What’s in a restaurant name? Less than you might imagine when the establishment in question is Artisans, the expensive new offshoot of the west side’s foremost French restaurant, Le Mistral.
The very word “artisans” evokes the gratingly ubiquitous “artisanal,” which has come to be shorthand for a whole movement in American food. It signifies ingredients that are painstakingly sourced, often from small local or regional producers who are doing things the old-fashioned way, whether it’s farming heirloom vegetables without fertilizers or pesticides, making small-batch jams and pickles, or curing hams, bacons and sausages from the meat of specialized breeds.
The word itself may have sunk into the swamp of overuse — there are “artisanal” breads baked by mass-market supermarkets these days — but the concept remains an important one that has revitalized American dining.
Unfortunately, Artisans’ co-adaptation of the word artisanal smacks more of jumping on a trendy bandwagon than getting super-serious about ingredients.
The cautious French menu is more old school than new school; just reading it, let alone eating my way through it, made me miss the late Chez Roux quite fiercely.
The proteins, which include such warhorses as lobster tail, sea bass and the inescapable scallops, are more reminiscent of an old-line luxury hotel than the challenging upstart the name Artisans had led me to hope for. The produce takes a back seat, and it makes as little comment on our part of the world as the meats and seafood do.
The fact that Artisans doesn’t deliver on the promise of its name does not mean it’s a bad restaurant. It’s a glamorous date-night place, with its sweep of counter seats overlooking a kitchen with all the gleam and bustle of a Hollywood stage set. (If you figure the “artisans” involved are the kitchen crew, the name makes more sense.) At lunch, it’s a quiet, comfortable spot for a serious business lunch.
The service is top-notch, particularly at dinnertime at the counter, where the smart, seamless attention of the staff make the kitchen drama that much more fun.
And the food, while it tends to over busy-ness and the occasional glitch, can be good. Chef Jacques Fox, a charming Frenchman working with Mistral founders David and Sylvain Denis, has his crew producing competent French standards such as steak au poivre with a good sharp black-pepper bite and a mellower green-peppercorn sauce; or impeccably seared scallops in a lilting beurre blanc. I’m not persuaded these scallops are improved by the addition of a spinach raviolo, which seems disconnected from the proceedings, or by the dated addition of a second sauce in the form of a little cup of lobster “cappuccino” on the side, but the results are perfectly pleasant.
“Le faux filet,” a thick ridge of New York strip steak seared to a fine medium-rare, came with a sunny, tarragon béarnaise sauce that made me remember why beef with béarnaise is a classic. I could have lived without the furbelow of tomato ragout for color; like too many ingredients here, it seemed to be used more for its plating value than for what it brought to the flavors of the dish. But the little cast-iron pot of potatoes gratinéed with Cantal cheese that came with the steak was terrific. I’d be happy to eat it every day.
A tall hunk of halibut emerged just a trace overcooked for me one noon, but I enjoyed its thick saffron-tomato broth (really more of a sauce), its tart-sweet eggplant caviar accent and the polenta cake on which it sat.
A baseball-size chunk of seared big-eye tuna came seared rare, with a Basquaise sauce thrumming with deeply roasted tomato flavor, a slightly flabby side of orzo with spinach and a dab of completely irrelevant tobiko, the tiny fish eggs stained bright red with what the waiter told us was raspberry. Bad idea.
Tasmanian salmon capped with caramelized skin struck me as jarringly sweet, an effect underscored by a length of Belgian endive braised with orange. I wasn’t sure how the herbal green pistou sauce alongside was meant to fit in, or what the spears of asparagus underneath were doing there.
Nor was I thrilled by the fusty notion of a pistachio crusted sea bass, although I had to admit that the risotto it came with, enriched with a creamy velouté of mussels, was pretty great.
And I wanted to like the magnificent slab of rosy-rare lamb loin with a natural jus and a cunning small casserole of wildly good mashed potatoes. But whoa, that lamb had a fiercely salty rub on it; and the corn-cake “galettes” it perched on were woefully greasy and dispirited. It was an expensive disappointment at $39.
Entrees run from the low to the high 30s here; first courses from $8 to $22. (A five-course tasting menu can be had for $69.) So when something doesn’t click, the pain is heightened.
I’m still not sure why the $15 lobster bisque one evening was so thick as to be pasty, its stodgy texture all but nullifying the deep, oceanic flavor of long-simmered shells. And I don’t know why an otherwise nice little lobe-let of seared foie gras on toast was garnished to a fare thee well with a swoosh of cassis demi glace, slices of poached pear, a piece of baklava and a little dish of chutney. There was so much going on that there was no focus.
An elaborate first course of spiced duck breast, little confited quail legs and foie gras on toast hung together better, linked by a fig gastrique, but the foie gras was way overcooked the day I tried it, so that it had the consistency of chicken liver.
I might have liked Artisans’ steak tartare had not the raw-beef mince been bound with a creamy mustard aioli that gave the moulded square an off-putting pale-pinkish cast. It tasted fine, but it was hard to get past its unfortunate appearance.
Perhaps the most consistent element at Artisans is the desserts by pastry chef Nguyet Nguyen. I loved the comforting blueberry clafoutis with the surprise of a lemon-thyme sorbet and white-wine vanilla sauce, and the disciplined rectangle of chocolate cake with a satiny, Earl Grey-flavored crémeux and a brittle crunch of chocolate feuilletine, both off the old dessert menu that has just changed over for fall.
From the new roster, I admired the cleverness of a green-tea-flavored bread pudding with astringent ginger sorbet. A frozen orange-and-cointreau mousse affair was pretty and promising, but too sweet for my taste. Just a slight citrus edge would have made it work for me.
The wine list is strong on French wines, and the by-the-glass program was gratifying. It’s easy to get a good Chablis or red Rhone by the glass, although the reds may be served at warm room temperature. There’s a Prosecco by the glass that’s actually appealing, a relative rarity. And I’ve found the serving staff at the counter to be deft at pairings on the fly.
Still, I want more from Artisans than the restaurant is delivering. With one of the most handsome and dynamic settings in town, I want the food to measure up, to gain clarity and focus, to feature ingredients curated with a truly artisanal eye. Only then will Artisans live up to its ambitious name.
3201 Louisiana St., 713-529-9111.
Hours: L: Monday — Friday, 11 a.m.- — 2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; D: Monday — Thursday, 6- p.m. — 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; Friday & Saturday 6- p.m. — 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Credit cards: all major
Prices: starters $8- — $22; entrees $32- — $39; five5-course tasting $69; three3-course business lunch $25.
★ a good restaurant that we recommend.
★ ★ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
★ ★ ★ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
★ ★ ★ ★ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.
Noise level: quiet to moderate.