At Artisans Restaurant, What Matters Is that the Ingredients Are the Best of the Best
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?
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.
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.
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.
Situated at the "chef's table," which is actually a long, curving bar with 28 seats in the middle of the restaurant, I watch the chefs and line cooks sear and plate a perfectly peppered medium-rare entrecôte de boeuf before passing it along to someone else in the kitchen who adds a chilled round of mustard butter to the top. He then hands the dish over to yet another cook, who adds the earthy ginger-infused carrots and a cup of foie gras aioli to the already beautiful dish. And then, when each element has found its way to the rib eye, the plate is set below a few heat lamps that shine down like spotlights on the star of some masterful performance who is whisked away moments later to meet an adoring fan.
It's traditional and somewhat old-fashioned, yes, but the intense medley of flavors in each new dish had me wondering how it had taken me so long to come here. I was pleased with the pan-seared foie gras in the tart demi-glace, but I was taken aback and momentarily speechless when I took my first bite of pistachio-crusted sea bass bathed in a rich, buttery velouté sauce. The crunch of the pistachios contrasted nicely with the flaky white fish, while the velouté, a mixture of meat stock, butter and flour (the word is French for "velvety"), added a luscious creaminess to the dish without overpowering the seafood flavor. This, too, is one of Artisans's most popular items. I can see why.
Where the dinner menu feels almost over-the-top in its luxury, lunch is more suited to diners seeking a quiet spot for a fancy business meeting. While lunching alone recently, I enjoyed a wonderful three-course meal that set me back only $35 with the tip. I started with a simple salad of mixed greens and a thick slab of crisp bacon punctuated by a lemon vinaigrette before moving on to pan-seared Gulf snapper (hey, it's local!) on a bed of delightfully chewy risotto. For dessert, a small slice of chocolate mousse cake, simultaneously rich with bitter chocolate and refreshing in its lightness.
On this occasion, I sat inside a glass-walled section of the restaurant at an intimate table for two that looked out on a few booths, high tops and the striking chef's table, and noticed the difference between the lunch and dinner crowds. At lunch, people are livelier and more talkative, eating in between hearty laughs or examinations of paperwork they've brought along. At dinner, the lights are dimmed and diners sit closer together. They whisper, and when the food comes, they fall silent altogether, entranced for a moment by the feast before them. It's refreshing that a restaurant that initially seems a little stuffy, situated near the equally upscale Brennan's, can serve two distinct crowds and serve them well.
Jacques Fox has lived and worked all over the world. He knows where the best ingredients come from. He knows that if something is out of season here, he can probably have it shipped in from overseas. And he makes no apologies for that.
In a culinary climate where the prevalent mind-set is all about going green and eating local, Fox is breaking the mold by doing the opposite of that and still creating top-quality food. So the greens didn't come from his backyard garden. So the fish is flown in from South America and the beef is decidedly not Texan. So what?
The artisanal nature of the food comes from the fact that it's labored over by a group of talented chefs — craftsmen, if you will — who use traditional methods to fashion classic dishes in ways that are never boring. From the chic design featuring rooster and fleur-de-lis motifs to the time-honored filet de boeuf au poivre, the historic elements of Artisans excite me, in spite of myself.
At Artisans, I'm liable to adopt the same bon vivant attitude as the former queen of France herself. Let them eat cake (and imported sea bass and expensive cuts of beef)? Don't mind if I do.
Get a behind the scenes at look at Artisans in our slideshow, "Artisans Restaurant: A Closer Look."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.