Leaning in, my friend Tamara whispered to our table of four: “How many of these people do you think have houses in Marfa?” We were at Le Jardinier, the polished new contemporary French restaurant at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and its plush chairs were filled with folks who appeared to be prosperous, arty, well-traveled types. With hardly a second thought we eliminated the silver-haired couple with turquoise jewelry—they’d prefer Santa Fe. Likewise we dismissed three clearly awestruck women wearing low-heeled shoes—hardworking schoolteachers, we guessed. But, ah, the vaguely European-looking man with slicked-back hair and a forest-green suit—now, he was a possibility. I imagined him taking a private plane to visit his house outside the tiny West Texas town that’s famous for being famous (and for the enigmatic installation of silvery metal boxes created by renowned minimalist sculptor Donald Judd). Having taken a stab at answering that burning question, we—who have no houses in Marfa—celebrated by ordering a round of cocktails. My martini, named the Duke (French gin, herbes de Provence, butter), came with a teeny clothespin securing a fresh green bay leaf to the rim of the glass—quite fitting for a restaurant whose name means “the gardener.”
Together with the recently opened Kinder Building in which it is housed, Le Jardinier constitutes a key part of the Houston museum’s “we have arrived” declaration to the national art world. The main element behind that proclamation is the excellent modern and contemporary art collection, of course, but—in my possibly biased opinion—dining is central to the reputation of any self-respecting museum. Around the country, there are museums galore with inviting cafes and occasionally excellent restaurants. But for now, only one has attained international renown—and two Michelin stars: the imposing Modern, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Le Jardinier, with its dazzling space and celebrated culinary lineage, could well be poised to join it.
Le Jardinier has two identically named elder siblings, one in New York and the other in Miami (neither is in a museum, in case you’re wondering); the Manhattan location won its own Michelin star in 2020. Behind that success is culinary director Alain Verzeroli, who creates the basic menu for all three with local input from their respective chefs de cuisine. (Verzeroli’s impressive résumé includes twenty years working for the late legendary French chef Joël Robuchon.) Running the show in Houston is 33-year-old chef de cuisine Andrew Ayala, a San Francisco native who learned the ropes at the Manhattan Le Jardinier and before that worked at Daniel Boulud’s eponymous restaurant and Thomas Keller’s Per Se. These days he’s getting to know what life is like in the middle of the country and is already a habitué of farms and markets in Houston and the surrounding area.
We finished our drinks, and soon our server reappeared to take our orders and ask if we’d like a complimentary bread basket. While waiting for him to return, we had a little time to look out on the museum’s stunning sculpture garden and wander over to the restaurant’s entrance to examine the wall-size tapestry of vivid stylized trees, designed by noted local artist Trenton Doyle Hancock. By that time, our bread had arrived, and—to get a quibble out of the way quickly—the gluten-free trio of half-risen Parker House rolls, overbaked Parmesan bread sticks, and dense seed-and-grain baguette slices was just plain sad. (The excellent accompanying Spanish olive oil helped a little.) Our disappointment lasted only a few minutes, though, because the next thing to appear was a vibrant crudo of King Kampachi (amberjack), its golden pineapple-and-passion-fruit marinade as pretty as sunrise on a plate. Interspersed among the slices of impeccable pink fish were slices of Fresno chiles and dabs of avocado mousse.
If you have a large enough group of friends in tow, you can try much of Le Jardinier’s concise menu in a single visit. As it happened, I had eaten at the restaurant with a friend the night before and had already sampled several dishes, including a pristine arrangement of baby red romaine and Little Gem lettuces along with sweet slices of marinated plum over a bright yogurt dressing bolstered with mint oil and cucumber juice. So I was ready for one of the more substantial small plates: snowy pillows of burrata topped with halves of Black Mission fig. Sidled up to the fruit were round red cherry tomatoes and languid curls of heirloom melon; toasty, lemon-tinged chopped Marcona almonds lent a nice finishing crunch.
The night before, I had also shared bites of my friend’s Spanish octopus, superbly cooked and accompanied by various vegetables—marinated artichoke hearts; petite, round smoked potatoes; crisp haricots verts—all sitting on a generous layer of nutty, coral-hued romesco sauce. Something terrestrial seemed like a great change of pace, especially when I saw bavette steak on the menu. I like this somewhat uncommon French cut—American butchers call it a flap steak—because it’s normally tender, even loose textured. When the waiter set the plate down, the meat looked great, with a rosy, medium-rare interior and an alluring swipe of herb-infused veal jus on the surface. But while a few lucky bites were excellent, the majority were tougher than backyard fajitas. On the other hand, a brilliant accompaniment of dusky Asian eggplant mousse, decadently swirled with sherry and emulsified bone marrow, helped assuage my gripes.
The rest of the meal passed in a pleasant blur of conversation, more people-watching, and what was definitively the best entrée of the evening: a remarkable chicken breast. I had ordered it out of curiosity, expecting little, but the bird—vegetable-fed, free-range—was spectacular, with silky, miraculously moist meat that had taken well to being seared and roasted. Alongside was an amazing mousse (they’re big on mousses here, also emulsions, a.k.a. foams) of deeply caramelized shallots.
And if you, like me, think a fine meal is as much style as sustenance, you will be delighted when the dessert menu shows up. Le Jardinier’s confections, created by its New York–based executive pastry chef Salvatore Martone, are more dramatic than the outfits on RuPaul’s Drag Race. The first to arrive was a mysterious white bowl with a perforated lid set atop a plate that looked as if it had been sprinkled with tiny uncut amethysts (they were actually candied violets). When we lifted the lid and peered inside, we were rewarded with blueberries three ways: sherbet, compote, and five perfect little blueberry meringue kisses.
Charming as the berry trio was, however, the most showstopping dessert by far was La Fleur Blanche. Created from four large, cleverly arranged shards of pristine white meringue, this flower’s petals enfolded secret troves of passion fruit sherbet and lime curd topped with a voluptuous cone of whipped elderflower ganache. And, as if anything else were needed, dabs of elderflower gelée as clear as Swarovski crystals garnished the plate.
Often when I eat at a new restaurant, I wonder how it will do over the next year or two. I’m especially curious about Le Jardinier, if for no other reason than, one of these days, the Michelin Guide might come snooping around Houston. If and when it does, I can’t imagine that its inspectors would fail to visit the sibling of a property upon which they had bestowed a star. Until that happens, though, Le Jardinier will just have to content itself with being the best museum restaurant in the state. And one of the best in the country. Come to think of it, that’s saying a lot.
5500 Main, Houston
Opened May 18, 2021
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Le Grand Jardinier.” Subscribe today.