Squinting in the low, low light of Cafe Moustache, I could imagine it was 1975 again. That trout Meuniere set before me, half lost in the dimness, was right out of proprietor Manfred Jachmich’s first Houston restaurant, the original Ruggles in its Continental-casual, pre-Molzan era — right down to the old-fashioned parsley and lemon-wedge garnish.
Tomatoes Manfred rang the 1970s bell, too, with its topping of hearts of palm and vinaigrette. I remembered eating the dish, and liking it, when I was young and relatively innocent. Now the prospect of winter-crop Roma tomatoes and processed palm hearts did not appeal. That’s the thing about time travel: it can beguile you with nostalgia or remind you why you’d rather not go back.
I felt a heady 1980s vibe when I got a garlicky whiff of escargots, served in a classic ceramic snail dish; and when I saw a couple of chocolate-sauced crepes sail by on their way to another table. They’re ghosts from Cafe Moustache Past, the Galleria-area restaurant that Jachmich ran back then with legendary Houston caterer Mary Nell Reck.
He revived that concept (along with its graphic of a beret-wearing Frenchman, borrowed from a long-ago LA restaurant of the same name) here at 507 Westheimer when his contemporary South American wine bar, SoVino, appeared to have run its course. In came the snappy marine-blue tablecloths. Up went the Tivoli lights around the outdoor terrace. The striking wall-length metal sculpture that had defined SoVino’s elegant modern space got a crimson backdrop that all but cancelled it out, to my sorrow.
The quick changeover seemed, to a veteran observer of the Houston restaurant scene, like textbook Jachmich. The restaurateur has had more lives than the proverbial cat, opening, selling or closing more than a dozen restaurants over four decades.
Nikita’s (the city’s first Russian restaurant), River Oaks Grill, Post Oak Grill, Redwood Grill — Jachmich projects, every one, some of them still flourishing under different owners. What most of them shared was a Continental slant, thanks partly to German-born Jachmich’s experience in Swiss hotels, and a knack for giving Houstonians what they wanted at the very moment they wanted it.
I’m wondering, after a series of visits, if the current incarnation of Cafe Moustache will be able to do the same. Although the re-do has its small pleasures, and an agreeable physical setting, I’m skeptical. The food quality can vary considerably between a quiet night and a full-capacity one. The service can be spotty. The wine list is woefully disorganized, in part a holdover from SoVino days.
And, not to put too fine a point on it, Houston has changed. We’re no longer that bumptious, raw city wowed by things French or, lord help us, “Continental.” It’s not that we’re above the idea of a neighborhood restaurant serving French comfort food; it’s just that we’re far more likely these days to recognize when we’re being shorted on ingredients or kitchen technique. Even the older, staider River Oaksy crowd that seems to have adopted Cafe Moustache as it own has been around the block now — literally, on this restaurant-rich stretch of Lower Westheimer.
Consider, for instance, Cafe Moustache’s Margherita pizza. Yes, pizza: one of three that makes a curious, cover-all-bases appearance on the Frenchified menu. It came to the table on a thin crust distinguished only by its snap-and-crackle, laden with too much sheathlike white cheese, a smattering of fresh herbs and a scatter of pale, chopped raw tomato. I took the leftovers home (there were lots) and discovered, to my amazement, that the “crust” was actually a broad loaf of pita bread.
That’s the kind of shortcut that, at $12, may not fly in the current Houston environment. Not with Dolce Vita’s and Caffe Bello’s carefully crafted pizzas just across the road.
And what about the dessert crepes served cool, either with bananas and chocolate sauce or cold sour cherries out of a jar, with no attempt made to heat up the pancake or give it a freshly prepared aspect? For $7, I want a crepe that is cooked, not assembled.
Sean Carroll, of the marvelous Melange Creperie cart, dispenses hot, vivid crepes right down the street every day for just five bucks. Yeah, he’s not paying for bricks and mortar, but the comparison is stark.
Pâté de campagne in triangular slices at Cafe Moustache had a commercial feel at a time when the city is waking up to the thrills of house-made charcuterie all over town. The Welch’s passion-fruit juice and peach nectar poured right out of the carton into all those brunch mimosas and bellinis may get the job done, but in these days of artisan cocktails, they struck me as out of step.
So did the watery hunks of processed artichoke that underpinned an otherwise good, spunky version of Eggs Florentine at Sunday brunch, when a three-course meal can be had for just $15. Add an order of garlic-buttery escargots that were much more tender and satiny than the ones I tried on a previous visit, plus a perfectly agreeable creme brulee with a shattery sugar crust, and I thought brunch a considerable bargain. That’s the kind of deal — along with the nightly $35 prix fixe dinners and $15 businessmen’s lunches — that seems to be Cafe Moustache’s emerging stock in trade.
It’s certainly not that this kitchen can’t come up with good dishes when conditions are right. At an early, unrushed dinner, I loved the flakiness and purity of that trout Meuniere in its winy butter sauce, and its well-seasoned side of al dente little green beans. It was time travel at its best. That same night produced an admirably tender short rib in a rich, russet wine sauce, the only off note a too-salty bed of polenta. Chocolate pot de creme, cool gazpacho with a crab and good wines by the glass — including a lovely, austere Blanc de Blanc sparkler — made for a good time.
Months later, from a slammed kitchen, things were rockier. Rosy duck breast was swamped with a sweet, sticky port sauce that overwhelmed everything in its path, from meat to clumpy mushroom risotto to overly peppered green beans with zucchini. The trout Meuniere that had seemed so pearly and immediate was subdued this time out, as if it had sat too long under a warming lamp losing its mojo.
Steak frites mounted with blobs of garlicky, snail-worthy compound butter slid a bit under the knife, as ribeyes will, but was good nonethess. The fries involved had the insubstantial interior texture of frozen, but they were so beautifully bronzed they were kind of fun to crunch up, especially in tandem with a plummy, violet-scented bottle of 2006 Domaine des Hauts Chassis Crozes-Hermitage for a very reasonable $44.
I enjoyed some Dijon-gigged deviled eggs tipped with bacon as an appetizer, although I wondered why the menu described them as “spicy.” They’re the kind of thing made for eating at Cafe Moustache’s long bar, perhaps with a glass of that Blanc de Blancs bubbling away. They seem up to date and old-fashioned at once.
And if I twice got scared off the ice-cream profiteroles by their stodgy, aged pâte à choux shells, well, c’est la vie on the time travel circuit. Bring them off and they’re a classic. Mess them up and they’re just another cliche. That’s the battle Cafe Moustache will have to fight and win if it’s going to stick around in Houston, 2011.