There is a gasping for air as the bread service arrives at Maison Pucha Bistro, a silver cylinder lined with feather-light, gruyère-flecked dough balls that prompts my friend to joke, Do they know who we are? But our selfies do not, in fact, hang in the kitchen’s illuminated office alongside the influencers' headshots that are visible through its open door. No, it’s just bread service done well in this bustling, azure-painted Heights dining room, all beautiful couples on midweek date nights and blazered-up work buddies talking cryptocurrency over wine, maybe too loudly, maybe because the intimate confines of the close-placed banquettes lend themselves to eavesdropping.
It’s a classy joint for the Heights—no Lambos out front, but it’s only a Wednesday. Nightfall has turned the building’s lot valet-only; at lunch you can park wherever you want. Inside, a mostly male wait staff flies about, their carts en route to tableside tartare preparations. Some say this restaurant space, which used to house Stella Sola and Black & White, is cursed. Either way, its open kitchen, serene interior, and wine-outfitted private dining room are alluring.
But back to the bread. I think they’re gougères. My cohort insists they’re pão de queijo, a Brazilian cheese bread with a steamy, eggy inner sanctum, quite similar to their French counterpart. It’s hard to tell, because French meets South American, primarily Peruvian and Ecuadorian, at Maison Pucha. And though some might be indifferent—like the online reviewer who accurately Yelped, “The cheesy bread was very addictive”—I’d like to think these little deadlies are just gougères, because despite all the sexy ceviche-ness chef Manuel Pucha has pumped into the menu to counteract the stuffiness of coq au vin and red Burgundy, the place still leans heavily on traditional French hits.
The restaurant is the apotheosis of chef Pucha’s 25-year career in French dining, at Houston restaurants including Bistro Moderne, Philippe, and Table (rechristened La Table). Many Houstonians will recognize the La Table–likeness of Maison Pucha’s food, perhaps to a fault. There is tableside Friday-and-Saturday chateaubriand—a pricy butcher’s cut of beef—as well as a beet-and-goat-cheese salad at lunch and dinner that, while gorgeous, twins La Table’s version so hard they could star in a Parent Trap remake. But chef Pucha is the one who brought the popular Galleria-area restaurant’s food to life in the first place, so who is to say he’s not just doing what he does best?
The restaurant is a family affair. Manuel’s brother Victor, a French-trained pastry chef who moved from New York to help open the restaurant, creates trays of colorful macarons, madeleines, and a chocolate soufflé so lovely, you feel bad spooning vanilla crème on top; a third sibling, Cristian, serves as the bistro’s manager and sommelier. The brothers Pucha grew up in Deleg, Ecuador, where their mother had her own restaurant. And while the Maison Pucha website briefly mentions that origin story—and the food does reflect it—I’ve found myself longing for more.
You get a taste on the cold-apps section. Ponzu crab and Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche are pitch-perfect appetizers, but the star is the tiradito de pescado—tender Gulf-caught red snapper that relinquishes its subtlety to a garden of fire: aji amarillo peppers and red jalapeños. Amid the tongue-numbing toppings, mellow Peruvian corn oddly steals the show. I find myself seeking out the little white ditties—plump and curvaceous as molars, as mild as hominy—more than the actual fish. Hominy was the bane of my youth, forever a sidekick to shoe-tough cube steaks. I wonder what Pucha’s mother did with Peruvian corn at her own restaurant. Probably the thing that makes me want to stab at every tender kernel.
That’s not to say that the French dishes aren’t soulful and worth a shot. Sure, I practically cry when my server, Waylon, informs me that the Berkshire Pork Wellington is sold out. And my cohort looks on perplexed after what she thought was an order of certified angus beef short-rib ravioli turns out to be a buffalo-sized fist of meat wearing a single raviolo as a sombrero. But the meal is saved by our backup plan: the trout almondine.
I’ve had dozens of variations in New Orleans, and chef Pucha’s is superior to pretty much all of them. The trout is fully deboned but remains whole, skin on, the flaky yet fatty fish harbored below. The toasted almonds are crispy-crunchy, a feat in itself. Though the mediocre saffron potatoes don’t do much for the dish, the asparagus is good for sopping up the buttery, lemony sauce, pops of capers and all. If only we’d saved some of that dang cheesy bread.
During dinnertime at Lucienne, hidden away in the Hotel Alessandra downtown, chef Jose Hernandez cooks up a modern French tasting-menu experience with loads of global influences. It’s a vast departure from lunch, when the restaurant’s mint-green chairs and banquettes fill up with suit-and-tied and panty-hosed four tops, and orders of burgers, panini, and salads land on the white tablecloths alongside beef Bourgogne and a decent but pricey foie grass torchon that, spread across the accompanying buttery brioche with a smear of boozy stewed cherries, tastes like the best doughnut in town.
The bar is straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; the restaurant, all whip-smart art deco angles and mirrors. Add to that the mind-boggling architecture out the windows, and you’ve got a swank Saturday night. There’s even a green light that glows from a hallway near the elevators downstairs, so you can bore your Tinder date with allusions to The Great Gatsby while he or she copes by ordering a glass of wine off an iPad.
Hernandez rolls out his creative and artful tasting menus in four- or six-course options, just a few bites per course. And each is artwork, the plating a delight, even when a dish’s flavors fall flat. Such is the case with a tongue-scorching but rather bland artichoke soup and a sweetbread pithivier that, though one of the more intriguing meat pastries I’ve ever seen in Houston, lets its flaky façade fall victim to the overcooked offal inside.
If undercooked meat is more your thing—welcome to the club—go for the lamb tartare, served with mustard, creamy quail egg, and shallots for days; the toast points will make you chuckle, arriving in what appears to be their own cumbersome metal desktop organizer.
Elsewhere, unable to detect the components of the sweet, fluffy ham-and-cheese crêpe floating in a pool of white gravy’s non-meaty twin, Mornay sauce, we ask for the menu. Apparently there’s cauliflower somewhere in the dish. Then there’s the morels pot de crème with cappuccino foam and a Cheez-It-like house-made parmesan crisp, which we didn’t realize would be cold and tastes like marshmallow instead of mushroom. I love it. My cohort does not. The savory dish just about everyone will agree on, however, is the perfectly seared scallop, its mild sweetness played up in a killer Cajun-inspired creamy sauce that calls to mind a spicy crawfish boil.
For now, Lucienne remains unknown to many. Friends I’ve told about the place have replied with a simple Huh, never heard of it, which breaks my heart a little, though the truth is, I’m not really a fan of tasting menus. They may be a staple of fine dining, but I usually find them to be awkward, outmoded, and risky. They require more work on the part of wait staff—the chattiness, the imparting of important tasting notes to their guests. Our server, while nice, stays mum for most of the meal, dropping off our dishes with smiles and answering timidly when we suddenly transform into our parents, interrogating her with Now, what do we have here?
The best course of all comes at the very end of the meal, and it’s not the eye-popping, Instagram-worthy deconstructed Peanut Butter and Jelly—we don’t need Welch’s grape–flavored sorbet to become a thing, do we? Instead, it’s the super-thin, pancake-sized apple tart, its dense layers of buttery pastry topped with mandolined, stylized green apples aping a rose spray. There’s a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream, a drizzling of calvados reduction, and nothing more. As I take spoon to pastry—crisp in places, tender in others—I realize this is the best unknown dessert in Houston right now.