“Rab,” like “broccoli rabe.”
“Bel” as in “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast. When said really fast or with a Texas accent, it may sometimes sound like “bo,” like “Davie Bowie.”
“Lais” as in “I’m really full from this meal so I’m going to lay down and take a nap.”
2442 Times Boulevard
Houston TX 77005
Now that you’ve had a comprehensive French lesson (from someone who never took French and barely learned Spanish, even after…um…ahem…nineyears)….
Fact: I have some pretty spectacular siblings, both of whom enjoy food and dabbling in myriad cuisines. Both of whom will also contend that Houston is highly underrated as a destination for delectable culinary fare. I will henceforth refer to them as Sister 1 (the oldest) and Sister A (the second oldest)…they are as such, because I doubt that either would appreciate being #2 or letter B. I wouldn’t. Second place is first loser!
Anyway, Sister 1 and her husband (Brother-in-Law, or BIL, #1) really enjoy Cafe Rabelais, and have been raving to me about their many exploits here for upwards of two years. Unfortunately, opportunities to travel to Houston are sparse and the duration of our trip is limited to a few days. This makes it rather onerous to squeeze in new experiences. However, we finally had our chance to try the Famed Rabelais. My kinfolk and I decided that dinner together would be an exemplary way to spend the evening, and when asked for my preference, I had a stroke of genius and suggested that that night was the night. And so, our evening at Cafe Rabelais was born.
PS – does anyone else free-associate “Rabelais” with “rabbit?” That word has always reminded me of rabbit. Upon pausing to consider this, I imagined a fuzzy, white rabbit in a chefs hat. Perhaps he is the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, who retired from his position as the Queen’s time-telling peon to become a world-famous executive chef in a French restaurant in Houston, far far away from that evil, beheading-obsessed beast of a monarch.
No? Ok then. Onto the review.
Nestled in a strip center in Rice Village, Cafe Rabelais is unassuming and easy to pass up…unless you know the wonders that await inside the charming and quaint little bistro.
Cafe Rabelais is very small, and they do not take reservations. Our dinner plans were for Friday night. Let’s review.
Small, intimate establishment + popularity among locals + Friday night around dinnertime – reservations = a risk rivaling those of Donald Trump in his early years.
We knew a wait was imminent.
Knowing this, we agreed to meet between 6 and 6:30 to avoid the dinner rush. Cafe Rabelais opens for dinner at 6 PM, and we were convinced that by being the early birds, we would get the worm…or, in this case, the escargot.
Um, negative. By the time we arrived, at 6:30, the wait was for over an hour. It didn’t help that we had such a large group consisting of the Sisters 1 and A, BIL (brothers-in-law) 1 and A, KnightlyBoyfriend and myself. HOWEVER (imagine me saying this while swinging my right arm and smiling triumphantly), this is Texas we’re talking about. In Texas, drinking in public is not only entirely acceptable and legal, but often encouraged with fervor. Enter bottle(s) of wine.
We parked it on a bench on the sidewalk, pulled up a few chairs, and got to work.
After Sister 1 sent BIL 1 after the host a few times (and after we passed around two bottles some vino), we finally made it inside. We were greeted with this beautifully inviting little scene:
See? Very small. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. The rough stone walls and concrete floor, mixed with the dim lighting, hearty wooden furniture and accents and crisp white tablecloths, creates the feeling of dining in an exclusive wine cellar…or an intimate bistro in Paris.
Flashback. Once upon a time, I was roaming the streets of Paris and I stumbled upon this incredible little alleyway, tucked between the busy, bustling city streets. This quaint little alley had a fresh produce market, cheese purveyor, wine shop, gelato stand, crepe maker and…about a half dozen tiny brasseries and bistros. After reviewing the menus carelessly scribbled on chalkboard stands outside the restaurants, I made my choice. It was one of the best meals I have ever had in my life.
Flash to present day – the interior of Cafe Rabelais distinctly reminds me of that excursion. From the quiet buzz of conversation, to the juxtaposition of colors and textures, to the chalkboard bearing the daily offerings, Cafe Rabelais has spared no detail. It was elegant and intimate and absolutely lovely.
Warning: due to the low lighting, getting a quality picture was immensely difficult. Some of the food pictures below are overexposed because the only way to capture them was to use the flash. For this, I apologize and implore you to use your imagination.
After ordering more wine (obvs), we selected our entrees from the aforementioned chalkboard.
We were greeted with a basket of freshly warmed (and absolutely delicious) sourdough bread. Unfortunately, Cafe Rabelais does not make their own bread. I asked. My French-nostalgia-balloon lost a miniscule amount of its air, but I forged ahead anyway (and ate several pieces, because it really was scrumptious). At least they know their strengths – I would rather be served bread that has been prepared off-site than eat stale or unappetizing bread.
We also drank more wine.
We stuck to this selection for the majority of the evening. All palates were pleased with its distinct berry flavor, and it had a solidly medium body that everyone enjoyed.
We ordered escargot for an appetizer. The following picture was stolen from a blogger, The Cynical Cook, because I was too busy yappin’ and drinkin’ to take my own. Oops. See his review on Cafe Rabelais here.
If you’ve never had escargot, I highly recommend it. Not only is it delicious, but it is an excellent introduction into more adventurous foods. If you can get over what you’re actually eating (snails), there is nothing unappetizing to be found. I have only eaten them from the shells once – usually, they’re completely shelled – and they have a texture similar to mussels, clams or mushrooms.
Escargot is kind of the prostitute of French appetizers. I find that French food is often so sumptuous because the flavors are so complex, carefully layered and executed to perfection. But not Escargot. They are drenched in golden, delicious butter, parsley and garlic and topped with melted cheese, and they’re meant to be eaten atop crusty, crunchy bread. Like a prostitute, escargot lay it all out in the open – what you see is what you get. They’re sinful, simple and even though you might feel a little guilty after eating all that fatty deliciousness, it doesn’t compare to the immense enjoyment you’ve received from the experience.
(For the record, I am NOT endorsing prostitution. It’s an analogy. Just go with it.)
These escargot arrived, all saucy and delectable, and we gobbled them right up. Actually, they were some of the best I’ve had. Sometimes, escargot can arrive underseasoned, but these were perfect.
For dinner, I ordered the Duck Breast au Poivre. It came with a side of roasted garlic, mashed potatoes and steamed carrots, parsnips and sprouts.
Since I have dedicated the majority of this post to raves about my sisters and France and escargot, I’ll spare you my rant on duck. It suffices to say that I think that, if Heaven were compounded from an enigmatic and infinite land, bottled, turned into a water foul and served on a plate, it would be duck. The next time I eat duck, we will expand on this discussion.
If you have never ordered duck, well, you should. Duck tastes like beef and chicken mated and produced some meaty, salty, oily offspring. Think about when you eat a rotisserie chicken – the dark meat is similar to a duck breast, except also akin to beef tenderloin. There is nothing else like it. I ordered this particular duck medium rare.
Some pieces of the duck were a tad bit tough, and I prefer a crispier skin, but overall this was a very delicious duck breast. I don’t know if it was prepared on the bone or not – does anyone know if that makes a difference in texture? Flavor wise, the meat melted like butter on my tongue and was complimented by the peppery flavors of the au poivre sauce. It had a very nice spice to it, and the entire dish was well-seasoned. The irresistibly creamy mashed potatoes soaked up all that rich, delicious sauce very well.
As for the roasted garlic, it was more than a garnish. Pop out the cloves and mix them into your potatoes, spear them on a fork with the duck or smear them on a piece of crusty toast.
That’s love, right there.
KnightlyBoyfriend ordered the tenderloin in a mushroom, shallot and red wine reduction.
Will you look at the crust on that filet. Ohhhh man. It was a tasty, TASTY piece of beef. Perfectly medium rare, soft and chewy and meaty. The sauce was divine, like my duck’s. The sauciers in Cafe Rabelais know what they’re doing. Both this sauce and the au poivre had the classic complex flavor I mentioned earlier. Wonderful.
KnightlyBoyfriend’s side dishes were the same as mine. This picture captures them a little better:
Everyone really enjoyed their meals. Rich, tasty and classically French, we all walked away happy and nicely buzzed.
With so many people eating together, I do not have an exact amount for the bill, or even a total for our portion. All I can tell you is what we paid for our entrees.
- Escargot ($8)
- Tenderloin with Red Wine Reduction ($29)
- Duck au Poivre ($26)
Expect to spend between $20 and $30 for an entree, and about $6-15 for an appetizer. The Moules Frites are $17 and offer a delicious and affordable alternative to some of the more expensive items on the menu. No, it’s not cheap, but it’s aptly priced for the quality of ingredients and skill displayed in the preparation of each dish.
Summary of this Knight at the Restaurant
- Cafe Rabelais is the diamond stud earrings of restaurants. You can dress casually and enjoy a laid-back dinner with friends any night of the week, and you will leave with a full belly and a satisfied palate. However, the low lighting and elegant fare also ensure that Cafe Rabelais is excellent for a nice evening out or a romantic date.
- If you go on a Friday or Saturday, be prepared to wait. The bistro is small and popular, and they do not accept reservations. They open at 6 PM, but even if you get there at 6 on the dot, you will probably still have to wait.
- Waiting is not a problem, though, because you can drink outside in the meantime.
- The food received rave reviews from all members of our dining party. The flavors are delicious and complex, and the sauces accompanying each dish are simply divine.
Final Rating: 3.8/5.0
What’s your favorite food experience from another country?