Philippe Schmit's sudden departure from his eponymous restaurant, Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, left many wondering: What is going to happen to a restaurant named Philippe when Philippe himself is not there?
A recent media dinner to introduce executive chef Manuel Pucha and his new menu answered that question. Pucha, who worked alongside Schmit for the the past 15 years, and was chef de cuisine at Philippe until Schmit's departure, has stepped into the role of executive chef with confidence, creating a menu of dishes that is already being well-received by Philippe's regular clientele.
Though the menu retains some of Philippe's signature dishes -- the sherried onion soup, crab and avocado appetizer, margarita tuna tartare, braised Burgundy beef cheeks, and the coq au vin -- it moves away from the "French cowboy" brand of cuisine espoused by Schmit, which often melded traditional French cuisine with Texan ingredients and flavors. Pucha's new menu has more of a comfort-driven continental sensibility, with a tagline of "Subtle comforts, culinary flair." The menu also incorporates more locally sourced, organic, and sustainable meat, poultry, fish, and produce.
The media dinner highlighted some of the most notable changes on the menu, starting with an heirloom tomato and mozzarella tart. Part French pastry and part Italian caprese salad, the buttery starter of light puff pastry combined with warm, melted mozzarella and tomato was one of the highlights of the night for its pleasing combination of flavors and textures.
Next, beautifully presented on a slate board over a swirly pattern of smoked carrot puree, extra-large pan-seared U-10 sea scallops were plump and mouthwatering, their slightly sweet, almost springy flesh seared to a light golden crust. Small glazed carrots, pearl onions, and fava beans completed this dish, adding both color and a good contrast of flavors.
For healthful-minded individuals, a lightly poached, olive oil-cured organic Scottish salmon was also notable. Served over a quinoa and fennel-apple slaw, the salmon was delicate, moist, and cooked to a perfect medium rare, the accompaniments lightly seasoned so as not to overpower the fish.
A glistening, crispy-skinned leg of duck confit was the standout of the evening for its flawless execution. One of Schmit's signature dishes, the classic French itemis one of the best you'll find in Houston, the dark meat of the duck rich and full of flavor, with gorgeously crisped skin that had been fully rendered of all its fat. So good was the skin, in fact, that I peeled it off and munched on bits of it, as I would a potato chip.
A grilled, thick-cut pork chop was also memorable. The applewood-smoked flavor of the tender white meat made it the most southern-tasting dish of the night, and was well-complemented by a smoky roasted red pepper coulis, creamy Parmesan polenta, and fall vegetables.
All dishes were expertly paired with a wide variety of wines -- everything ranging from Pinot Gris, to Pinot Blanc, Riesling, to Syrah, to a fabulous Dulce Monastrell dessert wine from Spain -- by Philippe's sommelier, Vanessa Trevino-Boyd.
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And in keeping with the "subtle comfort" theme, a dessert from the restaurant's pastry chef, Jaime King -- Campfire Napolean -- was familiar yet surprising: burnished marshmallow sandwiched between rectangular Graham cracker tuiles with a Valrhona chocolate mousse and caramelized cream sauce.
Pucha did a fine job that night, but it's no surprise. As chef de cuisine, he had already performed many of the functions of executive chef well before he was given the title. He has big shoes to fill, but it seems he's clearly up to the task.