A work of art in Montrose
by Marene Gustin
“Art” can be a whimsical painting by René Magritte. But it can also be a delicate salad of shaved zucchini and Parmesan dressed with lemon and extra-virgin olive oil, and generously topped with crunchy pancetta.
And now the world-famous Menil Collection has both.
Bistro Menil opened last month to hungry museumgoers, neighbors, and foodies from across the city who were anxious to try the hotly anticipated new eatery by chef/owner Greg Martin. And they weren’t disappointed.
Italian architect Renzo Piano designed The Menil in the 1980s, and at the time, one of the 1920s cottages on the park-like grounds was designated to be a café, but it never opened.
The new bistro is housed in a new building, part of the recent expansion and enhancement of the grounds along West Alabama Street. The building mirrors the elegant and modern lines of the main building, with plenty of light and clean space and just a few touches—like the natural-wood bar—that pay homage to the tree-lined setting.
The reclaimed-wood ceiling, as well as other wood accents in the mostly white space, were made by Martin’s husband and co-owner Paul Garcia, a college professor.
“Am I lucky or what?” asks Martin. “Paul did the tables, the cabinetry, and the blackboards. I could not have done this without him.”
They met 15 years ago and have been a couple for the last six years. This past St. Patrick’s Day they married, and now live in Midtown with two border collies and a sheltie.
Martin, who had a long career with the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group, hadn’t really planned to open his own place, but Garcia started talking about having an eatery that served growlers and wine on tap a few years ago. When The Menil put out a proposal for a café, Martin and Garcia decided to go for it.
“We had a very good business plan that helped us win the bid,” Martin says. “After that, Paul and I traveled to New York and Europe and ate at every museum restaurant we could find. The Menil visitors are a very sophisticated and worldly crowd, so the menu had to be refined but still accessible. It’s my take on some European dishes.” A few local staples are thrown in, like the cocoa nib steak, which is a nod to a classic entrée from his former boss, chef Robert Del Grande.
The bistro serves from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays. The restaurant offers lunch, dinner, and light bites in the afternoon, and plans are under way for a weekend brunch. “We’ll also have picnic baskets soon, so you can stop by and grab one and a growler of craft beer and dine outside on the lawn under the trees,” adds Martin.
There’s an impressive wine list—by the bottle and on tap—sourced from sustainable vineyards.
There are many standouts on the well-focused menu, among them the eggplant “fries” with anchovy aioli and black olive tapenade to dip them in, a dish Martin discovered in Spain. There is a wonderful Quiche Lorraine based on a dish he found in Paris that took him years to replicate. The key, he says, is using puff pastry for the crust.
Even a simple salad becomes a work of art here. The Menil Salad is just mixed greens with grape tomatoes
and French radishes, but it is brightened by vinaigrette with just a hint of walnut oil.
Hungrier diners can choose from paninos, pizzas, and flat breads, or go straight for the entrées that come with two sides (do make one the non-dairy Bistro potatoes). The chicken Ballotine is stuffed and rests on a wild mushroom duxelle, while the grilled quail may be some of the best in the city, glazed with a Pomegranate molasses.
You can drop by anytime for $1 espressos, or visit in the afternoon for happy-hour prices on beer and wine. “We call it ‘Ceci n’est pas un happy hour,’” Martin says, “after my favorite painting in the museum, René Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Which translates to “This is not a pipe,” although it is, in fact, a painting of a pipe.
It’s all whimsy and elegance and just plain delight at Bistro Menil—and opening-day crowds prove that it could become another jewel in the crown of Houston’s dining scene. “I was shocked at the crowds,” Martin says. “But people love The Menil, and I think they really want to like us.”
Looks like they already do.
1513 West Alabama Street
713.904.3537 • bistromenil.com
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.