The charcuterie plate at Bistro Menil is such a remarkable deal that guests might do a double take when it arrives at the table. It's a mere 12 bucks for a wealth of meaty, salty and tart delights. There are tender, firm slices of cured ham; onions slowly bronzed in a pan until dark and sweet; creamy duck rillettes; tart gherkins; homespun, chunky pork pâté; elegant slices of chicken ballotine; slightly sweet almond- and fruit-studded crostini; and last but not least, a ramekin of tangy yellow mustard.
Bistro Menil's chef-owner, Greg Martin, was formerly executive chef of Café Express. Make no mistake: Food at Bistro Menil is a big step above fast-casual salads and sandwiches. However, there are many problems that affect Bistro Menil's functionality. Restaurants are made up of several different systems that should work together to create a good guest experience. Details matter.
For example, silverware shouldn't be noticeable unless it's particularly attractive or interesting. Otherwise, it's there to do a job and should be indicative of the caliber of the cuisine served. Reed & Barton wouldn't be right for a Frito pie, and plasticware would be horrifying with prime rib.
Yet the lightweight black-plastic-handled utensils used at Bistro Menil are the same type as those purchased at Target by college graduates as starter sets for their first apartments. The food served deserves better than this.
Then there's the functional mismatch between the tiny tables for two and the big square plates used for appetizers and entrées alike. Before we were half done with our appetizers on our first visit, the server unceremoniously dropped off our entrées and seemed entirely unconcerned that they didn't fit on the table. Our dinner plates hung off the edge -- and over our laps -- by about two inches.
We had a different server on our second visit. She was well aware of the issue and ready to cope with it, offering to combine our two appetizers onto one plate. She returned later to warn us that the entrées were ready but she couldn't drop them off until we were done with our appetizers because there wasn't enough room on the table.
An additional annoyance with the plates is that since there's a tall, bowl-like lip around the perimeters, a diner cannot rest a knife or a fork on them without having it fall in.
Unacceptably high noise levels in many of Houston's new restaurants have been noted in several recent Houston Press reviews. Add Bistro Menil to the list. When it first opened, it made local news for the earsplitting din. Its attempt at remediation, while creative, is still not doing enough.
Bistro Menil has tried to mitigate the problem with a few commissioned art pieces called "Clouds." The structures are made from thick gray material creased in various angles that catch and absorb sound waves.
Even with those installations in place and the addition of some carpet, the noise levels inside registered at 90 decibels and higher at both lunch and dinner. A table of women engaged in frequent, earsplitting, hyena-like laughter drove it to 98 decibels, inciting prayers for a quick escape.
Those prayers weren't heard over the noise, apparently. Dinner took two hours and 15 minutes, and lunch took an hour and a half. On both visits, only two servers were assigned to a dining room of about 50 guests. They were working as hard as they could, but there were just too many people to take care of efficiently.
At the top of the wine and beer by-the-glass list is a note that says a $6 growler is available for purchase. Guests are supposed to be able to buy one, get it filled, take it home and then bring it back on their next visit for a refill. We asked our first server about it, and he emphatically shook his head "no" at us without further explanation.
We asked a different server about the growler on the next visit. She had never seen it and had no idea how the program worked. In response to a request to see the wine growler, she said she'd ask but never actually brought us one to look at.
What was going on here? We called Martin, who laughed and said, "That's entirely my fault. One of the biggest challenges we have here is getting the staff trained. We do have the growlers."
Bistro Menil's register could not read the magnetic strip on the credit card we presented for payment on both visits. Both servers brought the card back and said we could not use it. When asked if they could key the card number in manually, both servers refused. Fortunately, we had an alternate credit card available, but what if that had been our only form of payment? Would the police have been called? Would there have been a dishwashing gig in our future?
Martin said the servers are not allowed to key in card numbers and are instructed to return the card to the guest and refuse to accept it. "This is for the protection of the guests," he said.
What if there were no other form of payment available? He said that in that case, the card actually would be accepted and a manager would take it to the private office and type in the number. From a guest's perspective, it's indigestion-inducing. Most places can key in the number and it's just not a big deal.
That's not the only payment matter on which Bistro Menil digs in its heels. When one guest wanted to pay for wine separately from the rest of the check, he was flat-out told no by his server.
Outside the front door, there's a big rectangular bed of gray gravel. There is no sidewalk or other flat concrete surface to allow disabled folks to easily get access. An elderly woman on a walker and a gentleman in a wheelchair were observed struggling to make their way across the gravel bed and get to the front door. Martin says the gravel bed allows the restaurant to maintain control over the front patio area and create a physical delineation between the Menil and the restaurant, which is a private, for-profit endeavor. He said the restaurant passed its ADA compliance inspection despite the gravel, but added that he would talk with the co-owner about the issue of people in wheelchairs or with walkers trying to cross it.
All these functional concerns are just a darn shame, for the eggplant fries in whisper-thin rice-flour batter will create converts, even if they've tried this distant relative of the tomato before and didn't enjoy it. The end result is so much lighter than potatoes -- shatteringly crisp with an excellent balance of salt, garlic, thyme and lemon zest. The areas where a little of the shiny purple-black eggplant skin have been left on are the best, adding a bit of tension to the bite and visual appeal to the exterior. There's a little cup of anchovy aioli alongside that should be used only sparingly, since it is quite pungent.
Compared to typical steakhouse pricing, $28 for a rib eye and two sides is a bargain. The only thing amiss with the rib eye (or entrecôte) was that it arrived rare rather than the requested medium rare (much preferable to overdone) and could have used a touch of salt. The pan sauce was dotted through with whole green peppercorns, and it was fun to catch a few of the mild herbal spheres with each forkful of steak. Take half home. It's even better the next day.
Martin has adapted porchetta -- an Italian dish in which pork roast is wrapped in skin-on pork belly and baked until the outside becomes crispy -- to a more practical restaurant preparation by using pork loin instead. Yet he ties back to tradition in the seasoning, using garlic and lemon zest as well as fennel seed, pollen and fronds. It works beautifully. Our favorite sides with the lean, citrusy pork are the Menil salad and the quinoa with roasted vegetables.
Speaking of the Menil salad: It can also be ordered on its own as a full-size starter. Petite leaves of red lettuce and frisée are tossed in just the right amount of vinaigrette. The salad is neither too dry nor wilting under a surfeit of sauciness. Halved grape tomatoes and slices of radish added crisp sparks of color.
While Bistro Menil's cassoulet isn't "old-school French-style," which takes several hours if not days to prepare, the tender white beans, thin slices of deep red sausage, bright orange cubes of carrot, half-moons of pale celery and shreds of duck confit are hearty and pleasing nonetheless. When it's raining outside and the skies are gray, nothing comforts like a dish of cassoulet.
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Bistro Menil really needs help with its desserts. There are several pudding-type things, including an overly sweet pot de crème (which just seemed like run-of-the-mill chocolate pudding) and a respectable rice pudding with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon across the top.
On the second visit, we sought a dish with more texture -- something that could not possibly be served in a tall glass dessert cup. When spying a chocolate tart on the menu, we thought we'd found it. Alas, foiled again. It doesn't come in a dessert cup. It is a dessert cup, with the chocolaty contents (suspiciously similar to that pot de crème) piped in neat swirls into a premade tart shell.
The banana and Nutella crepes ended up being the right answer. No, these won't change the world, but even the premade crepes couldn't subvert the classically seductive combination of hazelnut-tinged chocolate cream and soft, silky slices of banana. It was a welcome bit of comfort in a setting that, so far at least, has shown too many chaotic tendencies.
Cannellini and fennel "tapenade" $7 Duck rillettes $10 Petite Yukon Gold baked potato $9 Eggplant "fries" with anchovy aioli $7 Charcuterie assortment $12 Cassoulet $15 Chicken ballotine with wild mushroom duxelle $19 Porchetta pork loin $20 Crisp duck confit with pink peppercorn butter $23 Rib eye with green peppercorn sauce (entrecôte) $28 Orange rice pudding $6 Banana Nutella crepe $6 Chocolate pot de crème $7 Chocolate tart $7