Etoile: classics with a certain je ne sais quoi
When our waiter described the night’s special as salmon in beurre blanc, a typical and often unexceptional mainstay of French cuisine, I had my misgivings. It seemed like a waste of a special to add such a common dish to a menu that already contained escargots, foie gras, coq au vin and beef au poivre, to name only a few of Etoile Cuisine’s most traditional plates. But while Etoile specializes in the most common of French dishes, chef Philippe Verpiand’s meticulous preparations make the food uncommonly good. The coq au vin, often boiled into oblivion by less savvy chefs, is simmered to a succulent tenderness and served with enoki mushrooms, which lend the dish a lighter feel than the usual cast of cremini and portobellos. Even the profiteroles are freshly baked and delicate, a testament to Verpiand’s attention to detail.
A look at Etoile’s past shows its success is no accident. Though it may be Verpiand’s first venture in Houston, his history includes graduating top of his class at the Avignon Culinary Institute, multiple stints at Michelin-starred restaurants around France and running the acclaimed Cavaillon Restaurant in San Diego, California until a year before its close. Verpiand’s wife, Monica Bui, handles front-of-the-house operations, maintaining a charming atmosphere in the rustic Uptown Park location and a wait staff that is astute and attentive without being overbearing.
The entrees range from solid and ordinary to superb displays of French cuisine, with the occasional misfire. The Saint-Jacques scallops are paired awkwardly with beef ravioli and brussel sprouts. The flavors definitely clash, but the handmade beef raviolis, tossed with truffle oil and cabernet syrup, are so good that it’s hard to consider the dish a complete failure. Other classics of French cuisine like the lemon sole and duck magret are executed with clinical excellence. The sole is well cooked and served with a medley of peas, potatoes, roast cauliflower and slivered almonds that almost outshine the fish. The duck holds a perfect balance of warm, well-cooked meat to crispy fried skin. The meat’s savory flavors are matched with an incredible mousseline of butternut squash, enoki mushrooms and pomegranate seeds. The additional option to order any entree with pan-fried foie gras for only $12 contributes to the richness of an experience that suggests that even though the food isn’t cheap, Etoile doesn’t overcharge by a dime.
The hors d’oeuvres match the entrees in tradition and quality. Among the more familiar dishes, the lobster bisque is a standout, boasting a thick creamy broth that doesn’t skimp on the lobster and nuanced flavors of tomato and tarragon. The Serrano ham tart is also highly recommended. The ham is served draped over arugula, warm figs and caramelized onions, held in a flaky crust and tossed with an impressively subtle mixture of garlic, red wine and truffle honey vinaigrette.
The wine list is well balanced, with a good selection of new- and old-world-style bottles and exceptional Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Burgundy and Bordeaux available by the glass. Even the desserts impress. The praline crepe souffle lives up to its name, managing to be three desserts at once: a warm, eggy souffle, folded in the shape of a crepe and crusted with a thin layer of praline smothered in hazelnut anglaise. The oft-overlooked cheese plate is a must try for any cheese connoisseur. The plate complements a creamy brie, pleasantly nutty petite basque, pungent blue, and tart goat cheese with dates, walnuts and wonderful black cherry jam.
It’s clear Verpiand has a good thing going with Etoile, and with his remarkable consistency, the quality won’t be going anywhere. Anyone looking to celebrate a special occasion or simply craving spectacular French cooking in the Galleria or Uptown area should consider Etoile a must-visit.
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