Chez Gerard is a crotchety old cottage born some 17 years ago on McKinney Avenue at a time when French cuisine spelled sophistication. The restaurant has changed little since then, and a French kiss might not smack of the sophistication it once did, but that doesn't mean Chez Gerard fumbles and slobbers on your chin.
Launched in 1984 and owned by Pascal Cayet, Eric Josse and chef Laurent Champalle, Chez Gerard smells aged. The door to this 60-seat restaurant creaks when opened, and so does the dining room floor, a series of scuffed hardwood planks. Simple tables vested in simple white cloths almost make the lacy curtains and the fabric on the walls seem extravagant. Yet far from being a simple dining spot marinated in coziness, Chez Gerard is a tiny dining spot flush with parsimony, an absence of distractions that relaxes while it invites scrutiny of the food and service.
This is where the Chez Gerard country French experience can be problematic, but only here and there. A few things scream with the elegance and balance that better-endowed restaurants can only hope to match. The piercing scream is loudest in the snails. Chez Gerard's escargot is hidden like a Jiffy Pop surprise in a football-shaped pastry puffed over a crock. Pierce the puff, and wading in an herbed puddle of garlic butter are balls of plump, juicy snail meat. The puffed pastry is light and flaky, but the sauce bit sharply with tartness from too much lemon, perhaps.
Another shred of shrewd simplicity is the hearts of palm salad with smoked duck. A gentle heap of greens is cluttered with walnuts, sliced hearts of palm and small scraps of pink, tender duck with robust gusts of smoke--rusticity with flair.
Yet perhaps the most invigorating bit of country culinary elegance at Chez Gerard is the sautéed foie gras, a tour de force in glandular organ cuisine. The lobes were served on a platter smeared with a dark reduction studded with cassis berries. The lobes were perfectly singed, creating a barely perceptible layer of brittleness enveloping the delicately firm meat; its voluptuous richness was cut by the sharpness of the berries, which injected only modest sweetness.
Blessed are these appetizers. Damn them too, because they raise the Chez Gerard gustatory experience to a level it couldn't sustain. The descent didn't occur all at once, but in small increments.
Though the service is uniformly friendly and congenial, it is too often ill-informed. Simple questions about the menu--What kind of fish is used in the salad, what kind of sauce is on this or that?--are met with blank stares. The wine list, a rather truncated yet tight roster with near-equal measures of French and California bottlings, seemed to stump them just as much.
Grilled halibut with pistachios and morel mushrooms was firm and mild with an alluring grill stiffness on the exterior. The mushrooms gave it a tasty terrestrial anchor. Yet while adding a crunch contrast, the pistachios seemed superfluous, a flavor and focal crunch point that was hard to reconcile with the rest of the dish.
Though a bit oily, the grilled tilapia in onion sauce with capers was delicious, too. The moist, flaky fish was tender and sweet, a decent meal, though it possessed no extraordinary nuances.
Which is too bad, because tilapia is an extraordinary fish. It is not only a versatile, extensively farmed freshwater panfish that can easily be dressed in exotic duds to impress the fussiest connoisseur, it is also the only upscale restaurant menu entrant ever borne in outer space. In November 1998 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, the same bird that included former senator and Mercury astronaut John Glenn, a tilapia was hatched in a quest to explore the effects of weightlessness on fish. Specifically, scientists wanted to see if a fish embryo could hatch in space and survive in a zero gravity environment, thereby improving the prospects for cooking shows in outer space. Christened Amigo, the little tilapia was a full two inches longer than his earth-hatched male siblings.
Shortly after his return from his 10-day space junket, Amigo was placed in the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry. Unfortunately, Amigo kicked the bucket last June when a power outage knocked out his filtration system at the museum, causing a lethal buildup of ammonia in his tank. Yet Amigo did not die in vain. He showed that a fish could survive in space for human consumption--a critical scientific discovery if zero gravity fly fishing and French restaurants are to be successful in low earth orbit.
But the question remains. Will rabbits show the same zero gravity resilience as tilapia? One thing's for sure: Chez Gerard's sautéed rabbit doesn't need the thrust of shuttle engines to generate a good country burn. Our server cautioned us before we ordered this dish that it had an abundance of prickly heat. While it seems strange that a restaurant in the Southwest should be giving out heat warnings, the warnings are warranted. The dish is a scorching grayish gruel fueled with a green peppercorn mustard cream sauce. Mushrooms, peas, rice and scraps of what appeared to be tomato (the tongue was bitten with heat paralysis) were mingled into a sort of casserole and served in a crock. Though the pieces of rabbit were tender and juicy, the spicy green peppercorn sauce seemed to overwhelm it--a howitzer for a bunny hunt when a pellet gun would have been fine.
Another dish that fell short of expectations was the salade de frejus, a mixed seafood salad with tomatoes, hearts of palm, corn, endive and a few other things all massed into a kind of gaudy hat architecture. It contained shrimp, delicious white fish meat (species unknown, but it could have been tilapia), bland pieces of tortured salmon and several mussels. Many of those mussels exuded flavors and aromas that normally would have made you hold your nose if the meat wasn't already in your mouth. Plus, the slices of white stuff in the salad, allegedly hearts of palm, tasted suspiciously like jicama, or maybe pieces of cabbage.
Fortunately, dessert smoothed over most of these culinary potholes. The warm apple tart, a disk of pastry with symmetrically arranged apple slices hugging the perimeter, was delicious. With dabs of crème fraiche here and there, the dish consisted of fresh, fiercely tart apple slices and a simple and delicate pastry, just what you need after a touchy mussel and a fiery rabbit.
Cayat also has a country French spot in Plano called Lavendou, a restaurant he launched several years ago with Espartaco Borga of La Duni. Though Lavendou doesn't have the quaint charm of Chez Gerard, somehow the food comes across as more impressive and consistent. Hard to know what to make of that, except that maybe rabbits do better feeding on Plano lawn turf than Dallas scrub.
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