by John Lightle
One can’t help but notice the vacant wall inside the dining area of Houston’s upscale Étoile French bistro. Between the restaurant’s opening, the steady clientele and torrential spring rains, husband and wife team Phillipe Verpiand and Monica Bui have, for the time being, let it stand. “I intended to paint Provençal women, but when we opened the restaurant, everybody loved it,” says Monica, self-taught pencil sketch artist and painter, former science teacher and now restaurant manager. As long as business remains strong, the wall will have to wait.
Phillipe, a French master chef, is the culinary driver of Étoile. The menu reflects flavors of his native Vaucluse countryside, including Sole Amandine with snow peas and Filet de Boeuf au Poivre in a cognac peppercorn sauce.
Born into a family of butchers, Phillipe entered the culinary field almost at infancy. “We have pictures of him at four years old wearing his butcher’s hat making bread,” Monica laughs. “Their family had a wine cellar in the basement–it’s a part of their culture. At a very young age, Phillipe had a comprehensive knowledge of grape growing regions,” Monica says.
Phillipe’s father could see changes coming, in which the traditional butcher shops were swallowed up by larger grocery store meat departments.
So the family that had raised three generations of butchers redirected Phillipe into the
French Culinary Institute of Avignon. As he made his way through the Alps, the Riviera, Normandy, and Biarritz, he was exposed to seven different Michelin-rated restaurants.
Phillipe left his homeland after a friend recommended him to acclaimed French chef Jean-Michel Diot as the chef de cuisine for a new project. Together they opened Tampanade in La Jolla, a San Diego suburb. For seven years Phillipe ran the kitchen, bringing modern French cuisine to California.
During that time he met Monica. In 2005 the couple opened San Diego’s Cavaillon Restaurant. Rich in French tradition, Cavaillon quickly became a local favorite. But the economic downturn and burdensome state laws drove the couple to look for possibilities outside California. Monica’s brother recommended Houston. There Phillipe and Monica found a vibrant atmosphere conducive to their style.
“It took two years to open in Houston,” Monica recalls. “We found Houston the place to be, but at the time banks were not lending money to restaurateurs.” But the couple persisted and finally succeeded.
A trip to Phillipe’s home village inspired the design of their new venue. He and Monica determined to recreate the setting of country bistros found throughout the region. But intent on breaking stereotypes, they chose to depart from traditional French service and offer a relaxed and comfortable country dining experience.
Now open in Houston’s Uptown Park, Étoile Cuisine et Bar provides guests a taste of southeastern French fare. The menu features flavors Phillipe has been serving for years. A favorite, Coq au Vin, chicken braised in red wine, is a mainstay of Étoile’s traditional menu, while the Pavé de Saumon Rôti, pan salmon with fried Brussels sprouts, is a seasonal feature.
Phillipe’s menu includes a touch of Monica’s native Asian influence. “He uses lemon grass and coconut to flavor a broth used in fish dishes. He learned that from my mother. But he doesn’t go too far, just a hint of fusion, or stray too far from his French origins,” Monica says.
The staff at Étoile puts customers at ease, without the pretentious air so often associated with French restaurants. Nevertheless, Étoile sets a high bar for standards of service and knowledge. Hiring more seasoned servers and providing monthly classes reduces turnover and has made a critical difference in the restaurant’s success. Monica, a former teacher, understands the value of ongoing training. “You can’t expect employees to retain knowledge if you present it one time—it’s like cramming for a test. You just remember the material until you take the test.”
Classes include the study of wine regions and pairing, with visiting wine vendors educating the staff. Étoile has no sommelier on staff, but Phillipe uncorks his vast knowledge to provide guests the best possible dining service.
While they remain busy serving an enthusiastic clientele, Phillipe and Monica make time to feed the hungry beyond their doors. Immediately after opening Étoile, they joined area restaurant groups in contributing to charitable causes. Their support of the Houston Food Bank and other worthy causes raises community awareness along with the restaurant’s profile. “We invite guest speakers to speak at the bistro so that donors are more informed, and we publish information about their cause in our newsletter,” Monica says.
Guests rave after their Étoile dining experience, whether seated at linencovered tables indoors or out. Although the restaurant is conveniently located within easy driving distance for many Houstonians, the delight of country French cuisine served flawlessly by knowledgeable staff amidst décor reminiscent of a European farmhouse suggests the feel of traveling abroad. For now, though, that single unadorned wall remains. “But,” Monica assures, “after we slow down, I’ll get to it. Maybe in five years.”