When I say “museum restaurant” what do you think of? Cliché foods like pre-packaged turkey club sandwiches and bland jars of tomato soup? Chain establishments like Panera Bread or La Madeleine? Maybe your mind goes straight to cringing over the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s sole food source: McDonald’s. That's why chef Greg Martin at Bistro Menil is working hard to break the local stereotype of generic food being served alongside (an in stark contrast to) our city’s best representations of art and culture.
Sitting just across the street from the Menil Collection is the Bistro, and by title alone, you might assume it was another mediocre knock-off of boring museum fare. This is an assumption I myself shared before I got the chance to sample a tasting menu of chef Martin’s new spring dinner menu yesterday. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Chef Martin has created a seasonal spread that represents the Menil in spirit and flavor. After looking at the demographics of who visits the museum itself, Martin began crafting his work around the palates of the Menil’s guests.
With a focus on dietary trends, Martin has been exploring gluten-free cooking and the raw foods movement. He has been inspired by these challenges and his menu now offers new options for all patrons. Starting with his riff on traditional tabouli, Martin uses quinoa rather than cracked wheat to create a light and fluffy appeal to the classic Mediterranean dish. With Lebanese olive oil, Houston-grown sprouts, and crisp cucumber, Martin’s tabouli is offered as a side with some of the Bistro’s main dishes; I recommend the oil-poached tuna that is light as a feather and smooth on the tongue rather than heavy or burdensome on the belly.
Martin’s other seasonal fare includes a spring vegetable risotto that has flavors so clearly defined, I could have sworn I'd be able to identify the exact region that the Parmesan cheese came from—had I gotten a few more bites, that is—and an earthy orzo with mushrooms, pancetta, and light cherry tomatoes.
But the tasting didn’t stop there, as Chef Martin treated me to some inventive, exciting raw dishes that I had never even seen before.
The raw spread began with a steak tartare and capers. Pretty regular for someone of Italian heritage like myself, but Martin took tartare back to its roots and served in a truly traditional style. Rather than hollandaise sauce dripped over the steak, he provided a single egg yolk that sat on top, ready to be broken and let the gooey yellow run into the meat.
Following the steak tartare came a crudo of diver scallops and watermelon radish. Being new to fish and crustaceans, I’m still figuring out my sea legs, so to speak, and have never made the jump to clams or their cousins yet. But it was worth it yesterday to get a taste of the smooth buttery nature of Martin’s scallops, mixed with the gentle marinade and fresh radish.
Lastly, I was treated to a true taste of Texas spring in the tuna tartare taco. Yes, a triple threat ‘T’ dish; the tuna tacos were spectacular. Wrapped in a wonton shell, and paired with simple seasoned tartar, fresh sprouts, and more juicy watermelon radish, Martin’s tacos are as fresh and clean as that first week of spring. Lucky for us, the tartar tacos will be around longer than any sunny 70 degree day in Houston would.
My lunch at the Bistro Menil was concluded with a sampling of desserts. Between the home-crafted gelato, a berry and buttermilk cake surely modeled after someone's grandma's recipe, and the delicately fluffy chocolate cake, picking a favorite was hard. But my heart lies with Martin’s dedication to technique in his lemon curd tart, with a curd that was perfectly silky-smooth. Topped with the Italian styled merengue (one that Martin assured “will not weep” with undercooked egg whites), the tart captured the sweetness of the lemon without any of the tart sourness of the fruit.
Coming out of such a meal, my expectations on museum eating had been elevated. The Bistro stands on its own, and whether you happen to be visiting the Menil that day or trying to find a good dinner before your night on the town, Bistro Menil is an ideal choice. Steeped in technique and invention, with focuses on cuisine to match the content and visitors of the museum’s exhibits, chef Martin might not have meant to start a museum-food revolution at Bistro Menil, but I like to think that he’s set the bar higher for the city. Maybe now we can finally kick the fast-food out of HMNS and get something with a little more imagination.
Bistro Menil, 1513 West Alabama St., 713-904-3537, bistromenil.com