My experience with Bistro Moderne is like drinking a perfect bottle of wine. With the first few tastes, I knew it was good, but I did not yet appreciate its greatness. With time, after opening up, I began to appreciate its complexity, depth, and unique flavors. Now, after many visits, I have completely fallen for it. In fact, at this moment, Bistro Moderne may be my favorite restaurant in Houston.
The restaurant sells itself short by calling itself a bistro. It lacks the rustic country quality of a bistro. Instead, this is contemporary high cuisine, rooted in French tradition, but more innovative than any French restaurant in Houston.
On my last visit, I tried three great dishes. First, my wife ordered a tartiflette with frisee salad, which had three parts: (1) an architecturally fascinating tower constructed with thinly sliced potatoes, lardons, and pont l’eveque cheese, which is a soft cow’s milk cheese from Normandy, (2) a simple frisee salad, and (3) a frozen onion mousse. The tartiflette seems like a classic French dish, but is actually a recipe that was developed in France in the 1980s. The dominant tastes are comfort food: potato, cheese, bacon. The accent that puts the dish over the top is the onion mousse, which seems more like onion ice cream. It is a strange and tasty counterpart to the tartiflette.
Second, we ordered veal cheek with thin open lasagne and a morel mushroom sauce. I was a bit disappointed when the dish arrived with long, thin, smooth mushrooms that were clearly not morels. Morels – my favorite mushrooms – look a lot like brown prunes, but have an intense, unique flavor. But the menu promised only morel mushroom sauce, not morels, so I cannot complain. The veal cheek was fantastic – slow cooked, and very tender and flavorful. A nice compliment was the beefy mushroom sauce spread on a thin layer of flat pasta, and coated with a thin layer of white foam.
Third, we had a whole Mediterranean dorado fish, pan seared with fennel and tomato and oven roasted vegetables. Like the morels, I expected to find chunks of fennel, but could not locate them. No matter. This dish was interesting and delicious. The dorado was about the size of my hand, and served with the skin, head, and tail, and most of the body intact. When the size of a fish permits, I prefer the more realistic experience of being served the whole fish and not just some chunk cut out of the side. This fish had a thin crunchy crust, but light and flaky flesh. It was served with a reddish sauce that reminded me of romesco, as well as a beautiful row of thinly sliced rings of zucchini, squash, and tomatoes.
The desserts here are always brilliant – a combination of unusual flavors and strange preparations. For instance, this time we tried the chocolate bomb, which consists of a chocolate coating over white chocolate mouse and orange cardamon creme brulee with an orange caramel sauce and pistachios. That’s a lot of ingredients, in a tasty little dessert.
I love Chef Philippe Schmit’s cuisine because it engages the mind. I love the architecture and design of the food on the plate. I love the unusual ingredients (dorado, veal cheek) and inventive preparations (onion ice cream, crab and avocado bombe).
My only puzzlement is why this restaurant is not packed. On this Saturday night at 9, there was a bigger crowd in the restaurant’s bar than in the restaurant itself, which was only about two-thirds full. Potential customers may be turned off by the trendy, sometimes loud, Hotel Derek in which the restaurant is located. Or they may remember the series of lousy restaurants that preceded Bistro Moderne in this space. Surely, Houston foodies will wake up someday and discover this outstanding restaurant.