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Highly Anticipated Bistro Menil Opens

As executive chef of Bistro Menil, which officially opens Wednesday, Martin knows a lot of eyes and opinionated palates will be on the first full-service restaurant on the leafy campus that the Menils created. While he anticipates a positive synergy between the restaurant and the main museum and Menil neighborhood, Martin said his job definition is simple: "to provide an amenity for museumgoers, first, and the neighborhood."

That culinary amenity is housed in an Arts and Crafts-style bungalow set between West Alabama and Sul Ross. Extensive construction work was done to the building and the site, which originally was supposed to be a cafe under architect Piano's plans. Guests entering the restaurant first see a bar fronted by Carrera marble and mirrors where beverage director Sean Essex will offer cask wine and a craft-beer menu. The bar top is a single piece of rich, raw-edged walnut. To the right is the main dining area called the "Vue" room that seats 68 with windows that look across Sul Ross to the museum. The space is spare and white (deliberately planned without wall art) with a gray polished concrete floor. But there's warmth in the minimalist structure: The main dining room is lighted with an oversize blown-glass light fixture hanging from a suspended ceiling of blond wood. Dark wood tabletops, grey tweed and black microfiber upholstered banquettes, and chalkboard menus created by Matthew Tabor help break up the white-on-white expanse. Additional seating is found in the "Prive" room (a private dining room that can also be converted to overflow dining space) for up to 24 and a patio that can seat 40.

"We have long wanted to develop a cafe on our campus, not only as a service to our visitors from Houston and around the world, but also as a place of interaction between the museum and the community," stated Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection. "With the opening of Bistro Menil, and the completion of a new campus gateway into which it is incorporated, we take a step forward in our larger plans to make the Menil more open and engaging for all."

Since January 2013, when the Menil Collection awarded him the contract to operate the concession, Martin has been hard at work conceptualizing and refining the restaurant and menu. The chef (who enjoyed a long career with the Schiller-Del Grande group at Café Annie, Café Express and Taco Milagro), drew on his extensive travels through France, Italy and Spain for inspiration. The result is a lunch and dinner menu of "European-inspired American fare," and his menu of simply plated dishes - flat breads, salads, pizza and main entrees that include roasted fish and chicken, grilled quail, steaks and chops, pasta, risotto, quiche, crepes and cassoulet.

Martin was shooting for a menu that is "approachable, accessible, affordable and easy to understand," he said. "I'm not going to get awards for most creative or most original." Still, there are serious intentions and thoughtful indulgences on the menu. Starters include grilled polenta with roasted-vegetable relish; roasted beets with walnuts and chives; duck rillettes served with onion jam and cornichons; eggplant "fries"; and a charcuterie board that includes rillettes, jamon, ballotine and paté. Thin, crispy flatbread options: caramelized onion, mascarpone and pancetta; parmesan, fig and jamon; olive tapenade, roasted tomatoes and basil; white anchovies and parsley. More substantial pizza selections: roasted artichoke, chicken, tomato and mozzarella; soft Italian cheese, arugula and pear; turkey sausage, roasted mushroom, tomato sauce and mozzarella; wild mushroom and Italian truffle cheese.

Mains include roasted salmon with horseradish dill sauce; crispy halibut with roasted tomato and caper berry relish; roasted snapper with artichokes, tomatoes and lump crab; seared scallops with caviar beurre blanc; crisp duck confit with pink peppercorn butter; grilled quail with pomegranate molasses; rib-eye with green peppercorn sauce; porchetta pork loin; and Greek-style lamb chops with mint and cucumber.

Desserts include bittersweet chocolate tart, lemon curd tart, pear upside-down cake, passion fruit trifle, buttermilk blackberry cake, German chocolate cake ice cream sundae, and house-made gelato and ice cream.

Martin has done his homework. He requested the demographics of Menil visitors and found that 20 percent are from Europe; 40 percent from the U.S. East and West coasts; and 40 percent from Texas. It's also a demographic that is well educated, well traveled and knowledgeable in food and wine. "They've seen the world," he said. "They know what Ibérico ham is." And they might also recognize the local Slow Dough Bread Co. bread served at the restaurant.
Martin and his crew have put much consideration into all elements of the first restaurant at the Menil. "It's all these little things that you may not be able to put your finger on but will compel you to go again and again," he said proudly. "We want to be your default restaurant destination."