Bistro Menil is the latest in well-established worldwide trend of having a relaxed, but well-curated space for dining and drinking in world-class art museums. While the newly opened eatery readily recognizes it's not breaking new ground, chef and co-owner Greg Martin readily admits he cribbed some of the best aspects of museum dining he saw at London's Tate Modern and Paris' Musee de Louvre.
Here on home turf, his new eatery is generating a wave of goodwill among Museum District patrons. When catching up with Martin and Beverage Director Sean Essex, the duo discussed their environmentally friendly touches, a menu influenced by European travels and how much Houstonians seem to like duck.
Eater: One of the things you touted before you were opening was your desire to be a green restaurant. Tell us a little about how the wine program, in particular, is helping accomplish that.
Sean Essex: Our cask program is green. Think about what happens with a wine program in a restaurant. You have the cases the wine comes in, 12 bottles, 12 corks, the labels from those bottles. That generates a lot of waste. One cask of wine gives us 100 glasses - without all that waste. And we're able to store the casks with nitrogen on top, so we don't have bottles of wine open for the typical 36 or 48 hours.
...The whole program has allowed us to really engage with the customers on a different level...
Martin: And our cask program was an integral part of our pledge to go green. It's biodynamic, it's sustainable. When the casks are empty, they go back to the wineries. We have eight different wines, and they're from great producers in California.
Essex: And the whole program has allowed us to really engage with the customers on a different level, giving them a change to try something different, to trust our recommendations. It's been a great program.
Eater: So, how has the first month been?
Martin: Just beyond our expectations! The reception from the neighborhood has been wonderful. I've been surprised at how frequently our diners have been returning - multiple times a week, sometimes even more than once in a day.
Eater: You've made it a point to carefully curate the menu and the wine list. That's not surprising, since you expect good restaurants to do that. But your thought process ran a little deeper, given Bistro Menil's location. Talk a bit about what influenced you, both in terms of the audience you anticipated and the menu choices you made.
Essex: You know, people from all walks of life come to the Menil. So, we began looking at what we would offer with that approach. Many of the visitors to the museum and to our restaurant are well traveled. But there are students and young professionals. So, we wanted to have an experience that would be accessible to everyone.
Martin: And we've been so pleased. Our clientele really gets what we're trying to do. The menu is inspired from my travels in Spain, Italy and France. Our guests are interested in food, and this menu has really resonated with them.
Eater: What have been some of the most popular items?
Martin: The Eggplant "Friest." When you go anywhere in Andulucia in southern Spain, you stop into a restaurant in the afternoon and everyone is eating these things. I was there with my partner Paul and he said, "You really need to figure out how to make these." So, I did. It's eggplant very lightly friend, done up in an anchovy oil. It's been our most popular appetizer. And the salads at lunch. We've found the lunch crowd - even the later lunch crowd - is often women, and they want something light, with about three or four ounces of protein. So, our crab cakes wind up being a great accompaniment to that.
Eater: What have you been surprised by in your first month?
Martin: How much people love duck? The first week, we went through one case. The second week, it was two cases. Two weeks ago, we were up to four cases. It's crazy. We order D'artangion, which tastes like a cross between Muscoy and Peking. At dinner, we do a duck confit, with that great crispy skin. And, we just introduced brunch a couple of weeks ago, and the duck omelette has been the most popular thing on the menu.
Eater: What have been your influences in presenting this menu?
Martin: Aside from our travels, and wanting to re-create things Paul and I have sampled around the world, working with Robert Del Grande at RDG. That was like going to grad school every day. He has both a philosophy about food and is such a great chef; his influence was inspiring to me. But, I really wanted a menu where I could showcase the simple, good flavors of the food: fresh, well-seasoned. I was inspired by pizza from Naples and a terrific Nicoise salad from France. I want to Surprising Hot Menu Item, Wine and Art: bring those global flavors to our diners.
Eater: What kind of feeling do you want guests to come away with?
Martin: That this is a cultured, civilized space. We have fresh flowers on our tables. We've got this bright, open restaurant. We're open all day, and you can just as easily come in for a cup of coffee and dessert in the middle of the afternoon as you can come linger over a dinner date. Mostly, I want them to share the excitement I have. It's just amazing what our team has accomplished in the last month of so. I am so happy. It's been wonderful!