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First Look at Bistro Menil

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Located right on the Menil Collection campus in its own standalone building is the beautiful new restaurant, Bistro Menil. Independently run by chef-owner Greg Martin,the chic neighborhood eatery is all kinds of wonderful, from the intimate, candlelit patio, to the contemporary, well-designed interior.

"I love it already!" my friend exclaimed excitedly as I approached where she was waiting for me on the gravel pathway leading up to Bistro Menil's glass door entrance. Even before you enter, the restaurant gives off this California wine country vibe. The patio is shaded by a natural oak tree canopy, while verdant plots of grass surround the restaurant. A large, bright red metal sculpture, made of long criss-crossed tubes resembling a large piece of a jacks game, wasn't lit the night we were there, but it hinted at what we would experience during the day.

Just inside the entrance is the small bar area and hallway, which acts as the junction between the two sides of the restaurant. To the right of the entrance is the bustling main dining room. To the left is a smaller, quieter dining room which closes off to become a private dining room for groups and parties, with a sliding glass door entrance directly onto the patio.

The best table in the main dining room is Table Number 7. It's a corner banquette table located in the right corner of the room, a partially secluded spot where you can relax on a date night, while still taking in the beauty of the surroundings. Bistro Menil has suffered some early criticism because of how loud the space gets, but we didn't experience that at all. There was strong noise level, to be sure, but we were told that the designers had come in just a couple days earlier to add some extra soundproofing, which seems to be working well.

The dinner menu at Bistro Menil is pretty large, and as such, ambitious. It also made it hard for two people to decide what to order, because we wanted to order a lot more than what we could finish by ourselves. We settled on two appetizers, a salad, two entrees, and just for kicks, we ordered some crepes a la carte because they sounded so good.

Martin and his partner are Europhiles, and much of the menu displays strong Spanish or French influences. There are the eggplant fries, seemingly simple and innocuous until you bite into one, and taste the gushy center against the thinly crisp outer shell. Served with an anchovy aoili, it's a very Spanish feeling dish, and one that's executed with aplomb. They don't appear on the menu elsewhere either, so make sure not to pass these babies up.

There's a really well-constructed salad made of a huge mound of zucchini strings. Served in a tart and tangy dressing, it's really delicious, but if you plan on getting an entree, hold off on ordering this salad, because you can get it as a side order with your main dish. Instead, opt to get either the charcuterie plate of the duck rillette. The rillettes, as well as the pate on the charcuterie plate, are made in house, and are served with a small cup of cornichons and smooth french mustard -- delightful with a nice glass of wine. This story continues on the next page.

A note about the beverage program here, which is overseen by beverage director Sean Essex. We were on the brink of ordering a bottle of well-priced, reliable Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, but deferred when Essex smiled at us and said "We can do better." Better turned out to be a lovely glass of champagne to start, a bottle of Solane Santi Valpolicello Ripasso (incredibly priced at $28 for the entire bottle!), and an excellent, eminently drinkable Domaine de Verquiere Rasteau Syrah Grenache blend from Rhone that complemented our courses well without breaking the bank. "I put together this wine list so that people wouldn't be afraid to drink from it. It has the recognizable names, like Jordan, but also gems that I hope my customers will enjoy discovering," says Essex, who also has a nice craft beer selection, along with a cask wine program offering wine on tap by the glass.

The dinner menu includes well-priced starters, pizzas, focaccia breads, salads, entrees, along with pastas and crepes. The duck confit is already emerging as one of Martin's signature dishes. His version is extremely simple: It's just one exceptionally well prepared duck leg, which comes out on its own plate skin super crisp, just a joy to eat if you enjoy a well-prepared duck. His Costa Brava snapper was also beautiful, topped with a buttery tomato-laced sauce with roasted artichokes and lump crab meat. The snapper we had was plump and moist, its texture approximating that of chilean sea bass.

A duck cassoulet, topped with savory sausages and strips of duck meat, and served in a cast iron pan, was also very good. We loved the sausage, but the strips of duck were a bit too dry and stringy. This didn't curb the appeal of the dish, though, which was really all about the incrediblly hearty, well-seasoned, aromatic white bean stew.

Because you don't often find crepes on a restaurant menu in Houston, we had ordered the crab and mushroom crepes just to see how they'd turn out, and it's a good thing we did, because it emerged the surprise winner of the night for the way in which the flavors came together so well.

This is the great thing about the menu at Bistro Menil. The menu is large enough, with enough of a selection that you can pretty much bet on finding something you'll like. The variety also means that you can return more than once a week, and have an entirely different meal from start to finish. Add to that the convivial ambiance, the beautifully designed museum-worthy space, and you have the recipe for something that is not only of-the-moment, but also enduring -- and a wholly welcome new addition to the Houston restaurant firmament.

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