For a reporter, it’s the easiest thing in the world to pick out the big personalities, the ones who thrive in the spotlight. It’s much harder to notice the people who work behind the scenes, taking care of business. Which explains the fact that, until a couple of months ago, hardly anyone covering Houston restaurants knew much about Manuel Pucha. And why would they? He was the second in command at Philippe, the domain of media darling Philippe Schmit, the “French Cowboy.” Despite Pucha’s eighteen years of kitchen bona fides, including the executive chef’s position at Ninfa’s on Navigation, he wasn’t likely to be noticed by anyone but insiders. But the French Cowboy galloped away last September, and early this year 39-year-old Manuel Pucha, the invisible man, found himself executive chef of one of the most prominent restaurants in the city. And both food writers and the dining public began to take notice.
Along with its new name and a new, wide-ranging, multinational menu, Table on Post Oak has also updated its image. In the upstairs dining room, smooth taupe leather now covers low-backed booths and filament lights twinkle from above. The charming murals of French buildings are gone, mais oui, but the owners have kept the restaurant’s wonderfully whimsical ceiling treatment (I’ve always thought the frilly gathered fabric looked like the ruffles on a cancan dancer’s petticoats, although whenever I have volunteered this insight, conversation has stopped and people have stared at me silently).
Happily, there were no awkward silences on my visit to Table one evening in mid-June. My three friends and I had been advised ahead of time that we had to order the soup duo, and when it came, an appreciative “ooh” arose from our table. If you remember restaurant presentations from a couple of decades ago, you’ll recall a craze for two thick soups poured side by side into the same bowl. The gimmick was fun then and it’s fun today. The soups here were tomato and cheese, a blend of Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano with a splash of basil pesto on top; the creamy cheese balanced the thinner, sweet-tart tomato, but the best part was that the flavors echoed America’s favorite childhood lunch: tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. Nice nostalgia trip, that.
Continuing to follow assorted tips for “must-have” dishes, we dutifully ordered the ponzu crab. Afloat in a golden soy-yuzu sauce with bright-green shishito peppers and a tiny dice of avocado, it was quite the umami fest. At this point, to our surprise, the amuse-bouche, a light tomato water with strawberry powder, mysteriously showed up. Our bouches being quite amused already, we rechristened it a palate cleanser. In any case, it served as a segue to the only entrée that left me feeling indifferent, the filet mignon. Usually I like a filet, but this one lived up to the cut’s reputation for blandness. Anticipating that very thing, the kitchen had topped the meat with a dollop of lush brown-sugar-tinged onion jam and a smooth Shiner Bock demiglace. But it was the meat’s accompaniment, bacon-swaddled potato gratin, that stole the show. “With all that bacon, how could it miss?” a friend pointed out while helping herself to thirds.
If the filet was a tad predictable, that quibble could not be levied against any of the other three entrées we tried. From sea to shore to land, they were unexpected and delightful. A white rectangle of halibut beautifully striped from the grill came with scarlet slices of watermelon radish and the most darling fat baby carrots I’ve ever seen (pictured). Cooked medium-rare, the fish was served with a “citrus sauce” that turned out to be an urbane variant on saffron-infused maltaise (in this case, a hollandaise with orange and lime). I couldn’t help but notice that the sauce was precisely applied in five perfect circles, doubtless evidence of chef Pucha’s early training as a visual artist.
From the two fowl courses on the menu, we chose the duck and were rewarded with a rosy breast in a blackberry ponzu glaze. I went back and forth debating whether the glaze complemented or overwhelmed the bird, but in the end, I decided to shut up and enjoy the bold fruity flavors. It came in a clever duck broth swirled with miso and smoky lapsang souchong tea, a touch that subtly invoked the grill. But by far the most original entrée of the evening was the herb-strewn lasagne. Fortified with a rich ground-lamb bolognese and finished with a ricotta cream sauce, feta crumbles, and salty kalamata olives, it renewed that old Italian warhorse with the flavors of the Near East.
It is tempting to skip dessert at Table, because the portion sizes are ample. But Jami Kling is a pastry chef who knows that after a satisfying, filling meal, what you secretly want—despite your squeaks of protest—is a fabulously luxe dessert. Her disk of green-tea panna cotta kept company with a snow-white quenelle of jasmine-spiked chantilly cream, a nice border-hopping trick that joined East and West. Almond streusel added an essential crunch. But just when we thought the panna cotta couldn’t be topped, a beguiling chèvre cheesecake (with rhubarb compote on a pistachio shortbread cookie) arrived and challenged that conclusion. Daringly composed, it looked for all the world like one of Kate Middleton’s hats, with a long, graceful almond sugar tuille stuck in a scoop of strawberry-rose sorbet like a feather rippling in the wind.
Now that Pucha is in the catbird seat, how does he like it? He sounds like somebody who is pinching himself to be sure he is not dreaming. He immediately credits chef de cuisine William Wright and sous chefs Jason Bergeron and Alberto Baffoni and thanks the restaurant’s management for putting their trust in him. He’s gradually settling in and tweaking the menu—being from Ecuador, he hopes to give his classically anchored American bill of fare even more international touches than it has now. With time, the invisible man may even get used to the media attention. “I got a chance to shine,” he says, “and here I am.”
1800 Post Oak Blvd, Houston
L Mon–Fri. D Mon–Sat. $$$
Opened May 16, 2014