"Guéridon service… You must be in a new tax bracket, congratulations,” a chef friend remarked on Facebook in response to a photo I’d taken at La Table. In it, maître d’ Valerio Lombardozzi was carving a heritage breed chicken, from whose cavity he’d just plucked what looked like a hedgerow of herbs.
With surgical precision, he removed each muscle from the bone, then sliced it into manageable pieces. Every member of my party received two juicy, pinot-noir-basted slices, along with a pile of wild mushrooms, brussels sprouts and carrots that had been roasted with the bird, each ingredient deeply flavored with its own Platonic essence. For good measure, Lombardozzi spooned out an artful blob of Joël Robuchon–style potatoes.
Before La Table (formerly home to French restaurant Philippe and not-so-French Table) opened last fall, there were whispers that the world-famous chef would be opening a restaurant in the space—and in fact, Invest Hospitality, Robuchon’s partner in two New York restaurants, does own La Table, but his two-to-one ratio potato-to-butter purée is the only trace of the chef in Houston for the time being.
While an old-fashioned guéridon experience, in which dishes are presented—and often partially prepared—tableside, is hard to find these days, even in fine-dining temples, it’s far from the only reason to save up for a meal at La Table. Grazing through breakfast, lunch and dinner options, at the restaurant’s formal upstairs area, known as Château, and the patio at more casual Marché downstairs, I didn’t find anything not to love, or at least like (though the new spring menu has been introduced since my review visits, with a few dishes I enjoyed now replaced with seasonal updates).
Some dishes were less exciting than others. A slaw of avocado and cucumber in sherry vinegar reminded me of one of my grandmother’s favorite recipes to prepare—tasty, to be sure, but far less worthy of note than, say, a composed salad that paired shaved brussels sprouts with apples, crunchy pine nuts and Houston Dairymaids mozzarella in creamy, tangy Parmesan cider dressing.
And as much as I enjoyed the lamb burger, served on a house-made rosemary bun with cucumber-mint aioli, and the chocolaty Dr Pepper cake served with a soda granita, La Table achieves its greatest successes when the kitchen is turning out French classics.
Though our server encouraged my table to order the pricier ribeye, I found ample reward by sticking with the less showy onglet cut, a bistro classic identified on the menu as “butcher steak.” The lightly charred, ideally medium-rare beef found a buttery spotlight in its accompanying sauce Béarnaise. And while the brittle jackets of the frites were dusted with espelette pepper, an uncommon move, the overall effect was as good as you’ll find at any sidewalk café in France.
The same was true of the al dente mushroom ravioli, presented in a sea of thick Bordelaise with a cloud of Parmesan emulsion on top. The îles flottantes? Let’s just say the little meringue puffs would have floated away if not for the thick pool of vanilla-redolent crème anglaise anchoring them to a shallow white bowl.
La Table’s service is formal but caring; its dining room, luxurious; its light installations, opulent. And yet the food upstages them all again and again. Dining in a space that’s stocked with art books from upscale publisher Assouline is a plus, but it’s the simple things, like the in-house bakery counter’s rich, chocolate-filled take on the cinnamon bun, that will keep customers coming back.
Some Houston diners value ambience over cuisine. And sometimes, even people who know better can get swept up in the mania over a new restaurant. Such is the story of Chinatown’s Mein, a restaurant that, like La Table, excels at visual aesthetics and friendly service alike.
Of course, Mein offers a far more casual take on both. Servers are chatty and happy to share recommendations, and in lieu of haute, Eurocentric décor, we get mural-sized portraits of two tragic beauties of 20th-century China. Singer and movie star Zhou Xuan died in a Shanghai mental asylum in 1957; Eileen Chang, born Zhang Ying, earned acclaim for her novels, but ended her life alone, discovered by her Los Angeles landlord days after her death in 1995.
The portraits, based on famous photos of the women, were painted by a local artist, Chang H. Wang. His work will likely never find its way into an Assouline publication, but his fluid black-and-white lines, which owe much to East Asian ink-wash painting, provide a moody conversation piece for Mein’s diners.
The art is so good, it seems to have cast a spell over other Houston critics, lulling them into overenthusiasm. Over two meals and 18 different menu items, the mostly Cantonese classics failed to impress. There were some very good moments—the toothsome charsiu pork, for one, its honeyed lacquer blackened a bit by roasting. The crispy tilapia, meanwhile, was vinegared, crackling and a steal at $9.50. A slightly-too-sweet, cornstarch-thickened sauce did the spicy garlic eggplant no favors, but I couldn’t stop picking at the tender veggies topped with morsels of ground pork. The same went for the deep-fried, sugary and not very spicy red oil dumplings; I loved them almost in spite of themselves.
But here’s the thing. I can find those Cantonese dishes—the ones, that is, that Chinese immigrants have been subverting to please American palates for more than a century, in any neighborhood in Houston. Why would I go to Chinatown, which boasts literally hundreds of restaurants with dishes I can’t find elsewhere, for something that tastes like General Tso’s chicken?
Houston’s roughly mile-long stretch of Asian-owned businesses along Bellaire Boulevard is not only a local treasure, but a national one. It saddens me that Mein—with its beautiful dining room, English-speaking servers and many bland dishes (the house wonton noodle soup and braised tofu were particularly disappointing)—should get so much attention when its neighbors are quietly making better food at prices just as low. Mein isn’t bad, it just isn’t special enough to stand out in a deliciously packed field.
That said, the eatery can impress when it doesn’t try so hard—especially when departing from the Cantonese repertory. Delectable sansai egg tofu, lightly battered rounds of silken tofu covered in mushrooms and mountain vegetables, gets its name and austere yet full-bodied flavors from Japan. The house-made gelato, too—satiny and rich with pistachio and almond—was an unexpected success.
Taiwanese-style sweets produced mixed results. The lava toast, basically a pair of extra-thick slabs of French toast sandwiching strangely crystalline salted egg custard, was an exercise in excess: drenched in maple syrup, under a huge pat of butter, and painfully sweet. Still, my single favorite item at Mein was a dessert, namely the basket of light, crisp crullers served with a small bowl of jade-green pandan custard for dipping. If I return, it will be for a taste of the $1.95 youtiao after a better-crafted, more interesting meal elsewhere.
Or I could head to La Table on the way home and pick up a glass pot of airy chocolate mousse. But whichever restaurant I choose for dessert, the ambiance is sure to please.