Our first entrée order at Château, the fine-dining area of La Table, was for the rack of lamb for two. The heavy hunk of meat arrived on a wheeled, polished wood cart outfitted with a silver hood. Valerio Lombardozzi, who was previously a sommelier and assistant manager at Quattro at the Four Seasons Houston, cut the rack into four thick chops, two for each diner. Served alongside — at no extra charge — were incredibly buttery, puréed potatoes and caponata, a tangy, spicy eggplant dish.
“I can’t believe this is the same place,” one dining companion said repeatedly after experiencing the exemplary service at La Table. The last time he’d visited, it was still Table On Post Oak, where, as we noted in our September 2014 review, “Nothing here is terrible, but not enough is wonderful.”
The transformation of Table On Post Oak into La Table (pronounced “La-Tahb”) didn’t happen overnight, but it is as if a French fairy godmother waved her magic wand and transmuted the restaurant into the kind of place that Houston actually needed.
La Table is no rehash of Philippe Schmit’s “French cowboy” concept, either. If anything, Schmit’s prior restaurant, Bistro Moderne, would be closer kin if it had not closed nine years ago.
Here are a few phrases diners are likely to hear at Château:
“May I help you with your jacket?”
“Here is a stand for your purse.”
“Take your choice of bread. Would you like us to warm it for you?”
“Here is a dish of fleur de sel — just in case you would like a little more salt.”
There was no need to zap a new chef into existence, though. Manuel Pucha is still in charge of the kitchen — where he’s been ever since the restaurant was Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, before it was Table on Post Oak. Pucha has now outlasted two concepts and is on the third. Now, though, he’s cooking with reinvigorated perspective.
That may be because Invest Hospitality is in charge now — and that should pique some interest. Their brands include L’atelier de Joël Robuchon, which translates to “Joël Robuchon’s Workshop.” Robuchon, who is now in his seventies, has more than 20 concepts around the world branded with his famous name. More than half have been awarded between one and three Michelin stars. Two of those — one in Tokyo and one in Paris — are named La Table de Joël Robuchon. So, while the famous chef isn’t affiliated whatsoever with the Houston location, La Table is obviously part of the same family.
Much of the Table On Post Oak staff was retained and there are plenty of familiar faces, including maitre d’ James Pickett, who was previously at Triniti and Underbelly. (Pickett seems to have a talent for picking the most notable restaurants to work in.)
Each area of La Table has its own name, which is a tedious albeit functional method of distinguishing the various settings. The casual area downstairs anchored by the bar on one end is called Marché, while the bakery counter near the front door is simply named Macarons, although the selection includes a wide variety of pastries, cookies and candies.
The newly re-carpeted stairs lead up to Château, the fine-dining area. There’s also a catering operation named Chez Vous, a spacious private dining room named Privée and a full collection of luxuriously bound Assouline books on topics ranging from the cuisine of the French Riviera to the fashion of Valentino. The eclectic, stylish collection is quite a rabbit hole for avid readers, book collectors and fashionistas to fall into.
Château is reminiscent both of Eleven Madison Park and of Jean-Georges, each an esteemed New York establishment. The dining room has been redesigned to be spacious, with plenty of room between tables. If Fabergé had decided to become a minimalist and design light fixtures, they’d look like the egg-shaped, wire-wrapped ones that dangle from the ceiling. The primary sources of color in the main dining room are the big jars of fresh fruit that reside on a center table. There, too, is a glass dome protecting a few precious black truffles kept at the ready for shaving onto hot, freshly made pasta. A good candidate might be the outstanding ravioli filled with wild mushrooms, nestled in Parmesan cream and drizzled with a thick, dark reduction of bordelaise.
On a subsequent visit, Lombardozzi gently chided, “You did not try the chicken the last time you were here. I have one order left for the evening.” That was an easy sell. The chicken, roasted in pinot noir, is also served tableside but is $15 less expensive per person than the rack of lamb. La Table isn’t just trying to make a profit. It’s trying to make a good impression.
Like the lamb, the golden-skinned, mushroom-stuffed chicken arrived on the fancy silver-domed cart. Lombardozzi gathered gently roasted, bright green spears of asparagus and radiant baby carrots (real baby carrots, not the fake ones shaved down to look young ) into a big bowl, perched the whole chicken on top (with plumes of tarragon and parsley stuffed in the end like a green, herb-feathered tail) and presented it to the table. Next, he carved the chicken, making swift, graceful strokes through the breast with a knife, then cutting away the thigh quarters and separating the legs and wings.
The generous pile of mushrooms were dark with wine, having been cooked in the pinot noir along with the chicken. These, along with the carrots and asparagus, were heaped to one side of each diner’s plate. Half of the breast meat was served to each, and the dark pieces were heaped up on a separate, sharable plate.
Alas, it seems La Table isn’t infallible (we were starting to wonder), for the white meat was a little dry. The dark meat, though, was dusky, silken perfection that effortlessly tugged away from the bone. If there were an award for “Sexiest Chicken Service,” Château at La Table would win handily.
Of course, there is good wine to be had here and sommelier Sebastien Laval always appears at the right time with the right suggestion. He paired the wine-tinged chicken with a French pinot noir, which seemed only fitting. It was a fine glass of the 2011 Aurelien Verdet Chambolle-Musigny “Les Condemennes,” a supple pour awash in both sweet and tart cherries braced by just a hint of tannin. It went down far too easily.
If Château is gently paternal, then Marché is gracefully feminine. That’s thanks to the pastry case full of pastel macarons and other colorful desserts, prettily upholstered seating, and patio perfect for ladies who lunch. There are sandwiches and salads aplenty on the menu — and that’s more interesting than it may seem. These are prepared with the same eye for flavors and meticulous care as the fancier offerings upstairs at Château.
The quinoa and kale bowl, which includes lettuce, dried cranberries, toasted pumpkin seeds and shaved purple cabbage, stops just short of being an “everything but the kitchen sink” salad. It’s great fun to work down to the mound of quinoa hiding under the leaves. The fresh vegetables need nothing more than the light tang and sheen of the lovely lemon vinaigrette. Diners can add chicken, shrimp or “spicy” tofu. The tofu is dressed in a sauce made with red Espelette peppers, named after a commune in southwestern France. The peppers — which boast only gentle heat — have been cultivated there since the 16th century and are predominant in Basque cuisine.
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Marché is also much less expensive than Château. At lunch, a three-course meal is $30 and a two-course is $24. There’s a price-conscious wine-by-the-bottle list, too, broken down into price points of $35, $45 and $55. There’s one annoyance. Most of the seating consists of a long, tall booth along the wall, a line of tables and, opposing the booth, a bunch of tall chairs. The booth is comfortable. The chairs, however, are tall, unwieldy and awkward to clamber into gracefully.
La Table’s ingredients are not rare, nor have the dishes been merged, fused or reinvented. These are familiar, approachable meats, vegetables and sauces that reach full potential under skilled hands applying the right techniques. Whether at casual Marché or more formal Château, anyone should be able to enjoy a good meal at La Table. With any luck, it will help define what service means in better Houston restaurants, too.
1800 Post Oak, #6110, 713-439-1000. Hours: Château — 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Marché — 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.
Wild mushroom ravioli $12 small/$24 large
Quinoa and kale bowl $16
Two-course prix fixe lunch $24
Three-course prix fixe lunch $30
Rack of lamb for two $50 per person
Roasted whole heritage chicken for two $35 per person
Les Vins de Vienne Viognier (glass) $14
Table 75 cocktail $9