Posts Tagged ‘houston restaurant review’

Review: Cafe Rabelais

 

Whosawhutzzit?

Rabelais.

“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.”

Cafe Rabelais.

2442 Times Boulevard
Houston TX 77005
713-526-6852

Now that you’ve had a comprehensive French lesson (from someone who never took French and barely learned Spanish, even after…um…ahem…nineyears)….

The Setting

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.

The Atmosphere

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:

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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.

The Food

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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That’s love, right there.

KnightlyBoyfriend ordered the tenderloin in a mushroom, shallot and red wine reduction.

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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:

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Everyone really enjoyed their meals.  Rich, tasty and classically French, we all walked away happy and nicely buzzed.

The Bill

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

KNIGHTED

What’s your favorite food experience from another country?

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Review: Empire Cafe

 

Welcome to my little slice of Heaven.

When I first began frequenting Empire Cafe in 2002, there was no shrine to Zagat, a website didn’t exist, and crowds were few and far between.  The bathroom was literally a cramped and dilapidated hole in the wall that was actually quite frightening, and most of the tables were uneven.  Still, the moment I walked in, something just felt right.

Two years shy of a decade later, acknowledgements and accolades don the walls.  Other distinguished coffee houses have encroached on that little strip of Westheimer between Shepherd and Montrose, eclipsing Empire’s former glory.  There is always a line and a crowd, and the now sturdy, upright tables stand polished and ready.  The bathroom has even been converted from something that resembles a heroine addict’s bathroom at a pit stop in the middle of the desert to trendy men and women’s rooms with multiple stalls and a very cool trough sink.  There is a website.  It’s Empire 2.0.

But Empire’s place in my heart is permanent.  I wish I could take credit for having discovered my little oasis, but instead I must proclaim my gratitude for the friend who introduced me to this magnificent spot (she knows who she is…she’s quite the “Busty” character winkwink).  Part of my unrelenting attachment I owe to history, and the other to the fact that no matter how much changes, Empire still enlivens warm and fuzzy sentiments and a pleasant experience every time I visit.

1732 Westheimer Rd.
Houston TX 77098
713-528-5282

Empire Cafe

 

The Atmosphere

In high school, I ping-ponged between Diedrich’s Coffee (remember them!?!) and Empire – Diedrich’s for the WiFi, Empire for the ambiance.  I sat there, alone or with friends, for hours on end talking, studying and greedily sipping the incredible coffee. In college, I made it a point to return home during Dead Week (and…several…other times a month) to study at Empire.  My usual binge consisted of a latte and a meal, and after I turned 21, I complemented my spread with an alcoholic beverage…at that point, simply because I could. 

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Even though the atmosphere has morphed from a quiet-yet-hip hole in the wall coffeehouse for the cultured population of Montrose, and even though so many other changes have been made, some things about Empire Cafe will never change.  The staff is still irreverent, witty and incurably friendly, the funky decor remains untouched, the purified water, hibiscus iced tea, ice machine and lemons are still in the back, and the coffee is still some of the best I’ve ever tasted (more on that later, trust me).  Warm red and orange-yellow, sponge-painted walls still feel cozy, and they still don’t mind if you sit there alone for hours.  In college, when my living quarters alternated between my apartment in College Station and Empire in Houston, they would actually bring me free coffee during study sessions – because that’s just the kind of people that work there.  The atmosphere is one of the most comfortable I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying, and it’s something that I wish weren’t quite so rare.

 

The Coffee

This section started off as my usual “The Food” section, but I feel that Empire’s coffee deserves its own tribute.

On this particular afternoon, I started off with my usual: a latte with skim milk (this one was hot, but their iced lattes in the summer – aka February through December, in Houston – are like an oasis in the middle of a raging desert).  <—By the way, when I typed “desert,” I actually typed “dessert” and had to fix it.  Freudian type?  Most definitely.  By the way, did I mention that Empire’s desserts will make you want to spank yourself? 

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Anyway, I started with my latte.  The little heart shape is new to Empire…I think they’re trying to be trendy.  I realize that some people find these annoying, but a little bit of love never hurts.  I like hearts, especially atop one of the things I love most in this world (Empire’s coffee).  I pick up a bag (or…several) of those heavenly beans and bring it back to Boston every time I visit…that sucker usually lasts all of one week, and that’s with just me guzzling drinking it.  Oops.

The reason their coffee is so addictive and delicious is because it has that deep, strong coffee flavor, but (and here’s the genius of it all) without the bitterness.  I contend that coffee usually tastes either like water with coffee flavorings or like burnt beans.  Not at Empire.  That coffee warms me to the soul every time I sip.  Almost like a fine wine, Empire’s coffee has a complex mix of chocolate, cherries, that bold, woody coffee flavor – maybe a little bit of crack – and it all melds together perfectly with every sip.  After swallowing, the taste lingers pleasantly on your tongue – not the typical bitter aftertaste.  I heard recently that there’s a new coffee hot spot in Houston, and I haven’t tried it.  However, I will say this – the only coffee that has ever rivaled Empire in my mind was coffee I drank in France and Germany.  Illy is pretty good too.  But Empire has the love that just completes me every time.

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The Food

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Long ago, I assigned myself the arduous task of taste-testing everything on this menu at least once (that includes both lunch/dinner and the brunch menus).  I am proud to announce that I have fulfilled this goal.  To be completely honest (and it pains me) – the food is good, and that’s about it.  Empire’s food is always filling and satisfying, and they use fresh ingredients, but it’s nothing that will permanently alter your perception of reality.  However, it’s consistent and never disappointing. 

Their pastas and salads are delicious – they usually dress up their salad of the day with a ton of delicious salad toss-ins: avocados, Cajun chicken, artichoke hearts, etc.  Their dressings are homemade and quite delicious; most are creamy.  Egg dishes are always gooey and packed with fresh vegetables, and their brunch menu is quite tasty. Consistently, across the board, their food is tasty.  You won’t get a bad meal from Empire Cafe.

On this particular mid-morning, I had a chicken, provolone and artichoke panini on a baguette with a side of chicken tortilla soup.

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The soup was…meh.  Not my favorite.  Truth be told, Empire’s soups rarely light my fire.  Their cream of mushroom soup makes me want to bathe in it, but typically their soups aren’t my fave.  This particular chicken tortilla soup was a little too chunky for my palate.

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Chicken tortilla soup should have big, juicy chunks of shredded chicken, a light broth, sweetly caramelized onions, plump beans, enough cilantro to feed a small country, maybe a few other things, fresh avocado, melted cheese and crunchy tortilla strips.  This was more like a chicken vegetable soup with tortilla strips on top.  The broth was fine, but it wasn’t particularly complex or intriguing.

The panini had freshly grilled chicken breast, gooey provolone, spinach, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and red onions. 

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Imagine spinach artichoke dip with sun-dried tomatoes slathered on a crusty baguette, enveloping  a freshly grilled chicken breast – that’s pretty much what went down inside this sandwich.  It was pretty good!  Empire’s turkey sandwiches tend to be my favorites, but I really liked this bread and you won’t catch me saying “nay” to some cheese, spinach and artichoke.  Could have used a little salt, maybe, and I wish they trimmed their chicken breasts better (I REALLY hate the fatty tissues on poultry), but otherwise it was so satisfying I had to hand some over to KnightlyBoyfriend so I’d stop stuffing my gluttonous face.

 

The Bill

I didn’t keep a copy of it, but I can tell you the general idea.  I usually spend between $13 and $15 at Empire, and that always includes:

  • a latte ($3.50)
  • and an entree (typically around $10)
  • tip (yes, tip – I don’t care that it’s counter service, these people are incredibly nice)

Desserts range anywhere from $3 to $6, depending on what you get (cookies and brownies are closer to $3, but their gourmet, spank-yourself-cakes are upwards of $6).  Drinks also average about $6.

For this particular lunch, my bill was about $13.  Not too shab.

 

Summary of this Knight at the Restaurant

  • I’ve frequented Empire for approximately 8 years now, and it’s one of my favorite places in the entire world.  Know going into this that, despite my best efforts, I am a little biased.
  • Sure, it has the whole trendy-coffeehouse with food-coffee-funky decor-full bar thing going, but it had all that going on before it was cool to have all that going on. 
  • Even so, there is just something about it.  It’s a very special place with an incredible atmosphere.  If you want to find out, just go there one afternoon with a book.  Get a coffee and a meal and just read…for several hours.  You’ll see what I mean.
  • The whole drug thing has never really piqued my interest – my addictions tend to fall closer to coffee, shoes and cats – but if coffee were made with crack, it would taste like Empire’s.  Or, for a nicer and less crass comparison, if Heaven were squeezed into a coffee cup and topped with foam, it would be Empire’s. Ok, maybe there isn’t a non-crass / non-blasphemous comparison.  It’s just damn good coffee.
  • The food is consistently good and tasty.  It’s not gourmet, and it won’t blow your mind, but it will leave you feeling full and satisfied every time.  And it’s on the healthy side, so it’s nice and light.  There is something for everyone.

The fact that Empire Cafe is a coffeehouse and actually has a full menu and a full bar should be noted.  This does not seem like a really unique concept, but I rarely find a place with exceptional coffee, alcohol, a great menu and a fabulous atmosphere.

Final Rating: 3.8/5.0

A KNIGHTED MEMBER OF THE ROUNDTABLE

Do you have a restaurant or coffeehouse that just feels like home?  Share your experiences, especially if you’re in Boston – I’m DYING to find a place like that here!

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