In the March issue of Houstonia, we briefly touched on the very soft opening to the public of the Houstonian's Manor House. But a little more than a month since non-members have been permitted to venture onto the storied campus for lunch, dining in the John Staub-designed brick house still feels like penetrating a secret society. And it's one that hasn't changed much since the house was built for oilman Lawrence Reed in 1955.
When I told chef Neal Cox that I felt like I'd stepped into a photo from A Treasury of Great Recipes, Mary and Vincent Price's 1965 cookbook devoted to the finest dining of its era, I joked that I was half expecting to see a duck press wheeled into the dining room. Cox quickly assured me that his was in the kitchen at the resort's other fine dining restaurant, Olivette. Touché. Clearly, the man is serious about old-school French technique. But what's so lovely about the Manor House is that Cox and chef de cuisine Roland Soza fuse those tried-and-true, Escoffier-proven methods with Gulf Coast ingredients.
The deep, dark color of the crawfish bisque owes to a broth tempered with little cream. The velveteen consistency is courtesy of a base of stock made from blended crawfish meat, not just shells and water. As Cox says, it's not the most efficient or cost-effective way to make the soup, but the result is fuller-flavored and far healthier than a typical bisque.
It felt like it would be a betrayal to the elegant dining room, once actually the home's patio (there are three other rooms available for lunchtime dining and private parties), not to eat steak tartare within its auspices. I was already feeling so spoiled that I was a bit surprised that it wasn't made tableside, but the presentation explained it. The finely chopped beef, blended with a classic combination of red onion and capers, is presented atop a spicy Cajun rémoulade. Chopped eggs and mâche salad are all ready to be spread atop salty homemade potato chips.
Anyone who's seen Julie & Julia will recall the look on the face of Meryl Streep (portraying Julia Child) upon first tasting sole meunière in Paris. The Manor House version is just such a classic, but in Gulf Coast style, the lemon-butter sauce covers not only the fish, but a towering pile of jumbo lump crab. Also not French: the slightly sticky popcorn rice, which Cox buys from a small farm in Louisiana and serves with crisp almonds.
Chicken pot pie is an unexpected addition to a menu that also includes filet Oscar and veal short ribs, but the traditional dish is near infinite cuts above what Marie Callender is cooking up. The buttery crust flakes away to reveal a glossy, herb-speckled gravy filled with a hearty helping of chicken confit, along with popping English peas, tender carrots and oyster mushrooms.
Having trained at l'École de Grand Chocolat at the Valrhona Chocolate Factory in France, pastry chef Catherine Rodriguez is so loyal to the company that it sends her samples to test. She even finds ways to add some Valrhona to her banana cream pie, spread along the crust and in the form of shavings on top.
The blueberry galette is filled with big local berries tucked folded into cream cheese pie dough. A rich lemon custard ice cream brightens the whole plate, almost competing with the azaleas visible out the window.
But Rodriguez's greatest feat is the temperature contrast of her German chocolate cake. Warm layers of deep, dark devil's food sandwich cool strata of milk chocolate ganache. It all rests in a pool of hot pecan-coconut sauce that echoes the classic cake's topping. It's an old-fashioned cake updated to excite younger palates while still satisfying those of the guests who might have visited George H.W. Bush when the then-vice president made the building his Houston home base. Because, when done right, good food never ages.