I think I’m going to like Étoile, the good-looking new French restaurant in Uptown Park. In fact, one visit in, during which I loved each of four courses I ordered while seated at the bar, I think I’m going to like Etoile a lot.
If San Diego transplant Philippe Verpiand and his team continue to deliver on the level I experienced, when Étoile had only been open a couple of weeks, they’re going to help raise the bar for French food here — a real public service.
I knew it the second I tasted the flaky little Fourme d’Ambert tart lined with mild, creamy blue cheese and studded with squares of pear poached in red wine. It came from the seaonal side of the 2-page menu (the other, labeled “La Tradition,” features familiar French classics), and it had everything I wanted in an autumn dish: the savory twang and earthiness of the cheese, the sweet-tart warmth of fall fruit and red wine. A side salad of arugula in an unusually dimensional aged-balsamic dressing brought the bitter peppery snap of fall greens to the equation.
Every bit as good was a torchon of duck foie gras, the chilled pate as smooth and rich as satin, with crushed black peppercorns as a sharp, aromatic counterpoint. I liked the torchon best when it had warmed on its glass plate for five minutes or so, so that it melted away on the tongue. The brioche toast served with it may have been classic, but the fascinating compote of prunes smoothed with mascarpone cheese was pure contemporary genius.
The short but thoughtful wine list didn’t have as many French wines as I expected, but a well-versed server produced a tiny glass of Jurançon, the graceful sweet white dessert wine from southwestern France that seems made to go with foie gras.
The list also has a nice Entre Deux Mers white Bordeaux by the glass, very fresh and crisp; and a deep-dark Cahors La Coutale from southwestern France (the original Malbec blend) that proved to be perfect with Verpiand’s deep-dark coq au vin.
Yes, coq au vin. That warhorse is from the “traditional” side of the menu, obviously, and I came to L’Etoile specifially to eat it. (“You and all the French people,” joked the bar manager.) It’s a dish that’s often done poorly in restaurants, but not here: the bird comes apart in moist, dense strings under a cap of concentrated red winy-ness, the flavors holding true and separate rather than merging in a liquid stew.
When I wondered what the haunting note was beneath the red wine sauce, the bar manager told me it was a little dark chocolate, which made sense: the dish had a complexity not unlike a good Mexican mole. That’s hardly traditional, nor was the tumble of roasted baby carrots, mushrooms, pearl onions and cauliflorets on top, rather than simmered into the mix. All to the good: the dish wasn’t a slavish recap but a smart reinterpretation that delivered just the right flavor profile by way of updated textures.
Oh, and did I mention the dreamy little gratin of sliced potatoes that shared the iron skillet with the coq au vin? I could have eaten seconds, although I would not have had room for the most elemental of French desserts: slices of salty, nutty sheep cheese with a bit of cherry conserve. Which is pretty much my idea of heaven. (Or breakfast, for that matter.)
Friendly service clearly is a point of pride here. Count on periodic visits from chef Verpiand’s wife, Monica Bui — whose Houston roots brought the couple here (along with our strong economy) from their restaurant in San Diego — and who rehabbed the former Thierry Andre Tellier bakery-cafe space with soft whitewashes, blues and casual country fittings.
It’s a pretty, understated room that, like the food at this very young restaurant, seems comfortably ready for prime time. The price range is $8 —$18 for first courses (most hover just over $10) and $18—$33 for entrees. Wines by the glass are mostly $8-$10.
Don’t speak French? Never fear. Though the menu names are written in that language, the descriptions are in English. And the name of the restaurant, should it give you pause, is pronounced ay-TWAHL.
In French, it means “star.”
Etoile: 1101-11 Uptown Park Blvd. @ Post Oak, 832-668-5808. Open 11 a.m.—3 p.m. daily for lunch; 5 p.m.—10 p.m. Sunday—Thursday and 5 p.m.—11 p.m. Friday & Saturday for dinner.