Thursday, February 15, 2007

Cafe Montrose: Pulling mussels from a shell

That perennial understudy of Gulf Coast seafood, the lowly mussel, takes center stage at Cafe Montrose and turns in a command performance.

Pity the poor Texas mussel. Constantly playing second-fiddle to other more popular molluscs like clams and oysters, not to mention its crustacean cousins like crawfish, shrimp and crab, it’s fair to say that the unassuming mussel just doesn’t get any respect. Sure, it will turn up in a bowl of bouillabaise or a platter of paella, but rarely is it showcased as a dinner “main event”. Unless you visit Cafe Montrose, that institution of Belgian cuisine on lower Westheimer. And as any good international foodie knows, the Belgians are famous for two culinary distinctions: “moules” and “frites”, i.e. mussels and french fries. Oh and beer too. Stella Artois to be exact. But let’s start with the moules.


Food/Drink (8/10)
At Cafe Montrose, you can choose to have your mussels served up in a variety of preparations, from good old-fashioned steamed mussels in white wine, to mussels in a tomato sauce, and my choice, “Moules au Gratin”, mussels in a cheesy Parmesan sauce. For me, Parmesan cheese is one of those ingredients you can add to any dish and it will make it taste like a million bucks. Kind of like bacon in that way. But I digress. The Moules au Gratin appeared before me fresh out of the oven, in the gratin dish it was cooked in (hot to the touch), with that unmistakable fragrance of baked Parmesan. The mussels remained unseen, swimming in a creamy cheese sauce hidden just under the thick, crispy crust of baked Parmesan. Taking my spoon and cracking the Parmesan crust, creme brulee-like, exposed the cheese sauce and mussels below. The savory Parmesan crust was a nice complement to the briny, metallic taste of the mussels. The neutral cheese sauce acted almost as a go-between, setting the stage for the interaction of the Parmesan and mussels. The texture of the mussels varied widely, from an almost buttery consistency (good) to stringy and chewy (not so good). But that is to be expected in the world of seafood, and a small sacrifice to make for the overall high quality of this dish.

On to the frites. What can I say? The french fries at Cafe Montrose are the best in Houston. THE BEST. And I know that over the years many people and institutions have come to the same conclusion. Well, we’re all right. Perfectly crispy and crunchy on the outside, moist and steaming on the inside. The golden brown color is emphasized by a thin sheen of cooking oil. A liberal dose of salt and ketchup makes for a perfect plate of French…er, Belgian…comfort food.

And to complement all this degustational goodness is a vastly underrated Belgian beer (at least in the US)–Stella Artois. One of my favorites, it is a smooth and mild lager that only reinforces the unassuming quality of Belgian cuisine.

One minor consideration. I live near Cafe Montrose and frequently see its (catering?) van puttering around the neighborhood. In the mornings I see it parked at a neighborhood bakery, presumably where it gets its daily bread. It’s a well-regarded bakery, so I can only assume the spongy and plastic baguette slices that were served as a complimentary appetizer did not come from that bakery. I once worked in a high-end French restaurant with outstanding food about which our customers raved, but every one of those customers complained about the quality of the bread. It wasn’t bad, just kind of chewy and dry. The owner courteously listened to the complaints and assured the diners he would take it under consideration. But it never changed. Why? He believed, and rightly so, that diners should not “fill up” before the main course on bread and butter. I’d like to think that the quality of bread at Cafe Montrose is governed by the same philosophy.

Service (6/10)
This is obviously a family-run establishment, and the staff and service reflect that. Efficient, workmanlike and attentive.

Atmosphere (7/10)
I could see where the atmosphere at Cafe Montrose would not be suitable for everyone’s taste. From the dark, low, narrow space, the dingy ceiling tiles, the kitschy European background music and posters, the funky roller chairs and the Dr. Evil action figure sitting next to the cash register, some people may find the restaurant to be a bit “cheesy”. But not me. All of these quirky qualities, combined with the family service and comfort food, work together to create a unique, warm and familiar atmosphere.

Value (7/10)
Although the cost of the typical entree here is moderately expensive, between $10 and $20, I think the value is still very good. Ingredients such as fresh mussels and Parmesan cheese are not inexpensive, so I think they are doing a good job at holding the line on customer prices.

The Bottom Line (7/10)
The dark, quirky atmosphere, the satisfying comfort food, and the familiar staff all combine to make Cafe Montrose a unique dining experience, worthy of its namesake Houston neighborhood.

Update 11/9/08
Cafe Montrose is reportedly temporarily closed. Hopefully they will reopen soon. But in these tough times who knows. I'll miss the frites.

Foodie Favorite: Yes

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