Like a scene from the 1960s French film “Playtime” by Jacques Tati, the old guard of Houston can be seen mingling with the art nouveau at Le Jardinier — the much needed addition to one of the country’s finest art institutions, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH).
Le Jardinier, located within the west wing of the MFAH’s recently opened Kinder Building (an impressive addition to the contemporary and modern art world), is an intimate space. The back entrance seamlessly connects by floor-to-ceiling windows to the splendid Isamu Noguchi-designed Cullen Sculpture Garden, and the front is accessed through the main floor of the Kinder. Valet parking is of course provided given the prestige of the space and the price points of the restaurant fare.
Inside Le Jardinier, as perhaps a sly nod to both its Texas roots and international ones, is the commissioned tapestry by artist Trenton Doyle Hancock Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two (2020). Covering an entire wall, it is a stunning 10-foot-high tapestry of wool and silk fibers depicting vibrant and abstract colored trees. (Hancock, although born in Oklahoma, was raised in Paris, Texas.)
The dining space continues its garden vibe, with seafoam green carpets, emerald green velvet booths and seating, with pops of light-colored wood along the impressive bar and throughout the restaurant. The architects, Steven Harris and Lucien Rees-Roberts installed Noguchi’s Akari lanterns along the ceiling, further highlighting both the restaurant’s theme of connectivity and the physical unity with the garden it sits adjacent to. Marbled topped tables set the scene for Culinary Director Alain Verzeroli’s works of art.
Le Jardinier is one of three of Vietnamese-born Verzeroli’s concepts, with one in New York that acquired an esteemed Michelin star in 2020 and another in Miami. Verzeroli creates the basic menu for all three with local input from their respective chefs de cuisine. For Houston, we have the pleasure of the genius of 33-year-old Chef de Cuisine Andrew Ayala, a student of the Manhattan Le Jardinier. Ayala previously studied at Daniel Boulud’s eponymous restaurant and Thomas Keller’s Per Se, both also in New York. You might spot the new Houston chef fondling greens at the local Urban Harvest farmers market.
Lunch is Served
When the restaurant initially opened earlier this year, Houstonians clamored for a coveted dinner reservation. Many waited weeks — if not months — to be able to sit in the haute new spot. Yet, at the time only dinner was served. Recently, the chef has opened the restaurant for lunch and keeps with the same mantra as for dinner, celebrating each ingredient, while combining creativity with French culinary techniques with seasonal vegetables. This particular rigorous French culinary focus makes sense given the name of the restaurant in French — “le jardinier” means “the gardener.”
To start, everyone raves about the Burrata, and it’s certainly not to be missed with heirloom melons and Marcona Gremolata. But for me, the Baby Lettuce with crunchy bright and flavorful caramelized anchovy dressing and tarragon was otherworldly. Moving on to the Mediterranean Branzino with fennel and beautifully accented with citrus and Sicilian Pistachio, we found it to be exquisite and perfectly presented.
Have a Drink
If you’re feeling like a character in Mad Men, then go ahead and have that daytime cocktail on your lunch date. Like the French Impressionists re-imagining the classics, the beverage program at Le Jardinier is a riff on the old standbys. The Gin and Tonic finds itself anew as a Cromosat and Tonic with gin, butterfly pea flower, lemongrass, lime and tonic. And the wine list is a playground of mostly French and American wines that lean into the sustainable market, if not organic or bio-dynamically grown.
La Belle Vie
If you can’t make it through the museum for the modern and contemporary art collection, you might be satisfied with the desserts at Le Jardinier. The plates are laid out with a Kandinsky-like precision. If you could only make it through for one thing, then you must have The Butterfly, a serene Yuzu mousse with raspberry compote and pistachio sable. This might be the only place in the world where you’re encouraged to not only touch, but eat the art.
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Cover: Tender Grilled Spanish Octopus. Photo courtesy Le Jardinier Houston/Emily Chan
Emily Bond is a writer, editor and literary publicist based in Houston, Texas. She is also the co-director of the nonprofit Healing Species of Texas.