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All About Schmit

The French Cowboy's Philippe is both elegant and playful.

Take a trip through Philippe's elegantly-appointed dining room and busy kitchen for yourself.

There's something wondrous about watching the cork slip softly from a 15-year-old bottle of Burgundy: For a moment, it's like watching time travel in reverse, as the stopper is loosed from the position it's held for more than a decade.

I watched with bittersweet anticipation as sommelier Vanessa Treviño Boyd uncorked the $115 bottle of 1996 ­Nuits-Saint-George — a bargain at a very low mark-up, considering the upscale surroundings — with capable hands, her calm demeanor and the bottle of underpriced Burgundy capturing the spirit of Philippe itself that Friday night.

Beautiful yet simple: Skate wing in lobster broth.
Troy Fields
Beautiful yet simple: Skate wing in lobster broth.

Location Info

Map

Philippe

1800 Post Oak Blvd.
Houston, TX 77056

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: Galleria

Details

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Fridays, 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturdays.
Seafood soup: $8
Steak tartare: $8
Moroccan tartare: $8
Buttermilk-fried calamari: $9
Bacon cheeseburger: $14
Poached skate wing: $23
Pigs in a blanket: $24
Drunken foie gras: $25


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Since opening in the beginning of the year, the Galleria-area restaurant has managed to straddle a very fine line between high-end and lighthearted with its Texan interpretations of French classics and swanky atmosphere that often catches you by surprise. Philippe has a practiced grace and elegance that's only enhanced by small, playful touches: sections of the menu named "Flirtations" or "Contained Decadence," or cowhide-covered ottomans in an otherwise steely-chic lounge area.

It's all thanks to its chef — the effusive Philippe Schmit, who refers to himself as "the French Cowboy" — and his staff of professionals such as Treviño Boyd and general manager Sharif El-Amin, a carefully assembled team with experience at some of the city's and the nation's best restaurants. They have created a star of a restaurant that meets the needs of its upscale clientele as effortlessly as it does diners on a budget, while making both groups feel immediately at home and pulling it all off with aplomb.

Even in a $20, three-course business lunch, there are deft, delicate touches in the smallest, most unexpected flourishes: tender, crispy leaves of flash-fried parsley in the buttermilk-battered calamari appetizer. Or a crystalline, sugared slice of apple thin enough to see through atop a scrupulously flaky apple tart with a million fine layers that fold gently into one another at the press of a fork.

Even the coq au vin is expertly plated, with a fine, plush sauce rich in Burgundy and brandy, filled with dark chicken that parts easily from the bone. It would be easy to throw together a cheap-looking lunch to go along with the inexpensive price, but I don't think Philippe's kitchen has it in them: Every dish here is always impeccably dressed, just like its clientele.

And although Philippe's refreshingly accessible prices may not reflect its Galleria-area location or the talents of its chef, the atmosphere still does. And that means dressing to suit the occasion, a comfortingly civil activity on a Friday night at the end of a hectic week. Too few people dress for dinner anymore, and Philippe encourages you to dress to the nines. There's no guile or pretension to getting dressed up here, no sense of socialites parading about the room or judgment calls being made from neighboring tables; it's simply fun.
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Philippe also encourages patrons to make reservations. During the day, that three-course business lunch fills the house with some of Houston's power players — in my most recent run-in, Rich Klein of Fogarty & Klein sat next to me eating a salad. Still, you can almost always get in without booking ahead at lunch. The same does not hold true at night, when socialites and even minor celebrities pack the house — and not in any discernible pecking order, either.

The first time I dined at Philippe, I hadn't made a reservation and waited 30 minutes for a table as a result. While I peered around the place from my barstool in the downstairs lounge, I was struck by how much the restaurant's no-expenses-spared decor and stylish crowd felt like a New York City hotspot, yet so groundedly Texan at the same time. The place had only been open for a little over a month, and it overcame a few stumbles with admirable grace.

My hanger steak came drowned in a clunky Bordelaise sauce, but was otherwise cooked to its requested medium-rare. The sauce was an anomaly after we'd just finished a jaw-droppingly good terrine of foie gras saturated with Armagnac and sweet Sauternes wine. And my dining companion's duck shepherd's pie was oddly bland, given the daringly Moroccan-flavored, sultana-studded beef tartare we'd had for our first course, spiked with bold jolts of harissa. When Schmit does take these intrepid diversions into more adventurous Mediterreanean fare — as with a wonderful flatbread heaped with tangy lamb meatballs, salty feta and perky English cucumbers — it pays off in surprising ways.

Nevertheless, we marveled at the soft waves of organza rustling lightly and serenely from the ceiling above us and the tall, stately booths that overlook the staircase airie leading into the main dining room. We whiled the hours away peering into the glass-walled kitchen that seemed lit from within by a fiery amber glow and the equally saturated view onto the Galleria's compact skyline from the dining room's windows. Even if the food wasn't quite yet firing on all pistons, the ambience certainly was.

A few items have increased in price since that initial visit — a $15 terrine of drunken foie gras, for example, that is now $25 — but so has the quality of the food itself. There are still stumbles, of course, like a flavorless "cowboy burger" that came dry save for the juices of the beef itself. Not even the creamy house-made mayonnaise could bring the burger effectively to life, but I didn't despair over a ritzy French restaurant's inability to cook a good burger. Why? Because Philippe makes up for it in stellar, authentically French dishes like its coq au vin and foie gras.

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