All About Schmit
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.
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.
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.
Although it's more expensive now, that foie gras is still worth every dime; you'll not find a silkier, nor a richer, treatment of goose liver in town, the Sauternes tugging out every buttery note from the liver as it melts into a crusty slice of hot brioche. The terrine is even ample enough to split among a table of four for an appetizer. And if you think you can finish it yourself, trust me: You can't.
Between the two of us on that Burgundy-saturated Friday night, my wine rep friend and I couldn't even finish half of the foie gras terrine, eventually making the Sophie's Choice to save our stomach room for the bottle we were savoring over the course of a three-hour meal. Philippe encourages you to linger in this way, making you forget that there's a cold, wet night waiting outside. It's there in the food, of course, but also in the kind, attentive service and the way the French never rush through their meals — another beautifully civil notion that's strongly encouraged here.
There's something to be said for this kind of special-occasion dining, which is being lost as Houston's restaurants go increasingly casual. Something to be said for sommeliers who can expertly guide you through a list they thoughtfully constructed themselves — not a list that's the lazy creation of a wine distributor — and for a chef who walks the dining room each night like a benevolent dictator, demanding the most of his kitchen crew while still adding a twinkle of extra celebrity to the place. There's something giddily fun about checking in with the hostess stand downstairs, then being magically greeted by their upstairs counterparts and swept in grand fashion to a table that manages to pull off lacy linen napkins without feeling fussy.
We tried not to overindulge that night, but it's difficult to restrain yourself when a towering masterpiece of steak tartare, redolent with Dijon mustard and crowned with a quail egg nestled into half a spotted shell, is only $8. My friend and I ate every last square centimeter of tartare on the plate, before turning our attention to the $8 bowl of seafood soup still awaiting our attention: a satiny broth intensified with saffron that was so thick with the sweet, briny flavor of clams, mussels and white fish that the pieces of seafood themselves weren't even missed.
For her entrée, my friend ordered "pigs in a blanket" — Schmit's play on words that calls to mind the Texan kolache, but actually refers to the French standard, pork blanquette. It was fine stuff, heavy and husky under its blanket of sage-tinged cream sauce.
I got a delicate poached skate wing in lobster broth. It seemed a crime to even touch the skate, whose tender flesh was fanned out on the tiny bones and arching across my plate like a delicate bird's wing. It was an extraordinarily beautiful yet simple dish to behold. When I eventually came to my senses and took the first bite, I was pleased to find that the delicate flavor matched the ethereal presentation. Beneath the wing bobbed porcini mushroom-filled ravioli in a thin, tawny broth that tasted of pure lobster stock with every bite. I coveted every last sip.
I never experienced Chef Schmit's cooking when he wowed the city during his time at Bistro Moderne, but I can imagine this is what it was like before the Hotel Derek unceremoniously shut the bistro's doors and Schmit was left at loose ends. No wonder Houston was so desperate to keep its French cowboy firmly planted in place. And thank God he chose to remain here: Philippe is Chef Schmit's glorious return to form after years without a kitchen of his own, and Houston is richer for it.
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