August 12th, 2009
Café Rabelais: Eat What Thou Wilt
In 8 Words: Wine, France, Buzz, Rhythm, Salle Climatisée, Cheese, Chalkboard, Homemade
We’ll consider it an omen that I first join you, dear readers, on the back of Rabelais:
“Most distinguished boozers, and you, most dearly beloved pox suffers … interpret all my deeds and words in the most charitable way, revere the cheesy brain that is feeding you with these lovely tails; and to the best of your abilities, always keep me company, all merry and bright … And so just put your feet up, my loves, and merrily read the rest for your body’s ease and the solace of your kidneys … Remember to drink my health … and I’ll raise a toast to you this very minute”
- from the introduction of Rabelais’s Gargantua
The Spirit of Alcofribas Nasier – François Rabelais’ nom de plume, an anagram using the letters of his name – is alive within the wine stacked walls of Café Rabelais on Times Boulevard in the heart of Rice Village. We enter the Village via Greenbriar coming from the Heights, opting for the gentle tumult of the parade of Village stop signs to the Kirby construction. We park in the angled lot of one of the older strips in the Village whose only light comes from the glow of the newer Village Arcade shops adjacent to it. It is our first time to visit Café Rabelais so we know we are on the right block but are unsure of the exact location of the restaurant. We start up the block eagerly looking for a sign.
Once spotted, the Café is obvious. It is crowned with all of the accoutrements of a French Café: lettered windows advertising the Café’s offerings (Salle Climatisée, being the most important in the humid Houston summer), a few small outdoor bistro tables covered in white cloths and the distinctive, quelled buzz of people enjoying good food and wine at the peak of reverie. We enter the glass door and we are immediately swept into the rhythm of the place. One of the most illusive attributes of a good restaurant is atmosphere, and the atmosphere is one of the first things I notice upon entering Café Rabelais. Only a few seconds before it was a muggy evening walk in a dime-a-dozen strip center with the distant din of the Village night scene building in the background. All of that immediately fades as the door opens.
It is not classical music, clinking dinnerware and hushed conversation. It is loud and rushed and it sweeps us right into the tempo. Immediately greeted by a hostess with a slight accent we are given 25 minutes to wait (no reservations accepted). Then, we are urged forward past an awkward wooden wine hutch, separating the entrance and the dining area, into the Café to sit at the last two available bar stools. We arrange our chairs and belongings and begin combing the impressive wine list. I instantly know the place had Euro-cred by the ancient looking wooden bar adorned with every type of wine glass and a bright red, shiny espresso machine squat on the counter behind the bartender. Turn away from the bar and every angle is peppered with bottles of wine in honeycomb shaped wine racks nearly top-to-bottom.
In addition to the décor, the merriment and jocular nature of its namesake seems alive in Café Rabelais’s service and staff. Despite the focused and frenetic energy of a full dinner service everyone has a smile. The inevitable close calls of harried servers working in a small arena are comical in their own way and laughed off by each in turn. One server, carrying water for 3 tables, is nearly waylaid by a reversing chair that he narrowly avoids through a lift and a deft half spin. Once stable, he glances over his shoulder back at us, gives a laugh and is back on his way with his original cargo intact. Our waiter, himself a personality worthy of a Rabelaisian character, commands the room with a playful energy and the perfect balance of speed and attention.
We sit there waiting for our table on a dimly lit “L” shaped corner between the dueling entrances to the kitchen and the bar. Slightly exposed on our exciting little corner, we are intermittently buzzed by the fast moving, yet polite, servers while trying to read the all French wine list and all of its educational supplements in the dim light. The wine list is pretty massive (20+ pages) and includes maps of the French Wine Regions, Vintage Ratings and little facts about French Wine throughout. It seems to do a good job of being accessible to even the most incipient wine drinker and hits nearly every price point. In the end, our server recommends a good red from the Cotes du Nuits region at our price.
We wait the full 25 minutes but are rewarded with the best table in the house for people watching. Shortly after we sit a server drops a basket of warm fresh bread and some butter at the table. A few minutes more and our waiter appears and asks if we are ready to order…at this point I am reminded of a favorite line in the movie “Coming to America”, the story about the waiter and the soup:
“The old man say to the waiter: ‘Taste the soup.’
The waiter responds: ‘Is something wrong with the soup?’
‘Just taste the soup’
Fine, I’ll taste it, where’s the spoon?
Responding to the waiter, we comment that we haven’t received menus. The waiter looks up toward the wall at three large chalkboards serving as the menu. We respond with surprise, lean forward and squint simultaneously. In my eyes, that serves as a recommendation to the place. I appreciate the audacity not to clutter the table with menus, plus it tells me that the menu changes often enough that a chalkboard is more useful than a menu. For my wife, however, it means that she will have to stand and walk closer to actually see the menu items. Most of the dinner plates are around $20 with most expensive at $33. We settle on a Salade Maison to share, the Duck Breast with Cherry Sauce for her and I have the summertime Cassoulet with Duck.
The restaurant was filled when we arrived at 8:45 and half empty an hour later, so we receive the best of both worlds: the energy of a good crowd to start, then quiet to fill the last hour with intimate conversation and a romantic meal. The food is delicious and hearty, not overly elegant or fussy, apt for its patron saint. It is playful, classic and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Most importantly it is focused around the whole experience of food, drink and merriment. As I look around nearly every table is animated with conversation and smiles. My wife comments that it is food that she imagines being served at a nice family dinner in France, well done and generous, but you’re able to immediately identify the shape of your plate and the components of your dish without using an -esque or -ly.
Once finished we are ready to proceed to the final chapter, dessert. Ironically, we immediately look to the large chalkboards for the desserts, only to have the waiter drop the dessert menus at the table. Much like the wine menu the dessert menu is extensive, chocked full of dessert drinks, over 15 cheeses and a list of homemade sweets. At this point, considering the heft of the two physical menus I did see, I am satisfied that I would not want to see the tomb that would be the dinner menu. She opts for the Pluot Tarte and I for a trio of cheese: Brie, Point L’Eveque & St. Nectaire with a small sampling of dried fruits and nuts. As predicted the dessert course is delicious. The homemade tarte is especially amazing. We pay for the meal, take in the waning energy of a beautiful evening, look longingly at the final dregs of a great glass of wine and step out of the pages of Café Rabelais back into a Houston summer evening with hearts and stomachs equally sated. We’ll be back.
Inspired by Alcofribas Nasier, I bid you well,
Where – West University (2442 Times Blvd, Houston, Texas 77005) View Map
What – A Jocular Journey Through French Cuisine
Wear – Keep it Classy
Who – Fans of the Culinary and Literary Arts
How Much – May Your Wallet be Thick and Belly Full
When – Dinner 6:00-9:00 Mon-Thurs; 6:00-10:00 Fri-Sat; Lunch 11:00AM-2:30PM Tue-Sat; Closed Sunday
Web – http://www.caferabelais.com/