On this week's episode of "What's Eric Eating," chef Jonathan Benno joins CultureMap food editor Eric Sandler to discuss Cafe Leonelli, the casual Italian restaurant that just opened in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Kinder building. The conversation begins with Benno tracing the arc of his career, which includes working for six years as chef de cuisine at Per Se, acclaimed chef Thomas Keller's three-star Michelin restaurant in New York City.
Cafe Leonelli is a decidedly casual affair. It serves focaccia, pastries, and Italian-American staples like meatballs and chicken cacciatore along a cafeteria-style serving line. Sandler asks the chef to explain how his fine dining background shapes the food at a casual concept.
"There were a number of things that really resonated with me when I started at the French Laundry 25 years ago. And those principles remain with me today, Benno says. "That's cleanliness, organization, discipline, sense of urgency. We're making focaccia and scooping meatballs here, but those fundamentals we're trying to impress on a young team here. Commitment to quality ingredients . . . Working with local vendors, trying to source ingredients locally I think is really important."
The conversation touches on a number of other topics, including what diners can expect from Cafe Leonelli; a brief mention of Le Jardinier, a vegetable-forward fine dining restaurant from chef Alain Verzeroli that will also open at the Museum; and the welcome chef Benno has received from his colleagues in the Houston restaurant industry. Sandler also asks the chef about the possibility of more concepts in Houston and where in town he's been eating.
Prior to the interview, Sandler and co-host Mary Clarkson discuss the news of the week. Their topics include Tres Amigos Cafe y Cantina replacing Shepherd Park Draught House; Underground Hall owner Daut Elshani teaming up with chef Geoff Hundt to open a new restaurant in Garden Oaks; and chef Ben McPherson developing BOH Slice, a fast casual pizza concept based on his stand at Bravery Chef Hall.
In the restaurants of the week segment, Sandler and Clarkson dive deep into a recent meal they shared at March, the fine dining, tasting menu restaurant led by Goodnight Hospitality partners chef Felipe Riccio and master sommelier June Rodil. The restaurant is expensive — a nine-course dinner for two with wine pairings costs about $700 after tax and tip — but the duo rave about the menu's creativity and the quality of the service they experienced.
"I recognize that this is beyond the means for a lot of people," Sandler says, "but just like I'm never going to pay the money to sit courtside at a Rockets game or for the very best theater tickets, people who have the means and appreciate this style of dining — there's nothing like this in Houston right now."