Until last night, Houston diners had not seen or heard much from chef Philippe Schmit since he left his eponymous restaurant, Philippe Restaurant + Lounge, in September. Last we heard, there are plans to rebrand the place as "TABLE." According to the placeholder page on the old Philippe website, TABLE was to have opened around this time, though we've heard nothing new on that front for a few months now.
But Schmit emerged triumphant last night to wow a full house of guests with a five-course foie gras dinner at Kris Bistro. The nearly impeccable dinner served as a reminder that despite a current lack of restaurant, Schmit remains amongst the best French chefs in Houston. Helping Schmit was his former wingman from Philippe, chef Jose Hernandez, who has recently had his own restaurant troubles. After opening La Balance Cuisine in Katy to universal media praise, Hernandez left in mid-December after only a few months due to disagreements with his business partner.
Guests were greeted last night with glasses of Crémant de Bourgogne, a sparkling wine from Burgundy. With glasses in hand, diners eagerly snapped up foie gras appetizers from platters that sailed around the room. The plates of foie gras ravioli, bites of short rib, and torchon canapes didn't get very far before they were emptied and needed to be refilled.
Dinner started with a decadent little cup of royale de foie gras, a foie gras mousse topped with a port reduction. From the cup, you could scoop up the mousse with a tiny spoon and top the accompanying toasted brioche sticks. Next was a duck and foie gras terrine with a pistachio mousse and a spoon that held a single "cherry" of spherized port—an touch of molecular gastronomy I loved.
The third course was the only one that didn't seem like a home run—a slider with a generous slab of seared foie gras made the hunk of albacore tuna that it rested on seem incongruous. The foie gras simply didn't meld with the flavor of the tuna in the same way that it would have on seared beef.
The fourth course recoverd with a foie gras-stuffed chicken breast. While the chicken itself was fine, the component that wowed our table was the rich consommé in which it had been bathed. I'm convinced that the next time I'm home sick someone needs to deliver a pot of it. It will heal whatever's aling me.
I eyed the dessert course with trepidation. From Schmit's description, it sounded a bit like a relative of an Elvis sandwich: "White chocolate mousse cake with carmelized banana, peanut butter, and foie gras ice cream. Boy, was I wrong. It more than held its own with the glass of eight-year-old Sauternes served alongside. Something mystical gave the outside of the rounded cake a beautiful amber color and the thin layers of peanut butter ganache were restrained and elegant. The foie gras in the quenelle of ice cream alongside was as much felt as tasted. The mouthfeel was silky and there was no overpowering richness to make one shy away from him. I took small spoonfuls and made it last as long as possible.
Kris Bistro is located inside Culinary Institute LeNôtre and with one exception of a tray of glassware being dropped, the Institute's students served diners like total pros. Resident chef Kris Jakob oversaw the festivities and kept everyone on track.
After dinner, I asked Schmit the questions many Houston diners are wondering: What are his plans? Is there another restaurant in his future? The chef said another pop-up dinner will likely happen in a few months, but as far as restaurants go, there's nothing concrete in the works. "Ideally," Schmit said, "it would be a place already built out as a restaurant to allow us to open it quickly, but I haven't found the right one yet."
Personally, I'd love to see him ensconced in a small venue like Étoile—someplace small enough that allows him to have a good handle on what goes out of the kitchen. That was something that seemed to be lacking during the last several months at his prior restaurant, a huge place that sometimes served hundreds of diners a night. There is still a need in Houston for small French restaurants that showcase fine, innovative touches. Schmit has proven time and time again that he embraces innovation and can marry it in a way that respects the traditions and methodology of fine French cuisine.
It's a fair bet that he won't be borrowing other restaurants to showcase his creations for too long, though. You just can't keep a good chef down.