Finally, a casual French restaurant worth going to in Houston: Checking out aHeights wonder
It's been about 10 years since Le Fooding changed the way the French think about food — well, as much as anyone or anything could really change the way French people think about food.
(Isn't that the great thing about the French? You could literally go over there and invent cold fusion and they'll tell you they prefer to get their energy from the windmills in Montmartre or something. I'm pretty sure that's what the movie The Saint was about.)
Le Fooding emphasizes inventive technique and excellent under-the-radar bistros over the ornate temples of food that tend to rack up Michelin stars. It's a casual take on great food that seems so naturally French, but that hasn't always translated to French restaurants in Houston.
Purple is to brunettes what pink is to blondes, except purple is way better because it still feels fancy.
Instead we have the shabby-chic grace of Chez Nous, Artisans' lovely neo-brasserie and the modern flair of Philippe and L'Olivier, each with their own semi-precious price tags. But for French-inspired fare that doesn't just lend itself to special occasions, there's been lunch at Cafe Rabelais, crepes from Melange Creperie and not much else (forgive me as I studiously ignore the fact that La Madeleine exists).
That's the niche that Salé Sucre fits so nicely into. It doesn't have the thrown-together aura of Cafe Brussels, which opened at about the same time, but it does juxtapose some fancy fixtures with a certain nonchalant vibe that feels quintessentially Heights.
The space inside a revamped strip center is nicer than the nondescript whit brick exterior gives any indication that it might be. With low lights, flowers on the tables and white tablecloths, the circular chandelier thingies (technical term) and plush purple banquettes would feel quite upscale, but combined with the work of various local artists on the wall and eye-catchingly colorful tables the vibe is pulled back towards coffeeshop territory.
Don't take this to mean that I am anything less than obsessed with the purple banquettes. Purple is to brunettes what pink is to blondes, except purple is way better because it still feels fancy and/or royal and because it hasn't yet been hijacked by every computer company and breast cancer charity that wants to proclaim how girly it is.
The only thing better than the banquette/pretty table combo, from a seating point of view, is Salé Sucre's round corner table tucked at the edge of the windows and flanked by two comfortable looking high-back chairs. I say "comfortable looking" because they were occupied by some ladies who were just lunching the fuck out of it, eating every bite slower and laughing longer and lingering more deliberately, which is exactly the right thing to do when you find yourself possessing that kind of coveted restaurant real estate.
I attempted to start with the escargot, but the server informed me that the owner can only get them special ordered from France at certain times that did not include the week of my visit. This was perhaps a gift, as he led me instead to the camembert plate.
I didn't know at the time that the owners were descended from the creator of the famous French cheese, but it makes perfect sense considering that no other restaurant in town gives camembert such attention — either solo or among other cheeses.
It's worth it: At Salé Sucré the round of cheese is pan-fried, infused with sweetness from a light touch of honey and sprinkled with herbs de Provence. On top of toasted slices of baguette, it displayed that perfect balance of salty and sweet that the restaurant is named after, at once creamy, slightly rich, mild in flavor and touched with a hint of herbal freshness. Though I'd originally sworn to merely sample and move on, it quickly became impossible to resist
With that polished off, we moved on to our savory crepes. I ordered a French classic, the Forestiere with ham, mushrooms, cheese and an egg on top, while my friend chose smoked salmon, which I considered to be significantly riskier. We also subbed the limp side salad (which came with the camembert) for tiny baskets of fries, which turned out to be crisp, golden tubes of salty fry perfection.
Inside my beautifully thin pancake that was every-so-slightly crispy around the edges, however, the results never seemed to quite work. The ham felt heavy and not particularly flavorful, and the mushrooms had a slightly bitter tone that didn't quite fit with the rest of the ingredients. The egg was a bit overcooked for my taste as well, though I will admit that I prefer that to trying to keep a runny yolk off my clothes on the Boulevard Saint-Michel while it drips for-fucking-ever out of the crepe envelope.
It's a casual take on great food that seems so naturally French but that hasn't always translated to French restaurants in Houston.
Not that that has ever happened to me. Point being, this crepe was not bad by any stretch, just a little off.
The salmon crepe, on the other hand, was wonderful. A creamy dill sauce blanketed the fish, perfectly enmeshing the bright salmon flavor with the subtly sweet crepe. I got a couple quick bites before it was (justifiably) inhaled by my friend. I'll admit it: I was out-Whataburgered.
The dessert crepe menu is smaller and less creative than that at Sweet Paris, but it includes the simple classics — brown sugar, nutella, even a crepe suzette. We picked the poached apple with almonds, topped with ribbons of caramel and a dusting of powdered sugar.
It was sweet but not too sweet, warm and densely gooey — a couple bites equaled a satisfying end to that which I thought I would never find in Houston: A casual French meal.