Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sauté World Bistro: Where Are They Going with their Food?

I was thrilled when I got the invitation to attend a free sampling dinner for food bloggers at the two-month old Sauté Bistro. I have drank excellent free-trade tea and eaten at their first Houston restaurant, Té. Therefore I was looking forward to eating at one of similar ilk with a more expanded menu.

The place is pretty, built originally as a house and added on to over the years, it left its domestic heritage behind and has been used as a restaurant for a while. The venue, albeit a bit noisy where we sat in the front room, is charming.

On a frigid Tuesday evening, about twelve of us bloggers gathered to try Sauté‘s menu and a few new dishes which the restaurant choose for us. As I entered, I was greeted warmly by one of the owners, Kevin Lacobie and we were later joined by his wife, co-owner Connie Lacobie. The chef, Garry Hollie, who comes from New Orleans, presented and explained each course.

I wanted to love this restaurant for many reasons, most notably the graciousness of the owners, their philosophy of using local ingredients and the comfortable interior of the building. The location on Richmond near Kirby and next to Blue Fish and the Hobbit seems like a place that would get a decent amount of traffic.

First of all the place was fairly empty. A scene I am starting to notice more and more as I dine out during the week. Perhaps Houston is finally feeling the consequences of the current economic slide and people are starting to eat out less. If this is so, it is now a more difficult time for new restaurants to survive.

At Sauté the eclectic menu features dishes influenced by a variety of food cultures including; Asia, the Mediterranean, Europe, Mexico, South America and the United States.

But instead of feeling like I was on a journey through variety of world cuisines, I felt like I was sampling a hodgepodge of highly or not spiced foods. There was not one dish, beyond the Mexican chocolate cake, that married the flavors of a particular cuisine seamlessly with all the ingredients. Additionally the menu we sampled was heavy on spice, protein and starch – where were the vegetables?

Please keep in mind that as guests of the restaurant, the menu was chosen for us. I personally would not have picked the mix of dishes we had for a group like ours and this may had been one of the fatal flaw of the evening.

We began with an aperitif, a “Teatini” called Aloha Sunrise Waikiki, made with tea, tequila, orange juice, and simple sugar. It was yummy, with a good balance of flavors that were not overpowering. This drink worked.

During our meal we tasted two reasonably priced wines one a Casa Nostra, a French Rosé ($32) and a Ca ‘del Santo, Italian Pinto Grigio ($28). They both paired nicely with the food, but we could have used a wine bucket to keep them cooler.

Our first course was a current menu item, the spicy chicken pastelitos with salsa verde and sweet chili sauce on the side. The pastelitos tasted mainly of pastry and spices, I could hardly make out the flavor of the meat and if there were any other ingredients stuffed inside.

Next we were presented with two small pieces of bread with melted gorgonzola cheese and honey drizzled on it. I found it tasty but too sweet. It was curious to me why we received them as a separate course, as a piece of the bread shows up later as an accompaniment to a pasta dish and no bread was ever served during the meal.

I truly disliked the cold Crab Salad with Crispy Wonton. The crab meat tasted fishy, the melted Parmesan cheese was cold on the top of the crab meat mixture and it was served in a fried wonton. The taste of the crabmeat was more similar to canned crabmeat than fresh, perhaps it was old?

The chef’s love affair with fried food continued, I was willing to say stop – none of the fried foods I had so far were worth the extra calories frying adds, but no we were continuing. Voila, the cheese steak eggrolls.

I found them soggy. I could hardly taste the mushrooms or make out the flavor of the cheese. It is served with a cheese dipping sauce on the side and had the flavor of the kind of sauce one expects on Fettuccine Alfredo.

At this point, I am getting hungry. I have not finished a course yet and I thinking when are we are getting a green salad or a vegetable dish to balance the protein and carbohydrate heavy meal we have been consuming. Perhaps I should be eating the leafy green vegetable under the eggrolls? But I choose to drink a little more wine, which is fruit, is it not?

The Creole Pasta had one piece each of shrimp and crawfish. The dish comes with a somewhat over the top peppery cream sauce. That overly sweet bread with cheese and honey has returned, sitting on the rim of the bowl.

Now I am starting to think what kind of vegetables do I have at home and will I have the energy to cook them? I pray silently to myself, asking the gods of food to provide us with some sort of vegetable or salad for the next course.

But no, what comes next is a real surprise, Alligator Piccata with Forbidden Rice , a Cajun-Chinese fusion dish. I taste lemon, as I should, but the dish is garnished with lime. The picatta breading is cooked perfectly. Tell me, what was the point of using alligator when it did not add anything special to the dish? Tasting a bit more, I could tell that the picatta was a little to salty for me and the rice is bland. Some of the plates around me have capers on them; my plate looked like it had one, although the rest may have ducked under the rice.

The dessert choices were more of a hit with me. The Banana Layer Cake with fresh fruit was decent.

I really enjoyed the Mexican Spice Cake.

My advice is simple; do what you do best. Té on Fairview works well. Ask yourself why?

The menu at Sauté is all over the place. I could not really click with the what the meaning of world bistro theme was in any positive light. The owners and or chef of Sauté need to figure out who their clientèle is and cater to them.

Furthermore, upon reflection, Sauté left me confused. Confused as to what the intention of calling the restaurant a "World Bistro" really meant? Confused as to who are the target customers? Confused about the meaning of the web tag line: Dining Drinks Dancing?

I want to support restaurants that are committed to using local fresh foods, and local chefs who are taking a chance but at this point I am not ready to support Sauté.

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Saute said...

We enjoyed having you and all the other food bloggers and foodies for our first food tasting! And to discover you know our friend and business partner Ali - that was a small world moment!

We of course appreciate any review - as they're great moments to learn. You ask one thought-provoking question: who are our "target customers"? And yes, this is one of the basic questions of marketing, and of course something we're thinking about. But, it's a question we like to turn on its head: what would our customers like to target? Or, what do our customers target to like??

In other words, we've learned, through multiple startups, to create dialogues, true dialogues, with customers and friends, and adapt accordingly. What demographic analysis, for example, would have ever married a tea house with tango dancing?! Yet, it's something customers asked for, and has been a successful tradition for 2+ years now. We're always constantly surprised with how our places are used, our food enjoyed, our presence preferred.

We have our ideas, and a clearly a starting point, and even some struggles with the concept, but definitely one thing we're paying attention to is this customer/business dialogue. And, thanks for being part of the dialogue! We'll start by responding: yep, more veggies!!

Jody said...

Hey there,
I think that Saute thinks you are ME!!!

I haven't had a chance to write up my review...but I second yours.

See you soon

melissa said...

I finally posted my comments (looong week)! I agree with what you have to say and it doesn't surprise me at all. Here's my thoughts on the matter as someone who has been there for meals in the past.

(btw it was lovely to meet you!)