Conventional wisdom in the Houston dining scene says that the farther you get outside the Loop, the harder it is to find great restaurants. Heck, some foodies won't go OTL (Outside the Loop) at all for dinner, claiming that it's a wasteland with nothing but chain restaurants serving reheated generic food.
So you can imagine our surprise when we discovered that one of the world's greatest chefs was opening a restaurant on Lake Conroe. Located at the La Torretta resort, Chez Roux is the creation of Chef Albert Roux, the founder of Le Gavroche, England's first Michelin-starred restaurant, located in London. Le Gavroche went on to be the first restaurant in the UK to hold the coveted three Michelin stars.
From our Texas perspective, it is tough to understand the influence of Albert Roux. He and his brother Michel are regarded as the godfathers of modern restaurant cuisine in the UK. They put England on the culinary map by raising standards across the nation, opened several ground-breaking Michelin-starred restaurants, had a TV series, wrote several books, and mentored many of England's top chefs, including Gordon Ramsey.
The best analogy I can provide would be to wander into a lakeside watering hole, and discover that Eric Clapton was the guitarist in the house band. To say you'd be pleasantly surprised is an understatement.
This culinary superstar picked Lake Conroe as the location for his first and only restaurant in the United States, and we were thrilled to be invited out to meet Chef Roux and sample his cuisine. The kitchen at Chez Roux is normally staffed by several of Chef Roux's alumni from his establishments across the pond, including Chef Matthew Gray, who earned his own Michelin star at the famed Inverlochy Castle Hotel in Scotland. But today Chef Gray was on a much-deserved vacation, and the master was at the helm.
We were escorted to our table by Garrett Donovan, the restaurant director, who gave us a bit of background about Chez Roux and who would serve as our host for the evening. We were seated at a lovely table with a spectacular view across Lake Conroe of the sunset, and before us was an array of wine glasses and fresh flutes of champagne - House of Albert Roux Grand Cru, Blanc de Blanc.
The champagne was slightly dry and very light, and a wonderful welcome to this French outpost. We found ourselves leaving the hot Texas summer behind, and stepping into Albert Roux's world.
When Chef Roux strolled up to our table, we were immediately charmed by his warm countenance and his quick wit. The chef may be 74, but he has the fire in his eyes of a much younger man. You could tell he was exactly where he loved being, at the helm of his restaurant, overseeing the kitchen and making sure that every dish met his exacting standards.
The chef suggested a six-course tasting with wine pairings. Not being foolish, we left ourselves in the capable hands of Chef Roux.
After some time to relax and unwind, the first course appeared. It was a light dish featuring large Gulf shrimp, veal sweetbreads, and a cauliflower salad.
Chef Roux demonstrated a deft touch with the shrimp, which were perfectly cooked and complemented by the remarkably tender sweetbreads. But we fell in love with the cauliflower, which was gently sauteed and lightly seasoned with only salt, a touch of parsley and a hint of lemon. The flavors were delicate and layered, and as far away from the in-your-face experience of most local cuisine as London is from Conroe.
The dish was paired with a 2005 Louis Jadot Meursault, a fruity, nutty Chardonnay from the Burgundy region of France.
Next up was the Duck Tourte, served with a port wine jus.
The preparation was classic in the extreme - gently braised duck breast baked in pastry, placed in a lake of port wine au jus. Cutting into the pastry revealed an incredibly light, flaky crust, moist (but not damp) interior, and an earthy duck breast fillet that was delightfully moist and rich.
The tourte was paired with a Vincent Girardin Gevrey Chambertin, a spicy burgundy that really brought out the earthy duck essence.
Now it was time for our entree. Chef Roux created Pot au Feu of Salted Pork Cheeks, with Sauce Albert.
We enjoy pork, and this is a preparation that was new to us. The lightly salted pork cheeks were cooked rare and were remarkably tender, and served over sauteed garden vegetables with a light, buttery cream sauce. Again, the delicacy of the flavors was remarkable, dancing together with effortless grace.
The pork was paired with a ripe, fruity 2004 Domaine Ligneres "Aric". This was an inspired choice, as the notes of blackberry, cherry and mint were a splendid match to the buttery pork cheeks.
After this impressive degustation, it was time for the trifle; in this case, a Trifle au Roquefort. It was a fascinating concoction of smooth Roquefort cheese puree layered over poached pears, and served in a tall shot glass.
After the four previous subtle courses, the pungent Roquefort cheese rolled in like a hurricane. The flavor was powerful, sharp, and a bit overpowering. The sweetness of the pears toned it down a bit, but we agreed that this was our least favorite course.
On the other hand we fell in love with the wine pairing. A very dark Hungarian, it was a 1995 vintage Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos. Strongly sweet without being cloying, the high alcohol content (over 14%) was masked by the smooth caramel note. Acid balanced the sweetness, which was a pleasant surprise in a dessert wine.
Finally it was time for dessert - in this case, a petite raspberry soufflé with raspberry sauce and white chocolate ice cream. The ice cream was dropped into the center of the soufflé, and surrounded with the rich raspberry sauce. The soufflé was light and almost foamy, and the housemade ice cream added a nice, dense counterpoint.
We were happy that the Tokaji Aszu was paired with this dish as well, and found that the smooth caramel flavor intertwined with the raspberry and provided a decadent finish to a remarkable meal.
Lest there be any doubt, we were impressed by the tasting prepared by Chef Roux, and by the flawless service provided by Garrett and his staff at Chez Roux. We have confirmed that there is indeed fine cuisine found far outside the Loop, and we're happy that we don't have to travel as far as London to experience the magic that Chef Albert Roux can bring forth for his guests.
Chez Roux - 600 La Toretta Blvd - Montgomery, Texas 77356
936-448-4400 - Chez Roux website