The asphalt stretch from Dallas to Fort Worth is long and hard. Also brutal, at least judging by the wreckage littering the highway recently. Angled on the shoulder was an old Chevy truck with a tall makeshift cargo box fashioned out of lumber scraps. It's right front wheel was missing, and in its place, a tree stump had been shoved under the axle to keep it level. A few miles up the road, a charred BMW sedan assumed the same position. I saw these metal carcasses each time I made the trip to Fort Worth.
Which was perhaps a good thing. Because these images made me think how hard the drive was, and all that thinking in turn worked up a fierce appetite. Which is why, when I got to Encore, a new French bistro in a Fort Worth strip mall, I ordered a hefty roasted free-range half-chicken.
I then began thinking that roasted chicken is generally boring. So while the bird steamed under my nose, I swiped a couple of scallops from the shallow puddle of smooth buerre blanc that shimmered under my companion's nose. Sweetly briny and delicately tender in their milky bath, the scallops were delicious. And the dollop of smooth mashed potatoes in the center of the plate was good too.
Then I swiped one of the little salmon cakes sharing plate space with the scallops and found them hard, dry, and flavorless; it was like chewing a sawdust crouton.
So I went back to the chicken and discovered that it was far from boring, even more delicious than the scallops. In fact, I would have ranked this dish as the best I sampled at Encore until I tried the mussels steamed in a simple white-wine-thyme broth, a light herbal splash that had the good sense not to intrude on the natural flavors of these tender knobs of mollusk meat.
Thinking on this bit of subtlety brought me back to that half-chicken: how the juices permeated the meat with fluency; how the stuffing of whole garlic cloves suffused it with mild sweetness. The bird was also pocked with tender slices of artichoke heart, which possessed a raspy flavor and texture that make artichokes seem like churlish avocados.
Which then made me think about artichokes and how they're such a good bistro food. This is what writer Louis Lemery said about them in his early-18th-century Treatise on Food: "Artichokes suit elderly people at all times, and those of a phlegmatic and melancholy disposition."
At about the same time Lemery was recommending artichokes for the tiresome, the wistful, and the geezerly, artichokes were thought to flavor another personal characteristic: sensuality. But these European culinary forefathers, dupes that they were, failed to capitalize on this dynamic, and instead forbade all women from eating them.
But this alleged aphrodisiac wasn't the only thing that made this simple chicken a treat. A tangle of crisp, tender green beans flecked with tomato bits cluttered the chicken-juice swamp, giving the dish the briskness it needed to steer clear of comfort-food cloddishness.
Which is what Encore founder Michel Baudouin calls his bistro fare: "French comfort food." Baudouin was behind the now-defunct Le Chardonnay restaurants in both Dallas and Fort Worth, and most recently sprouted a pair of Grape Escape wine bars in Fort Worth and Austin. He says he enjoys serving simple bistro fare far more than the upscale cuisine at Le Chardonnay.
He has dispensed with soft colors and formality and splashed Encore's walls with bright blue. "Funny thing. Many years ago I told my wife that blue was not food-friendly," he says. But Baudouin obviously had a change of heart and now contends that bright blue gives his place some unconventional zip. "Here, I can do more of what I want, when I want. When I get tired of doing something, I take it off."
One thing, however, that lacked zip was the Salade Michel ($15.95), a collection of pâté, grilled lamb chop, shrimp, chicken, and goat cheese over a bed of vinaigrette-splashed greens. Lamb was a bit overcooked. Salmon was dry and slightly fishy. But really, these were the only distractions. Scorched with singe marks, the chicken was moist and tender. And the vinaigrette coupled with the country pâté and goat cheese kind of lacquered the plate with a racy, meaty creaminess. So maybe all the dish needs is a fresh slap to dislodge its grogginess.
And while snails could certainly be characterized as phlegmatic (maybe they should be fed artichokes), Encore's escargot had no sluggishness -- that is, if you don't count the slightly gummy puff pastry hood baked over them. Wading in little puddles of garlic-parsley butter, the smooth, tender snails were subtly earthy and deftly supple. Encore's lightly crisp and tasty pommes frites, dusted with fines herbs (chervil, parsley, tarragon, chives), floated across the palate like a potato-fog puff.
Which made me wonder how Encore's desserts could be so lumbering. The chocolate soufflé was dry, hard, and rubbery with precious little chocolate flavor. The baked-to-order Granny Smith apple tart was dry, pasty, and tedious.
Encore does have a good selection of inexpensive wines, though. The 1997 Domaine la Batardiere Muscadet, from France's Loire Valley (Muscadet, a crisp white, is the quintessential bistro wine), struck with a gently firm raciness tempered with fruit, a dynamic match with the mussels.
Encore should grip the locals (we saw the mailman come in for an after-route bite) and dazzle drop-ins from the Dallas end of the metroplex. If they can get past that long drive with all the car wrecks, that is. And remember to conjure up a good comfort-food appetite.
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