seeing stars

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston reveals 2 new restaurants led by Michelin-starred chefs

MFAH reveals 2 new restaurants led by Michelin-starred chefs

Salvatore Martone Jonathan Benno Alain Verzeroli
Chefs Salvatore Martone, Jonathan Benno, and Alain Verzeroli Photo by Shannon O’Hara
MFAH mural
Installation view of Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two, 2019–2020. Photo by Thomas Dubrock, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Nancy and Rich Kinder Building opening
The restaurants will be located inside the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building. Photo courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Salvatore Martone Jonathan Benno Alain Verzeroli
MFAH mural
Nancy and Rich Kinder Building opening

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s recently opened Nancy and Rich Kinder Building will soon be home to new two restaurants. Bastion Restaurants, the New York-based hospitality company behind La Table, has tapped two chefs with Michelin-starred pedigrees to lead the new establishments — Cafe Leonelli by chef Jonathan Benno and Le Jardinier by chef Alain Verzeroli.

Cafe Leonelli will serve as the museum’s all-day, casual dining space. An offshoot of chef Benno’s New York restaurants Leonelli Bakery and Leonelli Restaurant & Bar, the cafe will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner via a cafeteria-style serving line — a format any Houstonian who eats barbecue is well acquainted with.

Houston’s Le Jardinier will join sister locations in New York and Miami. Verzeroli’s fine dining restaurant features a French-inspired menu of vegetable-forward dishes.

Both chefs bring Michelin-starred resumes to their respective establishments. Benno worked for six years as chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s three-star restaurant Per Se, while Verzeroli held three stars at Tokyo’s Château Restaurant Joël Robuchon. Both Benno’s eponymous fine dining restaurant in New York and the New York location of Le Jardinier currently hold one star.

At Cafe Leonelli, museum visitors will find fresh pastries and savory items for breakfast. Lunch service will revolve around salads, soups, sandwiches, and the restaurant’s signature focaccia that will be available by-the-slice or as oversized slabs. Dinner will feature entrees such as lasagna, braised short ribs, chicken cacciatore, and more — all of which will be displayed in cast iron pots on induction burners.

“We’ve used the term meat and three with respect to this concept,” Benno tells CultureMap. “I think what it will evolve into is you’ll be able to choose a protein and the sides you want to have with that protein, or you’ll be able ot make a vegetarian meal out of the offerings rather than set dishes off an a la carte menu.”

In addition to its savory offerings, the cafe will house an outpost of Frohzen, the Miami-based ice cream shop created by Bastion’s executive pastry chef Salvatore Martone. Frohzen’s menu features ice cream cupcakes, macaron ice cream sandwiches, and cakesicles, according to a release.

As Benno notes, quick service doesn’t have to mean low quality. He hopes that Cafe Leonelli’s offerings will be sufficiently tempting that the restaurant could eventually provide delivery and to-go service.

“I understand museums and performing centers very well,” Benno, who operated a restaurant at New York’s Lincoln Center, states. “Sadly, a lot of those food service offerings aren’t very good. We hope to improve on quality yet still maintain quick service. Get people in, give them a great meal, and get people back to the museum.”

Benno has high praise for Le Jardinier, which he predicts will be a destination restaurant that will appeal to diners from across the city. Initially open for dinner only with lunch to follow, the menu uses organic vegetable and sustainable in proteins. In Miami, those offerings include dishes such as red kabocha with burrata and persimmon, spelt risotto with winter vegetables, and salmon with winter vegetables and broccoli and ginger coulis.

“It has a beautiful interior, and it looks out on the sculpture garden,” Benno says about Le Jardinier. “I was there today, and it’s absolutely beautiful.”

Credit for part of that beauty goes to a wall-size tapestry by Trenton Doyle-Hancock of an abstracted forest, titled Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two. In addition, the overhead lighting utilizes Akari lanterns originally designed by Isamu Noguchi, whose work is featured in the building’s sculpture garden.

Both the casual and fine dining restaurants are committed to local sourcing for as much of their ingredients as possible. Benno cites some of La Table’s existing relationships with purveyors such as R-C Ranch, Lone Star Mushrooms, and Magnol French Baking, which is led by former La Table pastry chef Otto Sanchez.

Look for Cafe Leonelli to open in March. Le Jardinier will follow in April.