Le Rêve is extaordinary, but don’t save it for a special occasion
A tall, bespectacled gentleman dashes onto the sidewalk alongside me; he rattles the front door, on which Le Rêve — “the dream” in French — is etched in frosted glass in script reminiscent of geese in flight. No luck. The restaurant could be closed for all we can tell from the street, except we have reservations for 7:30 sharp. Are our foie-gras dreams winging away in the cool winter breeze? We look at each other, slightly perplexed and flustered. My dining companion is idling the car at the curb, looking fretfully at the empty valet stand. But then hostess Maureen Weissman pokes her head from around the corner, where the side entrance overlooks the River Walk, the valet skips up the curb, and our spirits rise.
|Chef Andrew Weissman at work in Le Rêve’s kitchen. Dinner at the famed restaurant cannot be rushed, because each dish is prepared a la minute. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)|
Neuroscientists tell us that humans learn by patterning and categorizing; dining companion and I have categorized Le Rêve under “special occasions only.” It’s not the price per se — without trying very hard you can rack up a comparable tab at many local dining establishments, from Biga to L’Etoile to Morton’s. It is more the aura of the place: Jackets for gentlemen and reservations are required and the room is formal yet cozy, so you cannot be anonymous — although your fellow diners are far more interested in their food than in whether you can select a companion wine for Chef Andrew Weissman’s signature onion tart.
“People have to be open to the fine-dining experience,” says Weissman. “`But` we’re never there to show anybody up.” Which makes Le Rêve the perfect classroom, and my dining companion and I have come here to study one of our favorite subjects: food. The tuition is more than reasonable. Like college, dinner at Le Rêve consists of courses: three for $75, four for $85, and five for $95. A tasting menu, 8 dishes, is $95.
Our first assignment: Determine how much we can eat. Le Rêve is instructive on this matter. Dinner is a four-hour commitment; it is the evening out. “It’s such a different experience, to sit down and really talk to each other,” says Weissman. In addition to encouraging the art of conversation, the leisurely pace allows you to consume much more food than if you were scarfing it all in the typical hour-and-a-half American dinner. We opted for four courses, our appetite whetted by the complimentary starter, an amuse-bouche (literally, a bite that delights) of light lobster salad.
For appetizers, we went decadent, seared foie gras for me, and the Applewood-smoked bacon for dining companion; both arrived in Texas-size portions. Weissman believes you need to serve foie gras at least a half-inch thick so that the diner can experience its different textures, from the crisp, salty crust to the familiar firm mantle, to the custard-like core — which was a revelation. It was so rich, I couldn’t finish it all. Dining companion, lost in the succulent brick of bacon, was of little help, but to be fair in retrospect the bacon was the star of the evening: When I recall the meal, its deep smoky and sweet flavors are melded with Le Rêve’s soft forest-green walls in a sensation best described as cashmere comforter.
Dining companion elected to substitute another appetizer, the onion tart, savory and heavy with cheese, in place of the salad course. To me it tasted more like goat cheese than carmelized onions, but he loved it. I was infatuated with the crosnes in my bib-lettuce salad. Lesson number two: Named for the French town where they were discovered, crosnes are crunchy, corkscrew-shaped tubers, reminiscent of celery root and Jerusalem artichokes, although they are of the mint family.
Lesson number three: Less is more. Our entrees arrived, chocolate-braised short ribs for dining companion, venison au jus for me, served simply with a few vegetables for the former and a sprinkling of dried fruits with the latter. “One of the linchpins of my philosophy is to let the produce speak for itself,” says Weissman. He mentions Frank Lloyd Wright as inspiration. “Over the years I’ve found that unadorned food looks better. People tend to eat with their eyes.”
The minimalist presentation may be the reason we were able to make it most of the way through the generous portions, no giant mounds of whipped potatoes or polenta staring us down. The venison was medium rare on the nose, and the au jus had a faint caramel quality that contrasted winningly with the meat’s natural juices. It was outstandingly tender and a gregarious diner at the next table, who was audibly enjoying his tasting menu, told us it comes from a herd of Axis deer raised on a ranch south of town.
And, oh, the short ribs. They fell away from the bone and melted in our mouths the way only a slow-cooked meat can. The braising sauce, made with Valhrona powder, bitter chocolate, star anise, five-spice powder, oranges, garlic, and brown sugar, enhances and forefronts the beef’s flavor while satisfying every “taste”: salty, spicy, sweet, sour, and bitter.
152 E. Pecan
5:30-11pm `last seating: 8pm`
Price range: $75-$135
On the less-is-more note, Le Rêve offers several half-bottles on its wine list, a perfect size if you want to pair selections with your courses and still remember dessert the next day. For our main course, we chose a Quintessa Rutherford red from the turn of the most-recent century, a full-bodied Napa Valley wine that drew out the meats’ fruitier notes but left our palates sensitive enough to taste the delicate parsnip and dried pears that accompanied the dishes.
Lesson number four: Veal stock really is indispensable to the gourmet kitchen.
A common ingredient in both the au jus and the ribs, the stock itself takes hours to prepare. After the bones are roasted, they must be simmered for hours to break down the gelatinous shins, which give the stock, and every sauce in which it is used, a silky feel and a satin sheen.
Somewhere between courses two and four, a palate cleanser arrived that was another showstopper: a scoop of Texas pink-grapefruit sorbet that sparkled away on the tongue to leave the essence of the fruit in its wake. Lesson five: Sometimes more is more. We were ready for the next serving.
Dining companion and I split on the fourth course; I went for the wide-ranging cheese selection and he opted for dessert — a pastry filled with chocolate cream and gilded with salted-caramel ice cream and creme anglaise. Although we adored the ice cream — as with much of the night’s best food its strength came from playing opposites off one another — like the evening itself it melted away too quickly. But we’ll be back soon; practice makes perfect. •
By Elaine Wolff