Museum Park Cafe Needs to Take More Chances to Become the Restaurant Patrons Expect

The roasted heirloom beet salad was delicious and the most memorable item we sampled on our first visit.
The roasted heirloom beet salad was delicious and the most memorable item we sampled on our first visit.
Photos by Troy Fields

Looking at the dinner menu, it feels as if something's missing. The à la carte portion on the stiff, pale gray paper, printed on the left, is shockingly brief, containing all of five starters, three pasta dishes, four mains and four side dishes. To the right, underneath the words "Kitchen Menu," a chef's tasting menu is offered in six courses for $72.

"Is that it?" my dinner companion asked, turning the menu over only to find a blank page. A short menu can be good thing. No need to spend lengthy minutes perusing a congested list of what usually turn out to be average dishes, trying to divine which are the ones worth ordering.

When a menu is as short as the one at Museum Park Cafe, however, it sets the expectation that each and every dish will be exceptional, that each dish is somehow deserving of a chance in the spotlight. This is the flip side of such a fiercely edited list: It can be very unforgiving. There is little to no wiggle room for error, because the assumption is when the menu is that short, the kitchen should be able to execute each dish perfectly, right?

Museum Park Cafe is a delightful space that has been run by two well-regarded chefs -- Justin Basye and pastry chef Chris Leung-- whose talents and accomplishments are well-documented. As was announced last week, Basye has exited the project, which may mean a move away from what we saw during three recent visits -- a haphazard, middle-of-the-road approach and a surprise to diners familiar with the many memorable dishes they've created.

There was a time, during the summer of 2011, when the James Beard-nominated Basye threw caution to the wind, embracing the unknown through a series of collaborative pop-up dinners called Les Sauvages, French for "the wild ones." He conducted this series right on the heels of his departure from his critically acclaimed post at Stella Sola. On the blog that announced his dinner lineup, the tagline was "crafting soulful food." Basye was experimenting with new ideas, working with different styles, taking risks, working with up-and-comers and local culinary talents such as Ryan Hildebrand of Triniti or Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, months before those chefs opened their own eateries.

About the same time, Leung was working at Bootsie's Heritage Cafe in Tomball alongside chef Randy Rucker in a no-rules kind of environment, a place where he would challenge himself daily to make something exquisite out of whatever was available. As with Basye, it was a time of unbounded creativity for Leung, who produced dish after dish of often incongruous mashups that would almost always miraculously come together beautifully.

Fast-forward to August 2014. Museum Park Cafe quietly opens to mostly positive word-of-mouth reviews. Three months later, when the kitchen should be rocking and rolling, there's a sense, even before you walk through the doors of the lofty, high-ceilinged warehouse space, that the restaurant is still in development.

A tattered plastic sign wraps around the railing in front of the restaurant, and is obviously supposed to be temporary. The face of the restaurant is unlit and dark, making it appear from the outside as though the place is closed. The promised lunch service (communicated via an early press release) that was supposed to begin in late September still hasn't materialized. Neither has the brunch service that was supposed to kick off in early October, at what would have been an ideal location for nearby museum-goers.

The current menu at Museum Park Cafe, which changes according to what's seasonal and available locally, paints a picture of two conservative chefs -- a vast difference from the up-and-coming young stars they were three years ago. These chefs are more cautious, offering dishes designed to appeal to a wider, more mainstream audience.

There's a riff on Caesar salad, one of the only vegetable dishes on the heavily protein-centric carte. The Caesar comes in a bowl of clustered chunks of Little Gem lettuce, arranged around an egg that's covered in a layer of crisp that resembles the outer coating of a croquette. Strips of mild white anchovy are draped across the pale green, puffy leaves, suggesting the flavor might be much more pungent and fishy than it actually is.

Cutting into the egg causes the rich yellow-orange yolk to ooze tantalizingly, mixing with the lemon vinaigrette, pickled red onion and radicchio for a creamier effect. In lieu of croutons, two small, cold Brazilian cheese puffs sit among the leaves. The cheese puffs have very little texture, and though it's nice to see something different from the same old same old, you sort of wish you had that crisp textural butteriness that a traditional crouton would add to the dish.


The bone marrow starter is roasted and served with a sweet and tangy shallot confit.
The bone marrow starter is roasted and served with a sweet and tangy shallot confit.

There's a beautiful bone marrow starter, arguably one of the best dishes on the menu. The ten-inch bone is cut in half lengthwise, so what you get are two elongated halves full of richly decadent marrow. It's roasted and topped with crispy-somethings, and served with a sweet and tangy shallot confit. Nestled between the bones is an arugula salad topped with onions in a light vinaigrette. Spreading the marrow and shallot confit over a slice of crisp Slow Dough toast, which is served on the side inside a bright orange oval cocotte, creates a sinfully good experience, bite after crisp, unctuous, slightly sweet, salty bite. The thing is, though, that you can get equally great versions of bone marrow all over the city at places like Kata Robata, Max's Wine Dive, Provisions or Brasserie Max & Julie.

Likewise, a gorgeously plated, wonderfully delicious salad of roasted heirloom beets -- ordered à la carte from the tasting menu and the most memorable item we sampled on our first visit -- is everything that you could want, a visual stunner of deep reds and and oranges accented with bright green leaves of arugula that looks as good as it tastes. The added textural elements -- crushed pistachios and croquette-like goat cheese balls that gush in the middle -- serve only to augment the sensory pleasure you get from this dish. But again, beet salad is safe. You can also find it on any number of menus across the city, and while on a scale of fair to excellent this one is actually excellent, it's been done before.

What hasn't been done before -- and it's one of the most talked-about items on the menu -- is Leung's simple plate of scallion and cheddar biscuits. Although they are quite expensive at $7 for three approximately four-inch-square biscuits, you don't mind because they're simply incredible. Covered in a sweet, viscous, salumi glaze evocative of sweet bacon jam, they come to the table hot, their centers moist and crumbly, the ever-so-light flavors of the scallion and cheese combining with the glaze in a way that is addictive and quite heavenly.

Start your meal with these biscuits, and they'll leave a strong enough impression that you won't mind when the great-sounding order of littleneck clams served in a broth of pancetta with salsa verde and tomato confit falls flat, tasting so bland that you don't take more than a few bites before pushing it away.

A steak tartare, made of undoubtedly good-quality meat chopped and pressed together into a small round with preserved egg yolk and accented with pickled mushrooms and shavings of lemon zest, is a solid offering if a little inconsistent. On first taste, the binding sauce was overpowering, the flavors overly stringent and almost sour on the palate, kind of like when you take a bite of too much mustard or horseradish. A second try was much blander, and though acceptable, was not a memorable experience.

Many of Basye's dishes were perfectly good in and of themselves, but when you're the hot, much-anticipated newcomer in town and several of the very few selections on your menu are on offer at a number of other restaurants, you want yours to be the ones that make everyone forget all the other versions.

A Parisienne gnocchi -- not the potato kind that's familiar to most people but the kind made with a batter of pâte à choux -- was described by our server, Ben, as amazing but came out dry and salty. Tossed with mushrooms and arugula and served in a white bowl in a haphazard jumble, the dish tasted more like a side of stuffing than an entrée.

Among the main dishes, there was a very good roast strip loin served in two small stacks cooked to a perfect medium rare over crispy potatoes, with half rounds of cipollini onions -- everything on point. A roast Texas quail was executed well, too, the quail moist, the skin golden, and the chanterelle pine nut stuffing with arugula and spaetzle seasoned correctly.

"It's good," said my companion when she tried it, with a shrug. Her lackluster response told its own story.

Museum Park Cafe is good, and a lot of the time, as is the case with its hunk-of-juiciness of a blue-label burger served with duck fat fries (available during their weekly happy for an incredible value of $10), is better than good. But there's something about the food that comes off as sterile and lacking in personality despite the presence of an open kitchen.

Even Leung's desserts, which in the past have beguiled and delighted with sophisticated plays on texture and unusual ingredients, seem staid and predictable. His round banana fritters tasted doughy instead of crisp and light, like thick cake doughnuts that couldn't quite hold onto their crispness, and the complement of Ceylon cinnamon ice cream was a little too mild in flavor, getting lost in the dessert. A chocolate financier -- Leung's take on chocolate cake -- buried beneath prettily arranged tulips of chocolate cream and served with a fantastic marzipan ice cream from his acclaimed Cloud 10 Creamery, was great, but not up to the high standards for which he's known.

There are three kinds of restaurants that you see popping up in Houston. First there are the chains -- like Bonefish Grill, El Pollo Loco and Olive Garden. Second are the classic restaurants -- the ones that want to give you great renditions of food that we know and love, like Killen's BBQ, Etoile or Songkran Thai Kitchen. And then there are the chef-driven restaurants that strive to be unique, to be a bit edgier, to push the boundaries and perhaps give you something you won't find elsewhere. Museum Park Cafe should rightfully be in that third category.

Jason White, the sous chef under Basye, whose résumé includes the critically acclaimed Oxheart and Revival Market, has been promoted to take his place. Now we'll have a chance to see what he can do.

Museum Park Cafe 1801 Binz, Suite 110, 713-520-0108, Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Scallion and cheddar biscuits $7 Steak tartare $15 Roasted beet salad $12 Museum Park Caesar $12 Parisienne gnocchi $15 Littleneck clams $15 Roasted bone marrow $17 Quail $27 NY strip loin $28 Banana fritter $10 Chocolate financier $10 Happy hour blue label burger $10 Coffee $3

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