When it was announced that the bistro to be opened at The Menil Collection would be called, simply, Bistro Menil, many (myself included) were left puzzled. After a highly publicized naming contest that undoubtedly drew more creative entries, the choice of such a straight-forward, dare I say, plain title seemed odd.
1512 Sul Ross St.
Now, I get it. Bistro Menil is an art space, albeit for art of the edible kind, and the chef and owners want nothing to distract diners from the food. Hence no snazzypants name, minimally decorated white dining areas, and staff that ditch off-putting pretense for sincere warmth. As a result, the carefully curated array of small and large plates shine brightly, and, in some cases, mesmerize their consumers.
See, for example, the deceptively simply named (sensing a trend here) eggplant fries, thick-cut sticks of aubergine whose soft, meaty interior is well complemented by a terrifically crispy batter casing. Ketchup? No thanks, I’ll take Bistro Menil’s wonderfully salty, briney, anchovy aioli.
Another surprise hit was a thin-crust pizza. Yes, pizza is permissible at a bistro if it’s made like the Spanish-style pie layered with sunny-red, spicy brava sauce and layered with jamón and manchego cheese. Don’t compulsively dab at the bit of oil that inevitably leeches from the succulent cured ham; rather, use the crust as your sponge to relish every last bit.
For those who can’t wrap their head around going to a bistro for draft beer, fries, and pizza: number one, I feel sorry for you, but, number two, you should focus instead on the more “traditional” offerings such as the charcuterie plate, a delicious collage of pâté, ballotine slices, rilletes, jamon, cornichons, and all of which should be scooped, stack, and/or smeared on the accompanying tangy olive biscotti.
Although a dinner could easily be made from the aforementioned starters, refrain from that third slice of pizza or that last bit of pâté as to do more than pick at an entrée. The mains at Bistro Menil soon reveal themselves to be the portraits of the collection in comparison to the sketches that are the appetizers.
In keeping to the general European theme, there’s a buttery, crackly duck confit leg of duck laced with pink peppercorn butter and a Greek lambchop, tender and redolent of lemon and oregano. Technically, both of these dishes can be eaten with one’s hands, but remember, please, you’re at a museum and not in the comfort of your own (squalid) home.
The boldest and perhaps grandest of the entrees is the sumptuous filet of beef seasoned with cocoa and black peppercorns to produce deep notes of sweet earth and spice. A dressing of roasted beech mushrooms provides just the taste and textural contrast needed to balance the filet.
Accompanying all entrees is a choice of two sides, standouts of which include a delightfully fragrant cold salad of shredded zucchini, pancetta pieces, and grated parmesan and the super-soft small baked potato crowned with chives and crème fraiche.
Because I did not take my own advice and did have that third slice of pizza, I did not have room for dessert. Tant pis. The chocolate pot du crème and lemon tart looked good. Next time. The Menil and its bistro deserve regular visits.