For chef Greg Martin of Bistro Menil — the new restaurant near the The Menil Collection which will open to the public full time on Wednesday — the motivation to bid on the project to bring a restaurant to one of Houston's most celebrated institutions was obvious.
"Like everybody else, I love the Menil," Martin tells CultureMap. "I love the campus. I love the setting."
Martin travels regularly to Europe and throughout America. He's noticed that museums are getting serious about food by adding destination restaurants. The days of, say, having a McDonald's at a science museum (ahem) just doesn't cut it in 2014.
"I’ve had some people complain that it’s a little austere in here, but I like that it has a really clean, sharp look."
"I think people don’t want to just go to a museum. They want to have an experience," Martin says. "Your mom and dad are in town. You come over to see The Menil Collection and have brunch. It’s kind of the perfect world."
The restaurant delivers that experience in a straight-forward, very clean room that's sole adornments consist of a chandelier and chalkboards that list the beer and wine selections. Martin's husband Paul Garcia built the tables, chalkboards and wine racks.
"I’ve had some people complain that it’s a little austere in here, but I like that it has a really clean, sharp look. People are here to eat the food and drink the wine or beer. Really, the view is why people are coming to this setting," Martin says.
Additionally, the chef expects to receive LEED certification for the space, which uses a geothermal heat exchange built into the parking lot to cool the building. The restaurant uses filtered water rather than bottled, and beverage director Sean Essex is serving cask wines and keg beer to further enhance the restaurant's environmental mindfulness.
First Taste of Bistro Menil
In the kitchen, Martin brings the experiences gained during his many years working for the Schiller Del Grande Group at Cafe Annie, Taco Milagro and Cafe Express to the helm. He's working in a state of the art kitchen equipped with a couple of trick ovens that use both microwaves and forced air to deliver two kinds of heat.
The chef cites his quiche as one dish that benefits from the ovens' unique abilities. It's inspired by one he's eaten at Bread and Roses in Paris. "We’d go in there and try to take pictures of them making it, and they’d run me out," Martin recalls with a laugh. "It’s behind a counter, and I’m there with my iPhone."
This oven allows Martin to recreate the experience of tasting a freshly made quiche without making diners wait through the entire baking process. "You want microwaves to re-thermalize the custard, and you want hot, forced air to re-thermalize the puff pastry on the outside. You can’t do it with a microwave, and you can’t do it with an oven. But if you have both simultaneously, you have the most beautiful, perfect thing."
Those sort of high standards will be necessary, as Martin expects to serve educated, well-traveled customers whose first taste of Houston might be at Bistro Menil. Whether it's risotto in Italy or quiche in France, Martin assumes his diners have had those dishes in their native countries.
"We didn’t want to be the restaurant with foam and challenge you and look how cool I am I can do this. We wanted to be very accessible."
"My job is to get them as close to that experience as I can here, in this setting. I think our menu really did morph out of that," he says.
Pizzas and flatbreads are another component of the restaurant's menu. They also take a global influence, as in a Spanish-inspired pie of brava sauce and Jamon ham. "I think in 2014 if you’re building a new restaurant and you don’t put a pizza oven in, you’re an idiot. People love pizza," Martin notes.
Sampling dishes in an empty restaurant isn't much of way to evaluate its ability to serve a full dining room, but everything Martin presented during a tasting embodied the sort of well-executed, crowd pleasing fare that will be required at a restaurant with such a diverse audience. Roasted salmon in dill sauce, inspired by celebrity chef Eric Ripert's recipe in Avec Eric, arrived nicely medium rare with a lift from the fresh herbs. The previously mentioned Spanish pizza featured a crispy crust, and lamb chops over a tangy Greek yogurt demonstrated why the dish is such a classic combination.
Martin cites a tart he and Garcia ate at The Modern, the restaurant connected to New York's Museum of Modern Art, as the inspiration for a flatbread of caramelized onion, bacon and creme fraiche. Even the tenderloin has a story; instead of Del Grande's signature coffee rub, Martin is using cocoa nibs.
If the cuisine isn't as avant garde as the Menil's art, well, that's sort of the point.
"We didn’t want to be the restaurant with foam and challenge you and look how cool I am I can do this. We wanted to be very accessible," Martin says.
"We built what I believe is a concept that has a compelling reason for people to come. It has a beautiful setting. There’s ample parking. It’s in a great location in the city, and the food’s very accessible: Easy to get, easy to understand."
Bistro Menil is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. It's closed Mondays and Tuesdays.