Our Place, Chez Nous

Veteran French Restaurant Continues to Please

With a name like Chez Nous, "our place," Austin's veteran French restaurant could be mistaken for an exclusive location catering solely to the city's French community and resident Francophiles. Instead, this tiny downtown haunt has for nearly 15 years welcomed Austinites (both those in the know and those completely at a loss when it comes to what constitutes authentic French food), serving specialties one might indeed experience at a French friend's place for dinner.

With a number of new arrivals on the French/Continental European dining scene (Jean Luc's French bistro, Lupin, and Bistro) a visit back to Chez Nous was in order. Little has changed in the restaurant's decor, a retro Parisian look too often characterized by Americans as "quaint," that manages to be at once chic and shabby. Small, oilcloth-topped tables fill the intimate dining room, fresh flowers poke from carafes bearing the Ricard trademark, and faded French ads line the walls along with candid photos of Gallic villagers. A mural of the Montmartre metro stop covers another wall, adding a decidedly Parisian touch to the place, though the most authentically French thing about Chez Nous is its staff. Sit within earshot of the long, narrow bar around which they gather for conversation; close your eyes, and you'll swear you're anywhere but a block from Sixth Street.

The menu at Chez Nous includes a variety of fish, lamb, poultry, and beef dishes, all served with sautéed vegetables and delectable, nutmeg-infused potato puffs, the restaurant's signature take on pommes dauphinoises. Specialties from many of France's different regions keep the restaurant from being pigeonholed as, say, Provençal or Norman. And lest diners forget where they really are, the pave a la mexicaine, a steak with a mole demi-glace, adds a Texas touch. Not surprisingly, wines from each of France's wine-producing regions are sold by both the glass and bottle.

After months of living without what is perhaps my favorite French dish, I was thrilled to see magret de canard (duck breast) on the menu. Following a copious salade Lyonnaise crowned with a perfectly poached egg and grainy dijon vinagarette (although sadly lacking a smattering of sinful lardons as is the case in France), I eagerly dove into the duck. Chez Nous' take on the bird ($15.50) included a sweet sauce of finely julienned fig and duck stock. The duck was cooked to perfection, and the sauce complemented, rather than overpowered, the flavorful meat. My dining companion chose the spinach salad ($5.50), topped with avocado, tomato, pine nuts, Roquefort, and a rich honey-based dressing, followed by the plat du jour, a baked trout accompanied by a buttery asparagus sauce spiked with white wine. Commendably, the fish was not cooked into oblivion. Like many French restaurants, Chez Nous offers diners a prix fixe menu. While the main dishes change daily, $16.50 buys your choice of soup, salade Lyonnaise, or pâté; a plat du jour, and your choice of Brie or dessert.

A second visit to Chez Nous on a warm winter evening found me seeking dishes on the lighter side of French cuisine. I began with the salade Chez Nous ($6.50), mixed greens topped with red and green onion, cucumber, tomatoes, tangy green apple, homemade garlic croutons, and smoked, sliced duck breast. Unfortunately, the duck -- the promise of which led to my selection -- proved to be two insignificant shavings of dry meat that didn't add to the otherwise pleasing combination. A main course of sea scallops with basil, scallions, corriander, shrimp fumet, and Pernod, an anise-flavored aperitif ($16.50), fared better. The scallops were sizable and the sauce was a curious blend of bitter and smooth that was quite enjoyable, especially paired with a fruity 1991 Bouchard Pere et Fils Brouilly ($19.50 bottle/$5.50 glass). Throwing the "light" idea to the wind, I ordered a chocolate mousse for dessert. It was a simple mousse, with no frills added, sublimely airy in texture and rich in flavor.

Having educated Austinites firsthand on French flavors for nearly 15 years, Chez Nous has certainly earned its place as one of the city's most enduring restaurants and benefits from a dedicated local clientele. Clearly, much is right about the place. It feels French and offers fare that pleases. The true test for Chez Nous, however, may be yet to come. Can the restaurant continue to please diners with its time-proven savoir faire as new French alternatives vie for a spot in the limelight? Will the new kids on the block give Chez Nous a coup de vieux (render it passé)? My guess, when it comes to French dining in Austin is -- as the saying goes -- "You can never get too much of a good thing." n

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