River Oaks locals knew the spot originally as Armando's, a fairly popular restaurant that survived for some four and half years before the staff decamped to start Bocados on West Alabama. "It had management problems," says a neighborhood bartender. It had some kind of problems: The Harris County tax assessor-collector's Web site shows unpaid taxes on fixtures and inventory dating back to 1995.
Next came Rice Village's benjy's sister restaurant, Dish. While basking in a brief heyday over its green apple martini, Dish never found its footing foodwise. The purple exterior may have been a tad off-putting to the River Oaks crowd, but it worked with the high architectural minimalism and sterile neon lighting inside. It was very, very chic and the food was very, very un-chic. "There was a big incongruity," says a former customer. "The food was very plain and the style was very trendy." (A fact also pointed out by Robb Walsh in "The Apple Martini Tour," October 19, 2000.) Not that the food was bad -- wonderfully fluffy omelets and some home-style grilled pork chops spring to mind -- but it certainly wasn't the sort of fare you expected to find inside the purple building. Crowds were sparse that first year, and when Tropical Storm Allison sent floodwaters into the restaurant, ruining the new wood floor, it seemed an act of God -- a merciful one.
The new Two Chefs Bistro, on the other hand, is a marriage of food and decor. The fresh exterior paint job recalls the mustard-yellows and field-greens of Provence, while inside miniature copper pots hang from walls rimmed with molding. The elongated dark wood bar is softened with wine-rack lighting, and everything reeks of style. While there's no roaring fireplace for winter, there will be outdoor tables and umbrellas for sunny weather.
And there's a menu to match all this ambience. Mostly carried over from the restaurant's first home on FM 1960 -- where there really were two chefs; Brett Radzikowski has now departed -- the offerings are French with a twist of country, a touch of non-Cajun New Orleans and a dash of indigenous Texas flavors.
"I think it should be done well," says remaining owner/chef Andreas Zierau, "with the freshest ingredients and local ingredients." That's why the grilled Gulf fish entrée doesn't specify which fish is grilled. "It depends on what's the freshest that day," says Zierau. Other items of note include the Bistro Salad with fresh grated Parmesan; Zierau's favorite appetizer, escargots; and the arcanely named Angels on Horseback, oysters wrapped in bacon served with horseradish and leeks. While keeping his starter menu "crisp and simple to begin with," Zierau plans seasonal changes.
One of the biggest changes for passersby is the restaurant's newly manicured look. Gone are the vines along the fence line and the heavy arms of the Canary Island date palms that all but obscured the building. Back in place, from Armando's days, is the black awning over the valet drive-thru, imprinted with the name and a catchy logo.
Houston is a town of 5,000 restaurants, according to the Texas Restaurant Association. Undaunted by recent economic events, the food business in Texas is very healthy, says TRA spokesperson Denise Pischinger. The organization is predicting an increase in sales this year of 4.6 percent, or around $22.5 billion. And Pischinger says Houston, home of the four-times-out-a-week diner, should do even better, with a 5 percent increase over last year.
"It's true what they say about location," says Pischinger, "but there are other factors." In particular, being prepared. "People rarely ever give restaurants a second chance," she says. What bodes well for Zierau is a loyal following from the FM 1960 location and his attitude about restaurant management. A graduate in culinary arts from Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, Zierau later worked in the worlds of casino food and family-owned eateries. After a stint at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, he spent seven years with the Brennan family both here and at their Palace Cafe in New Orleans. Two Chefs Bistro seems to take something from both experiences: good food in a friendly setting, with just a touch of entertainment to boot. Mike Hinton will play piano on weekends, and Zierau will continue his popular wine dinners with guest speakers and tastings.
Zierau also relies on his sense of humor and an unusual calmness. He says he's not one of those chefs who stand in the kitchen screaming at the waitstaff, and the week prior to opening he certainly was taking the procession of city inspectors in stride. "There's a few other restaurants in town," he says almost deadpan, "so I know the city allows them. It's just a matter of learning the dance."
Success is also a matter of pleasing the customer, and that's another area where Zierau has the right disposition. "If you want the lobster ravioli with black beans and fried rice, that's okay," he says. "I'll run down to the store and get beans and rice. Just give me a heads up so I'm not doing it when I see you come in the door."
City inspectors aside, Two Chefs Bistro should be open by the time you read this. Call ahead if you want beans and rice.