“Oh, I could stop right here,” my friend Dee said after closing her eyes briefly, a smile lighting up her face as she expressed her pleasure. “This is all I need. This and my Old Fashioned cocktail is enough. I don’t need anything else,” she proclaimed.
She had just taken the first bite of her first course in our six-course tasting menu—a cauliflower crêpe topped with melted Gruyère—and as I took a bite to try myself, I had to agree that it was, indeed, all that. The purée was smooth and seasoned perfectly, the melted cheese punctuating each morsel with an earthy, salted note. Texturally pleasing and soft enough to cut with a fork, to take one bite was to want another.
It was Thursday evening, and we were dining at the new Lucienne restaurant at the Hotel Alessandra in downtown Houston. The restaurant debuted last Monday and is still in its soft opening. Helmed by chef Jose Hernandez, the cozy, bistro-like space, designed in soothing palette of pale greens with brass accents, is billed as a Mediterranean restaurant with French influence, and is one of the latest additions to Houston’s flourishing downtown dining scene.
Hernandez, whose most recent post was at Radio Milano at sister property Hotel Sorella in CityCentre, has been waiting for two years for this moment (he signed on as executive chef two years ago), and it shows. Though his resumé stretches from Mexico City to New York and Houston, and though he has already been executive chef in his own right in the past, Lucienne is very obviously his baby.
The open kitchen was designed with his input, and set up so that he could execute his menu with ease. He personally selected the beautifully etched white china by Degrenne Paris and chic glassware by Italesse. And his dinner menu, which features à la carte sections from which you can devise your own four- or six-course tasting menu, is the sophisticated type of menu you want to see at a chef- driven restaurant.
Grouped into six sections of four dishes, the first through third course sections are made up of starter-type dishes like the above-mentioned crêpe, with options items ranging from foie gras to lamb tartare and pork belly. The fourth and fifth course sections represent the mains, featuring proteins like scallops, quail, lobster and ribeye. The sixth course is dessert. Guests are invited to order from the menu on à la carte basis, but a tasting menu is suggested, and the pricing is such that you will undoubtedly be enticed to try one: $55 for four courses ($95 with wine pairing), or $75 for six courses ($125 with wine pairings).
As guests of the restaurant, we each opted for a six-course tasting, choosing different courses (we decided to forgo the wine pairings), so we would could try a good cross-section of the menu.
Favorites of the night included the cauliflower crêpe (I would go back for this alone); a crispy sunny-side-up egg dish served with shaved Alba white truffle and toast soldiers; seared foie gras; a holiday-scented apple with Calvados; a beautiful presentation of scallops with wild mushrooms and a fennel in creamy Bouillabaisse-like saffron sauce; an exquisite preparation of lobster with a beurre blanc served over fennel bread pudding; and heritage Angus ribeye with bordelaise sauce, bone marrow cream and foie gras fat potatoes.
With Hernandez’s background in pastry, I came in expecting Lucienne to excel at desserts, and it did not disappoint. A paper-thin apple tart with caramel sauce was deftly constructed, and sinfully good. A vacherin of pistachio meringue and raspberry was not only plated beautifully, but unlike anything else you’ll find in Houston at the moment.
Hernandez brought in pastry chef Timothy Roberts from Austin to oversee the house pastry program. Among other things, Roberts is responsible for all the breads, including breakfast pastries like croissants and pains au chocolat, the brioche buns used for the lunchtime hamburgers, the dessert program and mignardises.
It says something when you visit a restaurant and immediately want to go back. I’ve got my eye on the breakfast menu next. Croque Madame crêpes and crème brûlée French toast sound pretty darn good, non?