Café Poêtes Provides a Parisian Hideaway with Hearty Fare Near Downtown Houston
So many photographers want to use the nearly all-white, yet lush interior of Café Poêtes at 122 West Grey as a backdrop, the owners have implemented a policy to rein in the practice. But make no mistakes: the elegant space adorned with dainty porcelain tea cups, paper flowers and a wall of books belies a menu featuring surprisingly hearty dishes.
In recent American culinary history, French cuisine has had a public relations problem. Until the disaffected ’90s, there was an assumption that the best meals were found in expensive French restaurants. However, every trend, no matter how enduring, inspires an equal and opposite backlash, and many started rejecting some of the more pretentious aspects of French-style dining.
There’s another side to the cuisine, though, one that is more down-to-earth: bistro fare. Marked by reasonable prices, quality ingredients, humble preparations and warm service, there’s really nothing to not love. Café Poêtes excels at this comforting approach to food.
At the same time, it’s also ideally set up for the fancier — yet relaxing, and seldom-offered — ritual of afternoon tea. The service features an impressive tiered stand of savory eclair sandwiches, sweet eclairs and, of course, tea. Available from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., the price for adults ranges from $45 to $36, depending on the day, and $19 for kids.
Recently, Café Poêtes added dinner, and I was invited to try a few dishes from the new menu. Each shined, starting with the soup-of-the-day: an earthy mushroom bisque. I’ve seen some excellent mushroom soup presentations, perhaps most memorably chef Michael Kramer’s signature mushroom cappuccino at long-departed Voice at Hotel Icon. There’s a universal problem, though: there’s never enough of the warm, creamy concoction. It’s gone all too soon. Fortunately, that’s not the case with the ample portion at Café Poêtes, which is served in a mini, stainless pot with burnished brass handles. (Everything here is served in a fun vessel.) By the way: mushroom soup should be brown or at least tan, indicating there’s plenty of the main ingredient and the proper intensity of flavor. Those who receive a white “mushroom soup” might consider sending it back.
Next up was a charming L’oeuf Cocotte, a 63-degree poached egg accompanied by toast points for dipping into the rich yolk. The addition of shiitake mushrooms, heavy cream and Gorgonzola espuma (foam) elevated the sumptuous yolk, while a smattering of fried onions on top added the needed textural counterpoint.
Thanks to the cream, the soup and coddled egg make a satisfying light dinner or lunch. The final dish I was served could, also, be a meal unto itself: Boeuf Bourguignon. As with much else at this French café, the cooks obsessed over the details of this classic dish. Rather than just orange carrots, burgundy ones were also included for extra color. However, this dish wasn’t just pretty. The excellent execution ensured that this traditional dish of beef braised in red wine with bacon, mushrooms and pearl onions was as comforting as it was colorful.
My sole complaint about Café Poêtes is there is one too many tables. The seating is so close that I had difficulty wriggling in and out of my seat. The back of my chair was nearly touching the woman behind me. It was an annoyance that the sweet service and excellent cuisine made up for, but I’d never sit at that particular table again.
Café Poêtes may appear to some to be too precious and frilly. But don’t allow that to stop you from enjoying their hearty and flavorful dishes. This beautiful establishment is great for families with well-mannered kids who know not to touch the china teacups and teapots, and many will adore afternoon teatime, a rare treat in Houston.
However, as the seasonal rain and chill settles across the Bayou City, Café Poêtes is also ideal for a solitary venture, perhaps at the bar for “laptop hours” (generally between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.) or, better still, huddled, novel in hand, at a small table with hot tea and comforting fare.
Café Poêtes is open Tuesdays through Sundays and only serves dinner after 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Their hours are:
- Monday, closed
- Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Reservations are required for afternoon tea, which is available from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m; call 346-802-4969 to inquire.
Note: If you’re headed that way, be aware that it’s easy to drive right past the restaurant, so visit the website for directions. If you are interested in using the gorgeous space for photos, please email the restaurant in advance.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.