The decadent two-story space that makes up Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, the ambitious eponymous project from chef Philippe Schmit, was bustling with energy when I stopped in. Dozens of workers tweaked the decór, tested the sound system, trained the staff and fired up the kitchen to prepare for a scheduled late January reveal of the much-anticipated BLVD Place spot.
The first-floor entryway opens up to a vast staircase and the main bar — with a backdrop of mirrored tiles commanding attention as it stretches up all the way to the second floor. The design is decked out in shades of black, white and gray, offset by a few rustic touches: the dual bars constructed of wooden wine crates, the chalkboard walls in the downstairs lounge area, the rich striped-wood tables.
The menu is vast and uses traditional French cuisine as a jumping off point, not a destination, mixing and matching flavors and influence to suit a range of appetites and dining styles. Gone are all the serious tropes of fine dining — no white tablecloths, no formal courses unless you opt for an evening at the chef's table. The bar menu in particular is well-rounded and freakishly affordable, and sommelier Vanessa Treviño Boyd has crafted a wine list rich with quality choices between $35 and $50.
Word has it Philippe is opting for a single mark-up (double the retail price) rather than the typical high-end double mark-up (triple the retail price) that should make the restaurant a real competitor for Houston's wine enthusiasts. "We wanted people to feel comfortable ordering a second bottle and not feel that sticker shock that comes when the first bottle is $60," Treviño Boyd says.
I skipped the wine and started with a classic lobster bisque with poached codfish — creamy, rich and flavorful without being heavy.
It was followed by a salmon "screwdriver" pizza, topped with salmon cured in a orange juice/vodka mix alongside pickled fennel and an orange hollandaise. The dish almost dares you to picture what a traditional pizza tastes like, then throws you in the opposite direction with tangy, citrus flavors leading, only tied to the standard by a crunchy, paper-thin crust.
Next came a trio of Berkshire pork ravioli bathed in a rich orange sauce Schmit dubbed a "chorizo smoothie." The ravioli was just a touch overcooked but the pork inside was beautifully tender and the full flavor effect was rich and mouthwatering.
The Monaco tartine is a round focaccia sandwich filled with an olive confit, artichoke, arugula, tomato and basil. The ingredients layer bitter flavor against bitter flavor, challenging the palate but then luring you back in with a subtle sweetness from the tomatoes and the mild, house-made focaccia bread.
My favorite course was Schmit's Burgundy beef cheek, a delicate, melt-in-your-mouth bourguignon paired unexpectedly with an expert macaroni and cheese — rich, creamy, and infused with a sharp gouda bite.
"Since I call myself the French Cowboy I have to show I can make Texas food," Schmit says.
Schmit's courses were followed by an artful creation by pastry chef Jose Hernandez. On top of a savory sage cheesecake Hernandez layered sorbet and exquisite paper-thin apple slices folded into origami-like leaves. Individually I found each component less than compelling but together they blended for a taste that was slightly creamy, slightly sweet and very fresh.
It would be a mistake to make any sweeping judgments about the future of Philippe based on a preview meal, but architect Shafik Rifaat and designer Lauren Rottet have crafted a compelling space and Schmit has designed a menu that seems to have a little something for everyone, prepared with style and a welcome sense of whimsy.
In short: Be excited. Be very excited.