As September approaches, the succinctly named Bistro Menil is one of the fall's most anticipated new restaurants. While chef Greg Martin has been involved for almost a year with the restaurant set to open next to Houston's iconic Menil Collection museum, the beverage program only recently found its leader.
That man is Sean Essex, who brings a resume to the role of beverage director that includes long stints with celebrated caterers Jackson and Company and City Kitchen to the job, but the opportunity to burnish his credentials isn't what drew Essex to the role.
"This is something that wakes me up in the morning at 3 a.m., because I have an idea. I pull my computer out and start typing."
"The Menil is sacred ground for me," Essex tells CutureMap. "It is the place where, I have three children, (when each turned) two-and-a-half I would bring them up here. We would work on our colors . . . I have spent countless Sundays sitting in the park."
That respect for The Menil as an institution has driven Essex to some extremes. "This is not a job for me," he says. "This is something that wakes me up in the morning at 3 a.m., because I have an idea. I pull my computer out and start typing."
Those ideas are centered around a cask wine program. While it's being tried at a few spots around town, most notably 3rd Floor in Midtown, most Houstonians are still learning that good wine can come from a keg rather than a bottle (we'll skip over box wine drinkers). Essex says he approached the idea skeptically.
"When Greg and I started talking about this, the first question anybody should have is: Is it any good?" he says. "You don’t want to be the guy who bought Beta."
In looking into casks, Essex says that he and Martin discovered that they will be able to consistently source high-quality products. "I know there will be some reluctance from our guests, but there’s an opportunity to build trust," Essex says.
The wine list will be complemented by a selection of craft beer, with an all-Texas draft selection, and wine based cocktails. In creating cocktails and choosing what beers to feature, Essex is turning to the museum's collections for inspiration. For example, a wine cocktail will pay tribute to Rene Magritte's famous painting The Son of Man by featuring green apple.
"The ultimate goal for me is that Mrs. de Menil, if she were still with us, even if she were not well versed in wine, (she) could see these little points in tribute to the artists and Mrs. de Menil herself," Essex says.
Essex is also keeping both museum visitors and neighborhood residents in mind. He thinks that presenting visitors with a taste of Houston's best beers is the right direction.
"We anticipate a large portion of our guests to be European, well-traveled and well-heeled," Essex says. "If we get someone from Germany, we want to show them we have a great local beer, and they smile to themselves. That’s the ultimate goal."