JOrdan Nova, director of the two new restaurants at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, was stunned recently when he checked the Gardener’s reservation numbers. Open just two days, the stylish gem, set in a serene corner of the brand new Nancy and Rich Kinder building at 5500 Main Street, was sold out for the next 60 days with a waiting list of 150.
And that was before news of fainting-worthy cuisine crept into the city’s most cultured dining circles.
After managing to secure a table for two along the plush velvet banquette, we recently sat down for the most sophisticated dining experience Houston has had since the introduction of Nouvelle Cuisine decades ago. Simply put, it was gastronomic perfection. With a Michelin-starred chef at the helm, it’s no surprise.
But before we say hello to Alain Verzeroli, culinary director of Bastion Collection based in Manhattan, who was very present tonight – both in the kitchen and greeting the occasional dinner party – we have to applaud the decor which is as gorgeous as promised when. PaperCity first announced the news of the new restaurant. The stunning views of the Cullen Sculpture Garden surrounded by oak trees are complemented by the intricate patterns of rare African limba wood adorning one wall and the colorful Trenton Doyle Hancock tapestry on the other.
Mossy green velvet banquettes and dining chairs are complemented by a lighter green rug that centers the dining area.
The restaurant will seat 70 people inside, including the open bar area where, that evening, guests had settled down to savor Verzeroli’s creations such as salmon from the Faroe Islands or agnolotti with ricotta. 30 other guests can be welcomed on the terrace. However, Nova explained that reservations for Le Jardinier (French for the Gardener) are currently limited to 50 guests at a time.
The smaller number allows the nascent cuisine to maintain the standards demanded by the Bastion collection, which won four Michelin stars in 2020, including one for Le Jardinier in Midtown Manhattan. The group’s Atelier de Joël Robuchon obtained two stars. His newcomer Benno won one.
Although the Gardener’s menu is billed as “vegetable-centric”, it would be wrong to think of salads with kale, beets and the absence of red meat. We opted for the Seasonal Expression menu ($ 125) – five beautifully executed dishes that included more than enough protein.
I don’t claim to be a food critic, although I certainly know the best cuisines from having dined in Michelin starred restaurants and tasted the best of Beijing in Paris and at points in between. I was a member of the Chaîne de Rôtisseurs and accompanied my husband to various gourmet dinners prepared for the International Wine & Food Society.
Thus, I feel qualified enough to give my less than poetic assessment. Every dish on the Seasonal Expression menu was a visual, inspiring work of art, prepared and served to perfection. I leave the studied reviews to those who criticize food for a living.
The meal started with dried snapper accompanied by a large serving of Kaluga caviar and Persian cucumber topped with a hint of buttermilk dressing. The second course included French white asparagus, orange reduction, puffed buckwheat and green strawberries. Nova explained that Verzeroli’s training of kitchen staff involved slicing asparagus 33 times to ensure perfection.
Then come the delicious Saint-Jacques du Maine, reduced carrot juice with garden vegetables. The fourth course consisted of a grilled Wagyu chuck, broccolini and eggplant mousse and fries. The aptly named Le Papillon dessert was a delicate yuzu mousse (a citrus fruit) accompanied by raspberry compote, pistachio shortbread and the most artistic edible butterfly delicately balanced on its slice.
We walked out happy in a food heaven coma.
Applause, applause for Verzeroli, Executive Pastry Chef Salvatore Martone and Chef Andrew Ayala. It’s another winner for The Bastion Collection, which also has La Table in Houston and a third La Jardinier in Miami.