Bisected by an open kitchen, the long dining room is pleasantly underdecorated—the red-faced Laughing Cow glued to one wall, a few shelves of old glassware up near the tin ceiling, and a blue mural at the end of the room showing three homburged peasants seated at a table while a standing figure watches, smoking a pipe. It’s a knockoff of Cézanne’s The Card Players, but indistinct hand movements and the complete absence of cards make it seem like the men are abusing themselves.
Lucien is a new French bistro just north of Houston—yawn-worthy news except that this joint adds a welcome Provençale twist to the bistro formula. First there’s lapin moutarde ($16), a big bunny split down the middle (you get half), roasted, smeared with Dijon, and deposited on an undulating bed of fresh fettucini. The sharp mustard has been mellowed with crème fraîche, making the sauce absurdly rich, and the noodles gradually absorb every last bit. Set your pacemaker on stun.
Another stretch for a bistro is the marvelous duck ($16), served two ways on the same plate. The magret, or breast meat, is pan roasted and sliced thick, each piece discretely ringed with fat and presented medium rare, rather than the bloody “sanguiné” the French prefer. The other half, equally as good, is duck confit—the leg and thigh portion cooked in its own fat and scented with star anise, more Chinatown than Champs Élysées. There’s a vegetable mélange underneath and some lovely split-and-grilled fresh figs on the side, which must be why the guys in the painting are so excited.
Less successful is the Amish chicken ($12), a half bird spectacular in its moistness, but not herby enough, upstaged by the garlic mashed potatoes. Just so you don’t forget you’re in a bistro, three steaks are offered—filet mignon, sirloin, and bavette, the latter a coarse and flavorful skirt that, at $13, is the cheapest, and plenty good enough for me. Skinny, scraggly fries add to the excitement.
The greatest challenge of the Provençale menu is, of course, bouillabaisse ($19), the fish stew that has flummoxed many local restaurants. The seafood array at Lucien is novel but effective: snapper, monkfish, clams, and a bundle of king-crab legs that sit atop the bowl like discarded props from Alien 3. The swarming broth is dark and viscid, thrust with rouille-smeared toasts—just the kind of lavish tuck-in intended by the Marseilles fisherfolk who invented it.
More Mediterranean victories are scored among the appetizers, like the pair of ample sardines ($8) grilled by the chef in plain view. They’re served with a squiggle of dark sauce for those who can’t imagine a meal without balsamic. Mussels ($12) are steamed in the usual white wine and shallots, improved significantly by cilantro. That yeoman of bar food, calamari ($8), is heroically crisp, and rescued from normalcy by its North African dipping sauce.
Outside of the pricey Payard Patisserie, I can’t think of a single bistro with really distinguished desserts, although the spectacle of crème brûlée being browned with a blowtorch is a good reason to order it anywhere. Nevertheless, Lucien has hit the bull’s-eye with its tarte Tatin ($5)—not the usual insignificant mouthful, but a substantial wedge of a big pie. Cooked upside down, the caramelized apples retain their juiciness and zip, while the flaky pastry stays crisp. It’s a specialty of the Loire Valley rather than Provence. But, hey, it’s just a bistro—purism not required.