Work of Art: My First Taste of the New Bistro Menil

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Having enjoyed a preview at chef-owner Greg Martin’s home a few months back and then a hardhat tour of the construction site, I figured it was high time to sample the real deal. Winning out over 11 other bidders to create a restaurant on the grounds of Houston’s world-famous Menil Collection, Martin and Co. have gotten the window-crazed Bistro Menil open just in time to enjoy the flourish of holiday dining. I have every reason to believe, based on last night’s dinner (not to mention the lemon curd tart with Italian meringue pictured above), this “flourish” will last for years to come.

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To hear people talk these first few weeks, you’d think the duck rillettes and the eggplant fries with anchovy aioli were virtually the only things on the menu. They ARE wonderful ways to start a meal – the former falling somewhere on the French scale between a creamy pate and a charcuterie plate. In fact, their presence shows a greater-than-usual commitment for somebody opening a “bistro” these days to actually serve bistro cuisine. For comfort and relative (to fine dining) quickness, Bistro Menil is an authentic bistro indeed.

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As I love any and all pizzas in theory, there ought to be a law that states: Don’t put pizzas on your menu unless you want me to sample one or more. With my excitement to try many different things, I only got around to one pie last night, one of the more traditionally Neapolitan (Italian sausage, roasted beech mushrooms, tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella). I like Italian flavors best on a pizza, but I can also see myself traveling to Provence with the tapenade, eggplant and goat cheese, or to Spain with the manchego, jamon and “brava sauce.” Hopefully it tastes like patatas bravas.

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In my mind and memory, wintertime, bistros and the white bean stew called cassoulet are a single thing. Spinning off from the original, Greg Martin has given us a cassoulet with a Texas trwist, including a hunter’s paradise of duck confit and venison sausage. When it comes to choosing a side dish, you can get a house salad but go instead for the cold zucchini with parmesan and pancetta – it’s light, subtlely lemon-kissed and amazing. The Costa Brava snapper, taking us to Spain, is something special and, like all the “main entrees,” it comes with your choice of two sides.  We selected the bistro potatoes and the terrific roasted cubed vegetables, combining seasonal butternut squash and carrot. Talk about a winter wonderland!

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When you’re serving a museum (the Menil) as well as a neighborhood (Montrose) as well as a very large city (Houston), the next best thing to Ladies Who Lunch must be Ladies Who Dessert. That probably explains the ridiculous 17 desserts on the Bistro Menil menu, more items than in any other category. And since I could try only so many after things like pizza and cassoulet, I opted for that light-sounding lemon tart and the less-light-sounding-but-delicious-anyway buttermilk blackberry cake. Chef Greg Martin, after spending the last couple decades at Cafe Annie and finally creating dishes for all the Cafe Express outlets, thinks we need almost unlimited choices. After last night’s dinner, I’m oh-so-tempted to agree with him.


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