Bistro Menil, from the outside, is a reflection of the museum: beautiful, minimalist and modern. Since I’m a big fan of the Menil collection, I was excited to try the young new companion restaurant, which recently opened its doors in early October.
As soon as you walk in the door, you’re greeted by the bar, paneled with handmade oak counters where patrons can enjoy a selection of wine and beer. It’s a great display of one of the bistro’s special features: the environmentally-friendly cask wine program, run by beverage director Sean Essex, which utilizes wine stored in stainless steel canisters, allowing wineries to cut down on shipping and packaging costs. The bistro keeps several wine casks on tap at any given time; the specially designed canisters contain nitrogen on top, keeping the wine fresh for up to 60 days rather than the typical 36-hour life after opening.
The menu, spanning small bites, pizzas, salads, seafood and meat entrees and more, is wide and varied—impressively so, given the tiny kitchen size, which you can peek into on the way to your table. The kitchen is mirrored by an equally small dessert pantry where many of their desserts are made in-house, including house-churned gelato.
Just tweaks here and there could elevate this to the type of restaurant I’d frequent often, particularly for the beautiful, minimalist interior and free sparkling water from their charcoal-filtered water system. The highly recommended eggplant fries were a little bitter with a heavy, floury-tasting batter—these flaws were almost, but not quite remedied by the sharp, salty anchovy aioli. Their pizzas, in the affordable range of $10-$15, boast bubbly, nicely crisp crusts with interesting ingredients inspired by Chef Greg Martin’s (formerly of Café Express) travels through Europe. A dinner plate-sized pizza with taleggio, pear and a shower of arugula would have been heavenly had they pulled back on the salt (an extra dusting of salt on top of the salty cheese was a bit much) as well as the truffle oil, which doused the pizza, wilting the arugula as dinner wore on. A manchego and jamon pizza suffered the same overly-salty fate.
Disappointingly, the lemon meringue tart, one of the most expensive items on the dessert menu at $10, was mediocre with an unexciting lemon curd and pastry shell, and the German chocolate cake ice cream sundae was a texturally monotonous affair despite garnishes of chopped pecans, coconut, and chocolate over two sizeable scoops of coconut ice cream.
The service, too, was sloppier than I would expect from the striking atmosphere. From spilled wine and water to a lack of explanation about the food to a nearly 30 minute delay between the entrees and the arrival of dessert, the service seemed semi-eager to please, but struggled with execution. And though I love the simple modernity of the layout, ambient noise in the non-insulated dining room built to a small roar over the course of the night.
Still, the restaurant was nearly full on a cold Wednesday night, with the private dining room occupied and people even spilling out onto the picturesque patio, warmed by heat lamps. Martin and team are doing something right to catch the attention of Houstonites—it just might take me a few more visits to figure out what it is.
1512 Sul Ross St
Houston, TX 77006
Photo of Eggplant Fries provided by CKP Group.