"It was a very quick process. It was a discussion between the ownership and chef Philippe, and then I was called to the office and said this is what we’re doing," Philippe general manager Dallas Easterly says.
The chef tells CultureMap the restaurant is becoming "more American with a French twist."
Although Schmit remains a limited partner, he's no longer involved in the restaurant's day to day operations. That falls to Easterly and newly promoted executive chef Manuel Pucha, whose relationship with Schmit dates back to 1994 when they worked together in New York. Pucha moved to Houston with Schmit to open Bistro Moderne and reunited with him to open Philippe.
Pucha tells CultureMap the restaurant is becoming "more American with a French twist."
Easterly explains that he discovered a problem when he went through the restaurant's reservation book and noticed who was dining at the restaurant. "When Johnny Cowboy from Katy, his girlfriend says, ‘Honey, please take me to this restaurant I’ve heard all about it. I really want to go here.’ And he comes to town and reads our menu. It was apparent in the past that he didn’t understand our menu by the way it was written, because he would order a hamburger or sliders."
To resolve that problem, the restaurant has rewritten its menu to make descriptions more appealing to diners who aren't familiar with French food.
"We’ve written them so it’s more in English, and people can understand them," Easterly says. "We’ve changed their descriptions and now they’re selling much better." He cites the duck confit as one example. In another instance, they removed the words "beef cheeks" from a dish's name.
They've also added soups and sandwiches to the lunch menu to appeal to diners who need to eat in 45 minutes or less. "You still have time to get back to the office before the boss says 'Where you have you been?' " Easterly says. "But there's room for fancier lunch fare, too. We changed from having a master chef’s lunch. Now we call it a gourmet lunch. That is more of an hour and 10 minute experience."
Easterly says that the goal is to offer diners a choice. "You can come in and enjoy quickly and have a very nice lunch, or you can sit and enjoy and have a more leisurely lunch."
Other changes to the food include a new, thick-cut pork chop and a switch to all USDA Prime beef. "Even for the steak tartare we used diced filet mignon. The flavor is better than before," Pucha says.
Easterly says that some of the dishes remain the same. "There’s eight dishes that are Philippe classics; that won’t ever change as long as the name is Philippe. They’re his specialty dishes." Also, beverage director Vanessa Trevino Boyd will continue to maintain one of Houston's most intriguing wine lists.
The restaurant's regulars have responded well to the changes. "They've made nice comments. They were concerned when they heard the news, (but they say) it has the same quality and taste," Easterly says. Pucha says he recently prepared a tasting menu of new dishes for a couple who had recently returned from a trip to Paris where they eat at a three-star Michelin restaurant. Pucha says they told him "the food here is on par."
Anyone predicting doom for Philippe might consider the counterexample of Midtown institution Damian's Cucina Italiana. Although Damian Mandola left his Italian restaurant to launch Carrabba's as a chain, the restaurant has thrived thanks to a steady hand in the kitchen and familiar faces in the dining room.
If Easterly and Pucha are successful, Philippe could enjoy a similar tenure of success.