Gone are the days when Houston was known as the land of steak and potatoes. Still, our city had been missing something—in spite of its current reputation as a dining destination rich with regional and global flavors and experiences. Absent from our dining scene was a garden of delights.
Welcome to town, Le Jardinier.
Located in the landmark Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), the new restaurant offers visitors fresh, creative fare, served in the comfort of a soft, welcoming interior.
With its prestigious museum address, one might imagine Le Jardinier to be stuffy or intimidating. Add to that the restaurant’s Michelin-starred, French-trained chef Alain Verzeroli, and you might guess that reservations are hard to come by. Not so.
The dining environment is absolutely fresh, yet strangely familiar—both awe-inspiring and warmly embracing. And the prices allow for more than rare visits on special occasions. According to Chef Verzeroli, the restaurant’s culinary director, the average all-inclusive check is about $110 to $120 per person.
Le Jardinier complements its museum host perfectly. Floor-to-ceiling windows draw one’s attention to the magnificent Cullen Sculpture Garden just beyond. Lush banquettes and soft chairs invite one to sit for hours and watch the evening light change. Mirrors behind the lengthy bar reveal the animated faces and excitement of the guests.
Many shades of greens, browns, yellows, pinks, and blues emerge from a large tapestry by Houston artist Trenton Doyle Hancock. Art and nature blend here, as the textile is the artist’s impression of a forest. It was commissioned specifically for Le Jardiner, and seems to be a perfect choice for this beautiful botanical garden.
The menu echoes nature, as well. Le Jardinier features a refined, vegetable-forward concept rooted in modern French culinary technique. Seasonal ingredients work with the rhythms of nature, taking full advantage of the Texas growing seasons. The restaurant sources the highest-quality seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs and greens, sustainable seafood, poultry, and meat in close relationship with local suppliers.
Chef Verzeroli brings to Houston his culinary artistry and decades of experience in some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants. Paris-trained, he spent 10 years in Japan prior to becoming Le Jardinier’s culinary director. “The Japanese are very attuned to nature,” the gracious chef explains. “They have learned how to wait for every ingredient to arrive at the very peak of its flavor. This ability presents so many options for the menu we have at Le Jardinier. It makes all the difference.”
“That’s for certain,” adds Houstonian Gracie Cavner with a chuckle. Cavner has become the city’s leading authority on vegetable gardens after founding her nonprofit Recipe for Success Foundation 16 years ago. The agency, which now has a global reach, is dedicated to combating childhood obesity by changing the way children understand, appreciate, and eat food. She was even invited to the White House when First Lady Michelle Obama launched her Let’s Move children’s nutrition initiative.
Cavner and her husband have been out of town since the opening of Le Jardinier, but they are looking forward to their first visit.
“When we eat vegetables that were picked just hours before, when they have arrived at the height of their growing season, that’s the ultimate in dining,” Cavner emphasizes. “Each vegetable has its own flavor profile, but if they are prepared properly, at the proper time, there are so many wonderful things we can do with them. They are one of nature’s perfect foods.”
While Le Jardiner is plant-centric, there are other delights not to be overlooked. Verzaroli is pleased with what he has discovered in Houston, in terms of fresh seafood and meat options. And his pastries are already making waves.
“I had never visited Houston, so I spent many months here before we opened,” Chef Verzaroli says. I got to know the suppliers, and I am happy with the wonderful produce and products available in this city. I’ve also spent a lot of time learning about what Houstonians crave, and developing a menu that incorporates the unique terroir of the city.”
Verzaroli’s unusual menu is indeed a work of art that blends healthy options and indulgences without compromise. Guests will find dishes such as Texas Gulf shrimp with Homestead Gristmill grits and a spicy bisque for $36. The Ora King salmon with courgettes and lemongrass emulsion is $46, and who could resist the $48 Wagyu bavette au jus with broccolini, charred eggplant mousse, and chips?
For more information about Le Jardinier, go to lejardinier-houston.com. Recipe for Success information is at recipe4success.org.
This article appears in the August 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.