “potato foam.” Beech mushrooms and salty shaved Parmesan intensified the umami impact. Eating it with an audience felt almost obscene.
Umami is also the guiding force of the foie gras taco, whose crisped strands of duck confit mixed with mushroom sauce and sweet-and-sour apricot preserves impart a compelling complexity. Another superlative starter, the lighter branzino carpaccio, dyed pink with bittersweet blood orange, crunched with breadcrumbs and shaved fennel. And the fried sections of artichoke anchored by lemon-flavored ricotta should have come with a warning: Don’t get them if you’re concerned about filling up before the main course arrives. Even after my dining partner and I had used up the provided crostini, we continued to dab at the cheese with the bread basket’s toasted squares, sourced from West Houston’s famous French outpost, Le Mistral.
Bouillabaisse seems like a natural star at a Southern French restaurant, but while chubby mussels, tender shrimp, beautifully seared scallops and flaky cod were in fine fettle in their fennel-spiked tomato broth, Degaine’s personality is better glimpsed in other dishes. His most indulgent plates are often his best, despite Southern France’s reputation for lighter fare.
Witness his tendency toward perfectionism in the pasta, particularly the fine, nearly translucent fettuccine cooked to a toothsome al dente, then bathed in lip-sticking ox-cheek-red-wine ragout. Appreciate his ingenuity with an update on the classic filet Rossini, which layers seared-crisp beef with almost-liquid foie gras and surrounds it with islands of mashed potatoes plated atop dark truffle sauce like savory îles flottantes—but don’t stop there.
The showmanship of those first courses returns at dessert, as Degaine whips up ice cream tableside using liquid nitrogen. Watch as, in a puff of smoke, the chef transforms a brown slurry into chocolate-orange ice cream. Or joyfully smash into a bombe of chocolate mousse covered in patent-leather-shiny ganache dusted in curry powder and fleur de sel, foreshadowing the curry-scented génoise that serves as the dessert’s spongy base.
This mighty mousse is ideally paired with a Winter Manhattan flavored with chestnut and chocolate bitters. Order the tipple, too, to help temper the excessive sweetness of the otherwise wondrous pistachio mousse, which looks like The Very Hungry Caterpillar reimagined as dessert—Day-Glo green, segmented, and punctuated by a single boozy cherry in each of its three round sections. The plate is finished with a smear of bruléed meringue, for a bit of garnish.
At Rise nº2, whipped egg whites are more than garnish: They’re lunch, dinner and dessert. This makes for a clever 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 air. In fact, this concept may qualify for some sort of special Nobel prize.
A more cynical realization may dawn amid the Anthropologie-esque dining room décor: The place is as much product showroom as it is a restaurant. Here, diners can purchase any of the torchons (tea towels) used as napkins—woven on 18th-century French looms, one server told me—as well as the guillotine-esque contraptions used to slice freshly baked rolls, or the Rise cookbook, at the hostess stand. This would be an appalling idea, the elegant culinary equivalent of a tourist trap, if the cuisine weren’t so well-executed.
In three visits, no soufflé passed my lips that was anything but airy, moist and flavorful. Most restaurants get one or two of these assets right when serving soufflés; a small handful attain all three, but typically with less reliability than Rise delivers.
That said, it’s the classics the restaurant does best. Among these, the indulgent jambon et Gruyère soufflé, which resembled a fluffy, fanciful quiche Lorraine, was the most successful savory bite. The non-traditional soufflés, meanwhile, are a mixed bag. A duck à l’orange soufflé, woven evenly with shreds of canard and just a hint of citrus, was excellent, conjuring Paris’s La Tour d’Argent’s famous dish if it were consumed on a cloud. But the Southwest chicken, which contained no chicken, was covered in salsa verde that tasted oddly metallic mixed with the amiably floppy, peppery soufflé.
My bread pudding dessert soufflé similarly produced only two chunks of bread, but a pleasant nutmeg flavor. It’s a far better choice to stick to raspberry, which tasted like warm berries eaten straight from the patch and further benefits from a pour of lavender-hued berry cream on top; the rich chocolate version with sticky, barely sweet, dark chocolate sauce; or the equally excellent iteration that adds refreshing mint to the mix.
There is, in fact, little reason to eat anything but soufflé at Rise, with the exception of a similarly airy marshmallow soup. The steamed artichoke we tried was spread with citrus butter on only a couple of leaves, completely plain elsewhere. The classic ham sandwich wasn’t any more exciting than it would be at any other French spot with good bread, except for a pleasant side salad topped with matchsticks of apple.
But that soup was a pleasure. The tomato-carrot bisque was spiked with enough black pepper to keep things interesting, but its raison d’être was a pair of petite goat cheese soufflés shaped to resemble toasted marshmallows.
If the recipe were in the cookbook sold out front, I’d buy it.