My heart sank a little as I first surveyed the menu at Philippe Restaurant & Lounge, the glamorous new home base for chef Philippe Schmit. “Flirtations,” read the first section heading, followed all too quickly by such pseudo-sensual categories as “Au Naturel,” “Satisfaction…Guaranteed,” and “Contained Decadence,” which refers to a quartet of dishes served in canning jars. It was all just a little too coy, a little too confounding. Let the seduction be on the plate, not in the menu prose, I grumbled to myself.
That was pretty much the last grumbling I did. The photogenic, charming-or-bust Schmit, who was last at the Hotel Derek’s Bistro Moderne, has opened a satisfying restaurant that already feels accomplished at three months old.
It’s fun to look at, too. Designer Lauren Rottet has used black-and-white architectural graphics to make a big modern box suggest the grandeur of Versailles, with dark smoked mirrors (are those back again?) leading to cartoon capitals and pediments that suggest a French ballroom. In the main dining room, a gauzy white ceiling treatment, gathered in swirls and corralled into a square, looks more like an art installation. I kept finding amusing new details every time I visited.
Not to mention amusing new things to eat. The beauty of this casual mix-and-match menu is that you can eat a lot or a little, spend more or less, and do it in a grand, festive setting that doesn’t feel clichéd. I can imagine ducking into the downstairs lounge next winter for a bowl of Philippe’s stirring french onion soup, capped by a trembling mantle of good gruyere cheese, just as easily as I can dream about lunching on a small plate of shreddy Berkshire pork ravioli, their sauce a savory froth alight with Moroccan red pepper. (The menu says something about a “chorizo smoothie,” but worry not: no tiny shot glass of sausage gruel appeared to disrupt my composure.)
Is a big-deal dinner what’s called for? Philippe can oblige with entrees to rival the better fine-dining spots in town. One night’s special of lamb three ways impressed not only for its sleek presentation in a long, skinny bateau-shaped platter, but for its meticulous cooking and saucing, too. Tender lamb leg slices in a natural tarragon-laced jus rested on near-candied Provencal vegetables and Tarbais beans, the variety traditionally used in France for cassoulet. Next to came a gentle braised navarin of lamb shoulder with peas and mint, followed by a nicely seared chop with tart béarnaise sauce and a big, oozy square of potato gratin so sumptuous and delicate, with its bare hint of garlic, that I could have eaten a plateful. Maybe for my birthday.
I loved the flaky dorade cooked in parchment paper and served on a tangle of housemade tagliatelle threaded with thin curls of carrot and parsnip and cabbage, and tossed with a buttery sauce flavored with orange zest and vermouth. The detail that made it click? Springlike bursts of fresh mint and chervil.
Down-soft whole boned trout, lightly smoked in hay (tip of the French Cowboy hat to Rene Redzepi!), materialized in a mere gloss of red wine sauce spiced with star anise, along with a fantastic side dish of bouncy, mustard-shot lentils cooked with greens. And hangar steak was cooked to rare specs, with ample beefy flavor beneath its mustardy red-wine sauce touched with garlicky shallot. My only disappointment on this plate — styled “meat + bones” in that primal prose style all the Young Turks use these days, was the marrow bone: it contained a big, cohesive hunk of marrow that hadn’t loosened up enough yet.
While the entrees can be very good here, it’s the smaller details that charmed me most: the marvelous house-baked baguettes and brioche (served with cold butter, alas); or the pleasure of a perfectly composed green salad with radish, fresh mint and a citrus vinaigrette. There’s a pride in craftsmanship that is evident and heartening. When a canning jar full of fluffed-up potato and snapper “brandade” arrives at the table, the elusive perfume of lemon zest is the touch that makes up for the use of mild snapper in a dish more often known and loved for its hint of salt-cod funk.
I worried that a Moroccan version of beef tartare might overwhelm the silky cubes of raw beef with raisins, almonds and hot harissa pepper. Didn’t happen. The results were riveting. So much so that I could scarcely believe the strident disaster that was the salmon tartare, the fish vanquished by blue cheese, walnuts and olive oil.
That was one of few disappointments here. I found a crepelike spinach cannelloni boring despite its foresty mushroom emulsion; and a chickpea puree proved dull on what was otherwise a sprightly appetizer assortment of eggplant “caviar,” unexpectedly seasoned with fresh mint, and a version of olive tapenade so brisk and winy/briny that I longed to have a pint of it in my refrigerator.
In fact, that tapenade livened up a croque monsieur sandwich, ordered from the lounge menu, that would have been swell if my bete noir, truffle oil, hadn’t invaded the ham sandwich’s cheesy béchamel goodness.
Sometimes the lily needs no gilding.
Chef Schmit is styling himself “the French Cowboy” these days, with his cheffy bons mots scattered across the paper placemats in the dining room and, to drive the point home, throw pillows of the softest, most strokable cowhide scattered about the lounge banquettes. It’s all fine theater, of course, and savvy branding, but the truth is that a couple of years out of the limelight seems to have focused Schmit. He’s cooking in a way that seems more personal and grounded than he ever did at Bistro Moderne, where the strictures of hotel dining may have held him in check.
I particularly admired the North African feel he brings to a number of dishes, his confident use of fresh herbs, his nods to the bold Houston palate with frequent bursts of harissa and the subtler warmth of espelette pepper. His cuisine these days tastes more Mediterranean than strictly French, without the menu or the publicity machine ever having to say so.
Whatever the reason, he’s having fun. I could taste it in the fat little tamales of soft-shredded duck confit, which he could serve to the pickiest abuela with pride. I felt it in the surprisingly simple and effective molded potato salad crowned with a soft, smooth cloud of Coach Farms goat cheese, then ringed with a sunny olive vinaigrette.
Fun was obvious in the desserts by pastry chef Jamie Kling, newly recruited from Tony’s, and turning out freshly fried churros with salted caramel ice cream, or a delicately deconstructed strawberry “margarita” shortcake that roped citrus flavors into the festivities.
Even the wine list is a joy. Sommelier Vanessa Trevino Boyd, a calm, understated presence who has put in time at Ducasse in New York, has put together a great mix of classics for the expense-account corporate crowd leavened with more unexpected treats for wine geeks. And the prices are surprisingly kind, given the Galleria location. An unusual Corbieres Blanc by the glass for $7? Believe it.
I enjoyed Boyd’s suggestion of an ’07 Primarius pinot noir, from Oregon, a pretty bloom of springlike strawberry fruit at a very reasonable $32, as much as I did an ’09 Domaine Huet “Clos de Bourges” Vouvray at $52 . Yes, Vouvray, a wine that has always scared me away with its sweetness. Here, it was balanced by tons of refreshing acid and worked beautifully with a variety of appetizers.
I went home smiling: at discovering a new wine; at the courtly old-school service; at the sight of chef Schmit himself, rushing from his sleek kitchen, on view behind a sweep of glass, to glad-hand and schmooze in the dining room. The poster-boy of old looked uncharacteristically sweaty and disheveled. And he seemed to be enjoying every minute of it.
Philippe Restaurant & Lounge
1800 Post Oak Blvd