Fed Man 55: Chez Nous (41)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 41: Chez Nous
510 Neches St. 512-473-2413, www.cheznousaustin.com.
Hours: Lunch 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday. Dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 09.22.12
If only life were a Cappiello poster. We’d all have black umbrellas and three elegant hats and eat pasta with a Pagliacci clown. Cappiello sold the notion of France, where wicked ladies and green devils and circus animals drank and smoked in a color-saturated alternate reality. The soft lights of Chez Nous sell a notion of France, too, one that’s evocative and stylized but as easy to own as a Cappiello print in a frame shop.
The tour package at Chez Nous is the Menu du Jour (pictured below), a three-course dinner of soup, salad or paté, a main course of fish or steak and a dessert or cheese for $28.50. It might start with the yolky cascade of a willowy poached egg over the julienned bell peppers of a salade Lyonnaise, followed by a seared flank of beef painted with equal measures of anise-flavored Pernod butter and the blood that gives the steak its iron backbone. And then cheese, a creamy slice of brie with grapes and walnuts. It’s a three-course poster of its own, advertising French without pretense.
The classics are here. They put away the showy snail shells to present escargot as part of a butter-and-garlic sauté with mushrooms ($11.50 for nine), a leathery curiosity I’m unlikely to revisit. The housemade liver mousse and country-style pork paté ($7.50) I’ve enjoyed on past dinners at Chez Nous were better than the rough-cut terrine of a recent visit, remarkable mainly for sweet currants and meat as dry as saltine crackers. A pan-roasted dish of halibut ($26.50) brought the kitchen into balance for me. On arrival, the fish radiated a strong oily aroma. But that evaporated, replaced by the licorice vapors of fennel amplified by Pernod liqueur. The fish itself was cooked a shade past ideal, and a softer flake would have better highlighted the textural contrast of the fried leek hash the fish wore like a lace bonnet. Both the halibut and the flank steak from the Menu du Jour came with a trinity of side dishes: broiled tomato, fried balls of mashed potato called pommes dauphine and a ramekin of mushroom custard with an earthy bloom of flavor.
Chez Nous hit one of the key marks of a good restaurant wine experience: A glass of Chateau Goudichaud Bordeaux compelled me to shop the label online, knowing that the markdown math for an $8.50 glass means a bottle might go as low as $12 retail, and now I’ve found the house wine for my next dinner party, one that suggests the earth and gravel of more expensive bottles. And now I know about Pineau des Charentes liqueur ($7.50), served cold in a little tulip glass. It’s a fortified white wine that burns like apple brandy, a sensation surely informed by the crepe Normande ($9) at its side, a neat tricorner packet filled with apples, swirling with Calvados vapors that make everything taste and smell like apples for just a flash.
It’s that flash that makes Chez Nous more than an escape from the carnival midway of East Sixth Street. It fosters an atmosphere of self-improvement, a temporal yearning to broaden your food and wine and cultural horizons. The low-pitched accents of the Chez Nous family gently awaken a desire to know and speak French without making you ashamed that you don’t. And for 90 minutes, you’re a tourist in your own city, shopping for Cappiello reproductions.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants