Bien arrive, Ciel!
Damien Watel’s newest restaurant venture, Ciel, has just opened on the far north side, about a mile west of the intersection of 281 and Stone Oak Parkway. In fact, the day we went to lunch, workmen were painting parking spaces in the small lot that fronts Stone Oak. Steve, our ebullient server, a transplanted New York sommelier, told us the restaurant had been open only a week and is gearing up for a prix-fixe brunch on Sundays.
Ciel is definitely off to a good start. It is a welcome addition to the few local places serving classic French cooking at affordable prices. A patio with outside seating has a view essentially of parking and the highway, but the interior is attractive and inviting. The décor is black and beige, set off by dressed stone. A series of skylights softens the post-modern architecture, as do the fresh flowers and large ficus and ferns. The cement floor is stained a rich plum color.
Tables for four or six provide ample dining space for at least 80, even with the much-appreciated room between tables, providing for a measure of privacy in conversations. The rear walls feature large abstract paintings with text by Carla Veliz. My favorite was “Lo major esta por venir” (The best is yet to come). Each is available for purchase at a whopping $8,000.
Probably because the restaurant has just opened, only four tables were occupied the weekday we went. Lunch provides a choice of about a dozen entrees ($13-18), plus two or three chalkboard specials. We both chose soups for starters on this brisk January day and were not disappointed. My bean and bacon was thick and hearty, while my companion’s endive bisque was creamy and smooth. Portions were generous and filling.
After considering the coq au vin and the pork chop with mustard sauce, I opted for the veal liver, which was served with grilled onions atop chantelle mushrooms in a bordelaise sauce. Julienne carrots were topped with cauliflower. Served medium rare as ordered, the liver was delicious. My dining companion definitely wanted fish, and although tempted by the moules with frites, she ordered the grilled snapper, which was served with a few large grilled shrimp and small parboiled potatoes in their skins, along with the julienne carrots and cauliflower. Hesitantly, she conceded me a taste. The fish was fresh; the vegetables well cooked but nicely firm.
Although there were no desserts on the menu, we didn’t let that stop us from quizzing Steve about the possibilities. We split a pear and almond tarte, garnished with berries and whipped cream. Looking around at our dining neighbors, we admired the cheese and fruit plate but decided we were quite comfortably full.
The well-chosen list of about 150 wines, ranging from $30 to $395 a bottle, includes a good selection under $50. Most are specific vintages. In the whites, you might try the Spann Vineyards Chardonnay-Viogner 2006 ($40), a particularly smooth, award-winning Sonoma. The Coppola Diamond Claret 2006 ($46) is an excellent choice in the reds, although if you are in a celebratory mood, the Far Niente Cabernet 2005 is a great Napa wine, with rich black fruits ($225). Non-vintage wines are available by the glass from $7.25 to $10.
The wines are attractively arranged in a wall-length, glass divider. There is a second dining room of more or less the same size and character, although the floor is stained in a cream color. The spacious, unseen kitchen lies behind both dining areas.
Ciel’s Sunday Brunch was no less delightful than the lunch — a four-course prix fixe meal, preceded by complimentary pistachio and rosemary scones accompanied by strawberry jam, apricot puree, and a sweet grape chutney. A good wine to start off would be the Aneri Prosecco, an elegant champagne-style wine from the Veneto region of northeast Italy ($30/bottle).
The soup course was a large bowl of rich tomato with sautéed sweet onions. After, I had the lump crab salad on a tabouli salad, while my companion surprised me by passing on the seafood vol au vent in favor of the watercress salad with a warm bacon-vinaigrette dressing, accompanied by a poached egg. As we finished, we agreed this would have been a good day to have skipped breakfast.
The entree choices were two egg dishes (a frittata and a three-cheese omelet), two meat dishes (roast leg of lamb, veal medallions), and two fish dishes. Since we infrequently eat fish at home, we selected the sautéed black grouper and the grilled salmon. No question about it; Ciel definitely knows how to do fish! Both were soft, fleshy, served in a rich lobster sauce, with great flavor. The accompanying vegetables — small potatoes, broccoli, and sautéed red, green, and yellow peppers — made for a perfect balance.
Despite our being full, passing on dessert never crossed our minds. I had an excellent crème brule and even a bite of my partner’s rich apricot bread pudding with apricot puree. Both plates were garnished with berries and whipped cream.
Perhaps since Ciel is still a newbie on the brunch circuit, there were only a few occupied tables: a trio of fashionable young women at one, a foursome of well-dressed seniors at another, and two couples together with their two-year old daughters. It’s refreshing to see parents who believe children should develop their palates early. After all, there is more to life than MCDs and Happy Meals.
At $28, the brunch is a delectable bargain. The same meal at dinner costs about $50, before drinks, taxes, and tip. And the service rates an exceptional grade — informed, attentive, and gracious. Kudos to owner and chef for setting high standards at Ciel.
The ever-expanding restaurant group of Damien Watel will include two more in the same Stone Oak complex: Ciao 2 and The Green Lantern. If the level of quality, the attractive décor, and the excellent service of Ciel is an indicator, we will be culinarily blessed.
By the way, Ciel has a great Valentine’s Day Menu planned. Check it out at bistrovatel.com or give them a call at (210) 481-7001.
20626 Stone Oak Parkway
Classic French cuisine prepared and served by pros at affordable prices. Well-chosen wine list.
The fish dishes, desserts
Lunch: 11:30am-2pm Tue-Fri; Dinner: 5:30-10pm Tue-Sat; Brunch: 11am-2pm Sun
Entrees: $13-18 at lunch, $14-28 at dinner.