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"Unpretentious" must have some other local meaning that I'm unaware of; Or, what's with the service at Chez Nous?

  • MPH Jul 20, 2007 04:25 PM
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Almost every print review of, and casual comment on, Chez Nous alludes to its unpretentious nature. Is this supposed to mean "no one cares if you wear flip flops," or "they don't make you pronounce anything in French"? I went by the restaurant for dinner one recent night, at which time our party was treated to so many rookie mistakes on the part of the incompetent, young serving team, pre-order, that we walked out. Management did not care—in a French accent. This counts as pretentious in my book.

I must say, I'm disinclined to hurry back just to try steak frites that may or may not be good; pâté that could be popular more for its relative rarity on local menus than for its quality; and a salad Lyonnaise that the kitchen has to be persuaded to top with lardons.

So, I ask you 'hounds who often dine there and regularly recommend this place (like sambamaster and tom in austin, among others): What's going on over there? Will the chow itself make up for this much attitude? Or has this never happened to you?

FYI: I'm going to treat as mere damage control any and all one-off posts by "new chowhounds” who assure me—and everyone reading—that they are always treated like royalty by the kind, attentive, professional staff.

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  1. Ouch! Several of my good friends work there. I'll be showing them this post in the next few days -- they actually do take comments like this quite seriously and I am sure they will be distressed to hear you had such a bad experience.

    1. Based on my limited visits to Chez Nous the service is actually the highlight of the restaurant.I like to go in the early afternoon with a friend,we're scarcely seated before warm bread and a small ramekin of cow's butter is placed before us...when the bread and butter are near depletion they are immediately replaced.The pate' is good,a bit rough in texture but tasty,we split a bottle of wine[that we have the server recommend]the steak is invariably perfectly cooked and the potatoes are nice,not too starchy and dusted with good salt.Two servers attend our needs and appear to be professionals,the ambience is nice...sun breaks through the windows and the room has a nice glow to it.I haven't ventured to other parts of the menu[I get the same thing everytime]but I enjoy a visit a couple times a year.It's nice to be attended to by the [seeming]pros that work the day shift.I'd give them another shot MPH,the food is good[not great]but the service has always been rock solid.

      2 Replies
      1. re: scrumptiouschef

        it is, however, the only place in Austin that actually reminds me of France (maybe second only to McDonald's). I realize that's a broad statement, and I don't want to get into any regional BS debates, but that's how it is.

        1. re: scrumptiouschef

          Scrumptious, your experiences with Chez Nous match mine.

          MPH, I'm extremely sorry that Chez Nous didn't work out for you; the worst service I've ever received there could be termed "indifferent". I've never had pretentious or rude service.

          However, when I refer to Chez Nous as unpretentious, I don't just mean the service. I mostly mean the food: affordable and simple takes on French cuisine. The other local French restaurants seem more like they're staffed by CI grads.

        2. I've not had the experience you describe, MPH. I've not had the converse experience either (extraordinary service), but it's that casual/professional service that I've really enjoyed, in addition to some very good food. When I first moved down here, I was living out of the Hilton across the street for 3 weeks, and Chez Nous was my saviour when I wanted some good, comforting food (in a nice setting), without all that other downtown kitsch. Eating there made me feel like I wasn't even downtown anymore.

          Give it another shot, with of course the understanding that the food isn't going to blow you away, but I'm confident you will enjoy it.

          1. My two cents - My one dinner there was fine food-wise - not great, and the service was so poor that they gave us a ten-dollar-off coupon for our next dinner there. A little snobby, but mostly it seemed understaffed. That was our first anniversary... coming up on our 5th...havenæt been back, no plans to do so, coupon has been in my wallet for years. Not studiously avoiding it, but nights out are so rare now...I am going to try the Backstage for my next big night out!

            1. Sorry to hear that. I was just there Thursday night, party of three. We were met instantly at the door, and seated quickly. And the restaurant was full. The service was perfect; that is, unnoticeable. Drinks arrived, food served, water glasses filled all on time and without a fuss. To cap it all, the waitress did NOT introduce herself.

              1 Reply
              1. re: thebodytx

                I am a huge fan of Chez Nous and have easily dined there over 100 times (no joke.)

                But that said, I can easily see how the service can at times seem just as the original poster described.

                I never take any of it amiss, but that does not mean it does not exist- and not too many months ago I hosted a wine luncheon there where a fellow regular diner got into it a bit with our waiter who is 99% of the time quite a nice fellow.

                Foodwise this may be my favorite restaurant of all time. Simple and delicious fare that matches perfectly with my own sensibilities and with the wines I bring when I come.

                And I know and love everyone who works there.

                But I will be the first to admit things can get contentious at times- and I have often not brought out of town guests there for that very reason. It is rare that there is an issue- but I certainly keep it in mind when considering whether to bring people there who are unfamiliar with the place.

              2. Thanks for all the feedback, 'hounds. I may not hurry back, but I'll give Chez Nous *one* more try—at a different time of the day and week, to minimize the chances of getting stuck in the exact same situation. I'll definitely report back on the chow at that time.

                Best,
                MPH

                1 Reply
                1. re: MPH

                  I hear you MPH. My wife and I had a nice meal there 7-8 years ago ansd finally got back last winter. While I didn't mind the service that much, I have never (looking back at the past meal included) been that impressed with the food. Yes it's simple, but the ingredients were not of the quality to showcase that simple style. It's not bad, it's just not worth waiting for a table for even 10 minutes for imo, much less the parking and 6th street throngs.

                2. I had a taste of this "attitude" before even being seated. My husband and I went to Chez Nous to celebrate an anniversary. I tried to make reservations, but they only take reservations for parties of 6 or more. Wouldn't you know it, we show up and the place is full of 6-toppers with diners. There were a handful of 4-tops and maybe 2 or 3 2-tops. The wait for these small tables was so ridiculously long (over an hour). I expressed my displeasure with the fact that they had refused to take my reservation earlier in the day and were now wanting us to wait over an hour for a table. The hostess did not direct us to the bar and was so high on her horse that she never came back to get our names for the wait list. Needless to say, our anniversary starting on a sour note, we were forced back out on the street to try to search for another place to dine - sans reservations - on a Saturday night. Thanks a lot Chez Nous!

                  1. I dined at Chez Nous tonight and found that the service was not pretentious in the least. While I would consider it neither professional nor efficient, I did not feel any condescension. The food may not be the most exciting, and I take mild offense to the underseasoning of nearly everything, there is really no other restaurant in Austin to offer this variety of bistro fare. I dined here about nine months ago and was treated to a rather unpleasant server, yet, it did not detract from the meal, and, frankly, it moved along much more smoothly. As has been brought to light in several other instances, Austin cuisine is not what one would expect in larger cities. Taken for what it is worth, and considering its "relative rarity," one is hard pressed to find a comparable meal in this town. As for the lardons, they require a supplement of one dollar, as listed on the menu. I may not understand why, but that is the way they operate.

                    My meal tonight consisted of the duck liver pate, which was light and flavorful, though not, by any means, a revelation, and the steak maitre d'hotel. The entrees took far too long to arrive, and the steak was not rested properly, yet it did remain tender and relatively juicy despite the puddle of juice that had accumulated around the base of the meat. My companion had the ginger-carrot soup, described as "spicy," and the salmon in saffron sauce. The soup was far different from any other carrot-ginger I have had, more saline and earthy as opposed to bright and refreshing (there was a hint of tomato, completely unnecessary, and an egregious lack of acid and salt). The salmon was cooked perfectly to temperature, and the sauce was nicely balanced. The roasted vegetable accoutrement was rather standard yet pleasant enough, while the potato dauphine were pasty and unpalatable. I noticed a third pan full of them sitting in a hot well as I walked back to the table, explaining their stale texture and flavor.

                    All told, I enjoyed myself. I cannot find this food anywhere else in the Austin area for such an economical price. By and large, I think things could be improved, but, based upon service alone, there was nothing contemptible about Chez Nous. Unless, of course, one is in a hurry, which I thankfully was not this evening.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: amexarhos

                      A chow report:

                      Based on the recommendation of several ‘hounds, I returned to Chez Nous for dinner with a group from work. We were there at an earlier hour and on a different day of the week, which must have made all the difference. The service was much better, though some of the same people were present. There were also only five parties, maximum, in the dining room at the time.

                      The food was pretty good, but not great, as noted here by Nab and others. There were execution problems on a few classic French dishes that seemed particularly egregious, considering that they bill themselves as an authentic French bistro. However, there were enough good things about the meal to compel me to return.

                      I played it safe and stuck with the dishes that scrumptiouschef suggested above: the pâté de maison and the steak frites [which is on the menu as entrecôte béarnaise]. I had the duck-liver pâté. Whenever I write this, it seems like the start of an old joke: What do you think this is—chopped liver? Well, yes. There were other options available that day, such as duck rillettes, but I went with the classic duck-liver, which is similar to the more expensive goose-liver fois gras. The pâté was smooth and rich. Its flavor suggested that it was made with milk and/or heavy cream. No other spices were discernible—like shallots, garlic, or ginger, which are sometimes used. Cornichons and black olives came on the side. Unfortunately, their French bread is just like all the other bad Austin French bread. If the bread were better, the pâté experience would have been more enjoyable. Note: Bread is served with a slab of European butter, which will gradually warm up even if it’s served, as ours was, ice-cold to the point where we wondered how long ago it had been previously frozen.

                      We were compelled to “enjoy” lots of their bread, since our table shared a cheese assortment as an appetizer. There was a blue, a Brie, a Bel-Paese-like soft cheese, and a Langres. These were served with walnuts and green grapes. Since the rest were all French cheeses, I imagine that the Bel-Paese-like one was something like Saint Paulin or Port Salut. My favorite was the Langres, which was a complex, creamy, salty, cows’-milk washed-rind cheese from the Champagne region. It’s like Époisses, if you’ve had that before. [I bought some Langres over the weekend at Central Market. It seems that I may be the only 'hound in town who finds their cheese “experts” no better than any of the other local ones. Enthusiasm isn’t the same thing as knowledge. How I miss specialty-cheese shops like Murray’s in NYC or Formaggio in Boston. Personally, I narrow things down to whichever store has what I want, then choose where to go based on best price and/or closest location.]

                      When we were at Chez Nous, they had a wine “special” on the menu, a Potel-Aviron Moulin à Vent ‘Vieilles Vignes’ 2005, listed for almost double the $25.99 retail price. I like this wine.

                      Back to the chow. The entrecôte [premium cut of beef, traditionally from the rib area] from the entrecôte béarnaise was good. The flavorful boneless-ribeye steak was cooked-to-order, which was medium rare, and generously seasoned with sea salt and pepper. There was, however, something wrong with the béarnaise. The classic ingredients are just egg yolk, shallot, (tarragon) vinegar, and butter, with fresh tarragon and chervil sometimes added to the finished product. The shallot reduction is usually strained out, however, and the sauce is glossy and smooth. The one at Chez Nous was not glossy; it was flat and chunky—and not just because of the addition of fresh herbs. This was structural; in fact, it looked more like homemade tartar sauce than a béarnaise. Plus, their sauce was very lemony. Fresh lemon juice is a variant of béarnaise, but this was too much. After all, this wasn’t a hollandaise sauce. I wondered if the sauce had broken [if you stop whisking over a double-boiler, you end up with scrambled eggs], or if they were trying to thin out a béarnaise that had been made long before it was served.

                      The thin frites were well salted (with coarse grains of what appeared to be sea salt), though they could have been crisper, as scrumptious also pointed out. And what’s wrong with frying the potatoes in a little of that duck fat? They’re delicious when prepared that way. Still, their frites were very satisfying. The main course also came with two vegetables du jour. The main component consisted of sautéed thin rounds of green and yellow summer squash, with matchstick-sized pieces of onion and thin rounds of sliced garlic. Despite the onion and garlic, the zucchini seemed bland as well as very soft, to the point of being overcooked. On the other hand, the roasted tomatoes with minced garlic were undercooked. The tomatoes still had a lot of water in them. They need to be slowly cooked down to reveal the deep, sweet essence of this fruit. The roasted tomatoes were just one of several dishes that seemed to have been cooked too quickly.

                      Ours was the kind of business dinner that precluded sharing tastes of everything, but I did have one colleague with whom I was able to share food. The other main course that I sampled was the duck, which included both duck breast and confit. The duck breast was good: It was cooked rare, with nicely salty and crisp skin. The duck confit also had salty, crispy skin, but the meat itself was dry and stringy. Since stringiness is often attributed to rapid heating, the confit could also have suffered from being cooked too fast. Poached, dried figs provided the structural base that the duck was placed upon. Figs were also the main component of the reduction sauce. The figs themselves were very firm; they didn’t soak up much sauce or other flavoring, which suggested that they were poached very quickly.

                      The duck came with the same vegetable sides, with one addition: potato dauphines. These are like potato croquettes, or fritters of mashed potatoes. Here’s a picture of what they can look like:

                      http://leplacard-d-elle.mabulle.com/i...

                      At Chez Nous, these had a crisp crust on the outside, but the inside of the dough was underdone. The potato-and-cheese filling itself was really dense, not light, which may have made it impossible for these to turn out to be the usual light, airy puff-pastry treats filled with fluffy mashed potatoes (and maybe cream, but usually not cheese). The underdone crust suggested that the frying oil had perhaps been too hot and the filling too cold.

                      Desserts were totally underwhelming, particularly the crêpes with berries, Chantilly cream, and almond tuile. The almond tuile was half of a 2”-diameter lacy cookie, used as a garnish. The Chantilly cream consisted of just one dollop placed on top of a cold, dry crêpe wrapped around unsweetened and sauce-less strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Local fruit isn’t so perfect that it can be showcased like this, even if one liked dry crêpe fillings. The crêpe itself was either too eggy, without enough flour; or, the texture suffered from not having been whisked recently enough. I found this a pretty disappointing offering for a “French” restaurant. The crème brulée was okay. I thought that it didn’t have enough vanilla flavor, but at least it wasn’t one of those 2”-thick versions. The best part of this dessert is usually the brulée top, not the crème. The relatively shallow crème at Chez Nous allowed some of the burnt-sugar topping to accompany every bite. The espresso was typical restaurant-quality espresso, which is to say "not good." I’ve had worse, though.

                      Oddly, the service was a highlight on this visit. The French owner/manager was very helpful about explaining dishes and ingredients. The two young women that served were pleasant and efficient, in an unobtrusive way, though the one who brought the food from the kitchen was not very knowledgeable about what was being served. The fact that there are no other real French options in town obviously contributes to the appeal of Chez Nous. In my opinion, theirs is not French food of the calibre served at bistros in many major U.S. cities, let alone in France. (In retrospect, I feel bad for the person who posted, about a year ago, that the “honest” cooking of Chez Nous was better than 95% of what she’d eaten while living in France, possibly during a study-abroad program.) But the good-natured aspect of the restaurant—on this visit, which was a slow night—and the quality of some of their menu options are also part of its appeal. Despite the glaring problems with the béarnaise sauce, the confit, and the crêpes (most of which are probably due to time-saving measures like cooking things too quickly or preparing them way ahead of time), I’d return for the pâté and steak frites. For me, though, Chez Nous will probably rate two trips a year, max.

                      1. re: MPH

                        I feel your pain, MPH. I enjoy the ambience of Chez Nous, and though it is probably the best French offering in town, it doesn't stand up to more refined palates.

                        I will say, that your description of the duck confit was spot on with my experience with one exception: on both occasions that I've had the dish, the interior of the meat was moist and succulent, which would seem to indicate a consistency problem or anomaly-I'll know more after I've had it once more.

                        I, too, make the foray to Chez Nous about twice a year, in part for the feel (it does remind me of some of the cafes and brasseries I've visited in Paris), and in part because, no matter how mediocre, I still need my French fix.

                        1. re: Twill

                          Chez Nous is hit-or-miss. The service can be great or completely aloof. The food can range from a perfectly cooked piece of venison to a curdled creme brulee, but I love it. It's got something that no other restaurant in this town has. I don't know what that may be, exactly, but I will always go back...

                          1. re: Twill

                            Thanks for sharing your perspectives. Twill and pankofish, your thoughts about how Chez Nous approaches something we crave ring true for me, too. Its essence is leaning towards the French café, bistro, or brasserie. That's much better than, say, being oriented towards making money with cheap ingredients and flavorless, dull food. To me, “creative” mediocrity or non-deliciousness is still mediocrity or non-deliciousness. I can respect what a place is trying to do without loving the results.

                            Twill, in case you’re interested, I found one in-depth discussion of how best to avoid stringy duck confit via a quick Google search:

                            http://kitchenmusings.typepad.com/my_...

                            I suspect that many restaurants are happy just to approximate the ideal, as quickly as possible, before the dinner rush begins.

                            Best,
                            MPH

                      2. MPH--Bummer you have had such unsatisfying experiences at Chez Nous. I have been eating there for years and have always enjoyed it--not blown away, but always pleased. I am no expert on French food but I have heard some people say that the food has not been as solid since the departure of Eric & Martine Pelegrin. If you have not tried out their new operation you may want to check it out. They opened Bistro Le Marseillais, where they deliver French food to your door. Each of their delivery areas has a designated day; on your delivery day you leave an ice chest (with a ziploc baggy with a check in it) on the porch and they deliver the food. I don't know if the food will live up to your expectaions but there's something about this type of service that seems so subversive it is worth trying. If you have done it or do it I'd be curious to hear what you think.
                        Their contact info is:
                        www.BistroLeMarseillais.com
                        512-383-0501