“Make it sexy French!” Felipe Armenta was planning to open a bistro, and he had a request or two for his longtime designer, Kellye Hunt Raughton, of Maven Interiors. She wasn’t surprised. “He always wants a sexy vibe,” she told me with a laugh. She had worked with the 45-year-old Fort Worth restaurateur on many of the eleven concepts that he has been involved with, and she knew what he liked. They traded ideas. He was enthusiastic about the loud, lively bistros he had visited in New York City. She agreed but didn’t want to be predictable. One day he said, “Think Moulin Rouge meets restaurant.”
On a June night several months later, three friends and I walk into week-old Le Margot, in the Tanglewood neighborhood. Overhead, seductive pink Murano-style crystal chandeliers sparkle against slate-gray walls, competing for attention with gilt candelabras and rococo mirrors. Formal coffered ceilings complement black-and-white tile floors, and vases of pink roses sit on each table. The wall behind our banquette is covered in a boldly abstract floral fabric in burgundy and apricot that I keep looking at over my shoulder. What is that material—crushed velvet? I reach out and touch it. It’s cowhide!
Le Margot is among the latest in a string of projects by the energetic Armenta, a prolific yet heretofore low-profile restaurateur. Over the past fifteen years, he has opened or helped open seventeen restaurants, but because they are in Fort Worth and West Texas (specifically Midland, Odessa, and San Angelo, where he grew up), they haven’t received the attention that they would in, say, Dallas or Houston. Gradually, though, that is changing. In the fall of 2022 he signed a partnership with a culinary figure whose name might ring a bell: Graham Elliot, the 46-year-old white-glasses-wearing, two-Michelin-star-winning Chicago chef who most memorably was a contestant on Top Chef Masters and a judge on both MasterChef and Top Chef. In bringing him on to fill the role of executive chef partner, Armenta is clearly signaling that he has reached a new phase in the growth of his company Far Out Hospitality.
Back at the restaurant—which is named for one of Armenta’s daughters—it’s 8:30, and it’s noisy, so I consider ordering something with a calming effect. The mostly French wine list looks promising. But a cocktail sounds even better. I ponder the Ooh Là Là (which comes with a cotton candy topping) but decide to order the refreshing and beautifully made Napoleon Complex (gin and a splash of elderflower liqueur, plus cucumber and lime).
By now the four of us are starving, so we quickly order an array of appetizers, starting with the French onion soup. It’s astonishing, the sweetness of caramelized onion balancing a meaty-tasting broth, all set off by a tidy cap of Gruyère toast. I am quite surprised when our waiter tells us that the broth’s flavor comes from roasted portobellos—no beef involved.
Next is a specialty of Provence: a salade niçoise, with the dish’s traditional high-quality canned tuna upgraded into a classy crabmeat salad. The flavor is fine, but the crab is so rich that the accompanying black-olive tapenade fades into the background. We follow that with a bowl of steamed mussels with an unusual but pleasant treatment: ratatouille, chopped and scattered on top. Our final appetizer is a terrific steak tartare with pearly splashes of a creamy horseradish-zapped aioli. Instead of the usual hen-egg yolk, it’s crowned with a darling quail-egg yolk in a speckled shell.
We pause to survey the crowd, spotting a prominent local chef several tables away. It’s obvious that he is—in addition to having a nice dinner—assessing the competition. The partnership between Armenta and Elliot has got to be the talk of the restaurant community, not just in Fort Worth but around Texas. Until now Armenta has been a big frog in a fairly small pond. For his part, Elliot has said, “I was looking for the next step in my career.” He had spent the pandemic years in Hawaii, where he lived for a time as a boy. When he learned that someone in Texas had an interesting offer, he was intrigued. The two met and, as Armenta says, “The rest was history.” Turns out they have a lot in common. They both possess an unholy amount of energy, and they thrive on chaos. As Elliot told me, “My motto is, if it’s not broken, break it!” He went on to say, “We’re like kids in a toy store. We will stay up till two a.m. sending each other photos on Instagram about some new dish we’re working on. Then we’ll wake up at seven o’clock and start texting about it again.”
After several starters, our group is ready for something serious, such as the salmon, which turns out to be the most fabulously cooked piece of fish I’ve ever eaten. The texture is otherworldly, almost like a perfectly set omelet. The secret is that Elliot has cooked it in the oven at 120 degrees for six hours. On top are bright green herbed bread crumbs and beneath, a butter-rich cabernet reduction.
But if the salmon is the most stunning entrée on the menu, the most photographed one is going to be, I predict, the Royale With Cheese. If you’ve seen Pulp Fiction (a movie both Armenta and Elliot are insanely in love with), you’ll know the inspiration is a conversation between two affable hit men, played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, about the Parisian version of the Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Needless to say, Le Margot’s Royale is nothing like a Quarter Pounder. It is eight ounces of Prime beef lavished with onion marmalade and finished with a pour-over of béchamel, Brie, and Parmesan. Some of us grab the slippery thing with our hands, cheese sauce and all; the rest cut off bites with the large knife that comes with the burger, sunk to the hilt in the middle of the bun.
By the time the table is cleared for dessert, I’m relieved there are just three options. We settle on profiteroles and a classic lemon tart topped with beautifully browned meringue on a French-butter-cookie crust. The former is also a classic, but instead of the usual three or four Ping-Pong-ball-size cream puffs, it’s a single humongous one bursting with white chocolate gelato under a blanket of dark chocolate sauce. If that’s not sexy French, I don’t know what is.
It’s late when we finish, and my head is spinning from the good food and energy of the place, but it turns out that this is only the beginning of what Armenta and Elliot have planned. When I talk to them later, they rattle off a litany of ideas. “We opened a Cowboy Prime in Midland in December,” says Armenta, “then Margot in June, and we have F1 Smokehouse opening here in August. On top of that, we are looking at possible locations in Houston and Dallas.” A total of seven new leases are signed or about to be, and they’re also sniffing around Southlake and Waco. Elliot jumps in to add Laredo, then says something that’s surprising for a person who made his name in America’s biggest cities: “These smaller markets are hidden gems. When we are in one of those dining rooms, people get up and shake your hand, they’re so excited you’re there.” The upshot seems to be that they are figuring it out as they go. One thing is sure, whether the concept is sexy, French, or something altogether different, there will be more restaurants. And this unlikely pair of power players will be having a lot of fun.
3150 S. Hulen, Fort Worth
L & D 7 days. $$$
Opened June 21, 2023
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Come to the Cabaret.” Subscribe today.