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At Artisans Restaurant, What Matters Is that the Ingredients Are the Best of the Best

Getting back to the true meanings of artisanal.

At Artisans Restaurant, What Matters Is that the Ingredients Are the Best of the Best
Troy Fields
Pistachio-crusted sea bass may seem old-fashioned, but Artisans breathes new life into the elegant dish. Get a behind the scenes at look at Artisans in our slideshow, "Artisans Restaurant: A Closer Look."

I almost parked in the spot reserved for the chef because it was empty when I arrived. I was there for a late dinner — 8 p.m. — but the chef was clearly not. At times like this, a critic is bound to wonder: Should I stay and eat or come back another time and hope the chef is there? When the restaurant is so tied to the chef and his aesthetic, you want him to be there so you'll get the full experience, right?

Lunch is more suited to diners seeking a quiet spot for a fancy business meeting.

Half an hour later, once we'd already dived into the first few courses, I noticed the chef strolling around the restaurant, poking his head into the open kitchen, whispering to the line cooks and chatting with patrons. He delivered the main courses to us at the long, curved table that wraps around the kitchen like stadium seating for nightly culinary theatricality. In his thick French accent, he explained the various elements on each plate before moving on to mingle with the diners at another table, and eventually he disappeared into the back of the ­restaurant.

Normally I'd be concerned when the chef and face of a restaurant has so little presence during service, but it's clear that though most of the recipes are his creations, the artisans from which the restaurant takes its name are the men and women working the line. They're like a machine, silent and deliberate, moving slowly but with purpose. They filet fish and place it in a pan to sear, stir buttery sauces and gingerly spread purées in elegant swoops across bright white plates, garnish the finished dish with a few sprigs of green and purple microgreens.

The kitchen at Artisans is truly open, allowing every guest seated at the long bar — and even guests throughout the rest of the space — to witness the cooking up close.
Troy Fields
The kitchen at Artisans is truly open, allowing every guest seated at the long bar — and even guests throughout the rest of the space — to witness the cooking up close.
Chef Jacques Fox eschews the locavore trend in favor of bringing in the best possible ingredients regardless of seasonality.
Troy Fields
Chef Jacques Fox eschews the locavore trend in favor of bringing in the best possible ingredients regardless of seasonality.

Details

Artisans Restaurant
3201 Louisiana, 713-529-9111.
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Three-course business lunch: $27
Five-course chef's dinner: $79
Salade Artisans: $10
Foie gras: $25
Pan-seared scallops: $24
Chilean sea bass: $38
Prime rib eye: $42
Beef tenderloin: $39
Desserts: $10-$14



Get a behind the scenes at look at Artisans in our slideshow, "Artisans Restaurant: A Closer Look."


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These are the artisans of Artisans Restaurant, the people who, as the definition of the word states, produce something in limited quantities and by hand using traditional methods. Much was made of the restaurant's name when it first opened back in 2012 because of the connotation that the word "artisans" has taken on. Artisanal products are irritatingly ubiquitous, and the implication of the term is that the product — be it cheese or soap or cutlery — is local, quaint and handmade. In actuality, something need only be produced by a skilled worker to be called artisanal.

There's much skill to be witnessed at Artisans, whether chef Jacques Fox is in the kitchen or not. Many of the recipes haven't changed all that much since Fox debuted the menu two years ago, but, as one of the sous chefs explained to me, why meddle with success? Seasonal items are added as the kitchen sees fit, but seasonality at Artisans is based more on the feelings a season invokes than on what ingredients are available. In Fox's world, if it can be shipped from somewhere and arrive fresh, it's seasonal.

It's a very haute French attitude, on the opposite end of the spectrum from the increasingly overworked use of the word "local" in much of Houston's culinary landscape. "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche," Marie Antoinette is credited with saying. "Let them eat cake." And while we're in the mood for gluttony, extravagance and the best the world has to offer, why not fly in sea bass from Chile and salmon from Tasmania? This is the fourth-largest city in the country. There's room for locavores and...uh...globavores...alike.
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Get a behind the scenes at look at Artisans in our slideshow, "Artisans Restaurant: A Closer Look."

It's dainty food, but there are no tweezers. Hands and spoons go directly into the various metal containers and sprinkle greens or shape quenelles to garnish already painstakingly plated dishes. A platter of scallops imported from some far-off sea (we don't have coquilles like this in the Gulf) are first lifted out of a storage container and inspected, each individually, to ensure there's no grit or membrane lingering. They're brought close to the face for examination before each nugget is placed in a pan with a shallow layer of hot, spitting oil. The scallops are seared until a brown crust appears on each side, the center still soft and white and sweet. A single scallop is then placed in a small pool of beurre blanc and topped with lightly cooked tomatoes, a cooling acidic addition needed with the rich butter sauce and the heavy additional — though unnecessary — elements: a single piece of hand-formed spinach ravioli and a small cup of creamy lobster bisque.

This is one of the classic and most popular dishes at Artisans. It's on the "Chef's Gastronomique Five-Course" menu, along with four other items that have become favorites at the restaurant. It's not cheap — $79 for five courses. Compare that to Oxheart's seven-course tasting menu for $79 or The Pass's eight-course $95 tasting menu. But it's not meant to be reasonable. It's meant to be luxurious, and it certainly is, from the first course of seared foie gras atop a slice of buttery bread soaking in a crème de cassis demi-glace to the dessert, an elaborately composed opera cake and one of the best French pastries you're apt to find in the Bayou City.

When Houstonians pay this much for food, though, we often expect to be challenged. We expect the dramatic plating and liquid-nitrogen theatrics of The Pass or the unique twists on familiar items at Oxheart. You won't find that at Artisans. Here you'll get classic French food with the occasional continental nod and presentations rem­iniscent of what might be taught in a fine-­dining class for burgeoning chefs, which makes sense. Fox spent years working for fancy hotels and as the chef at Eric's Restaurant at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston. It's a style of cuisine that seems to be dying out in favor of more avant-garde or decidedly down-home food, and I find that sad. I like the old-school fine-­dining feel.

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8 comments
iamannlb
iamannlb

Excellent take on Artisans!!!!!!!! Well done Kaitlin!!!!!!

no0ne1mportant
no0ne1mportant

"so what?"  she wants to know.  going green and eating local isn't (merely) a hip trend - it's about hearkening back to a time when we didn't have factories for food or global fedex overnight.  historically, fresh ingredients didn't just influence but *dictated* a lifestyle and defined a culture.  

she should check out this article, written by a writer who knows something about food:  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/25/travel/tasting-france-through-5-signature-dishes.html?ref=travel&_r=0

jimbo1126
jimbo1126

There's a fine line between old school and hoary, traditional and fusty -- and my impression of Artisans (I haven't been) was that it is crossing that line in a questionable way. I'm glad to hear the food has ended up being worth the cost. Unfortunately, among restaurants at that price point Artisans isn't on anyone's radar that I know, so I'm not sure when or if I'll get to try it. Hopefully your article will change that and someone will invite me there soon!

yourdad
yourdad

@no0ne1mportant  OK, I read the article at your link. Your comparison is misguided, apples to oranges. Just like the big city of Houston, the writer left the big city of Paris to find “local ingredients” prepared in such a way that’s it’s “labor intensive. . . this is one reason why people should and do eat outside of Paris.”

“To understand French cuisine, I realized I had to visit the regions and meet the country chefs, farmers and home cooks who proudly preserve tradition.”

Maybe you think the writer at the Houston Press should visit various regions of Texas and write about the ”country chefs, farmers and home cooks who proudly preserve tradition” there. Oh, but wait, she works for the HOUSTON PRESS and writes about Houston restaurants.

I agree, the French do it right—I’ve been to France a dozen times, every region, and enjoyed some of my most memorable meals at Mom and Pop restaurants not noted by Rick Stevens, where the owner/chef is right there at your table and everyone takes great pride in their work. But this is Texas, dude.

Finally, what is in the NYT article that makes you think that it is “written by a writer who knows something about food,” implying that the HP writer does not. I guarantee, if the HP writer embarked on a tour of France to write about the local cuisine of various regions, the product would have been as good or better than the NYT review.


gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

@jimbo1126 I can eat just as well at home for a week on $80-95, exquisite presentation and pomp do nothing for me.

yourdad
yourdad

@gossamersixteen @jimbo1126 I can eat nothing but corn flakes and pop vitamins at home for a week for a whole less even than $80-95. But what's the fun in that?

If exquisite presentation and pomp do nothing for you, even if the food is also exquisite, than yes, you should just stay at home.

 
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