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First Taste of Houston’s New Artisans

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It’s certainly not everyday that two chefs I’ve liked and respected for many years open a new restaurant together – thus, despite their traditional French training, defying the old maxim that “Too many chefs spoil the broth.” In fact, since chef-owner David Denis and his wine-crazed brother Sylvain (billed collectively more and more as “The Denis Brothers,” like they work in a circus) are so busy out at Le Mistral that chef-partner Jacques Fox generally has the kitchen at Artisans to himself.

And quite a kitchen it is too. As Fox told me recording radio today… “We’ve always taken guests to the kitchen. Here, we’re actually taking the kitchen to the guests.” By all accounts, the chefs talked about the design of what would become Artisans for years – all the while Fox was teaching at Culinary Institute LeNotre (where he met Denis as he was getting ready to open Le Mistral) and then as Denis was pushing his little strip-center “friendly French” restaurant till he and his brother could buy and build on the prime real estate next door.

From its menu to its design, Artisans (which shares the neighborhood with such respected eateries as Brennan’s of Houston and Sushi Raku) is unrelentingly French – lock, stock and fleur de lys. The chefs were smart enough to engage Austin-based architect Michael Hsu, also on display locally with his chic new Uchi. Still, the guys insist they rejected any ideas that struck them as too hip, too happenin’ for the food they knew would follow.

In keeping with the name, the three Frenchmen (Sylvain handles the wines at Artisans, naturally) even found an artisan in Paris who could bring a rustic touch to a design that also has modern elements. When in doubt, that guy seemed to think, make it out of wood and burn a rooster onto it. Here, for instance, is the board behind the printed-out dinner menu. There’s also a wooden box for delivering guest checks to each table. Rooster burned on that thing too.

Of the appetizers I tucked into today, my favorite was Fox’s spin on seared scallops. Yeah yeah, every chef sears scallops. But these babies show up as though they were a soup waiting to happen, which they kind of are when your waiter lifts up that glass and a lush amoricaine sauce (lobster bisque, pretty much) pours out around the tender, sweet shellfish. I thought the foie gras starter was great too, with seared duck breast and a bit of baby quail.

And if you think I’m generally “over” seared scallops, don’t even get me started on Chilean sea bass. I mean, I feel like I’m what’s overfished, not this Patagonian toothfish that somehow adopted a really catchy market name. Here, however, the sea bass gets a coating of pistachios that keeps the flaky meat inside super-moist. And the fact that this fish shows up atop amazing risotto doesn’t hurt one bit.

Ready for some serious YUM? Ready for some lamb that isn’t a rack? Well, if so, run don’t walk to get your mouth around Artisans’ lamb loin. It comes out (like most things here: on an ultra-large white plate that lets the chefs pretend to be Picasso by way of Rothko) with perfect fingerling mashed potatoes (in that covered red pot) and something called a “corn galette.” That’s like a loose-knit, ultra delicious version of cornbread dressing, with plenty of actual kernels to remind you how it got that way.

I’m not 100% certain what the secret to Artisans’ best-ever steak au poivre is, except that for me it’s all about the sauce. The meat, sure… Fox and Denis are crazed tasters of beef products, searching long and hard for the perfect filet. But then Fox went back to his notes from cooking at the legendary Prunier in Paris in the ’70s, and found this extraordinary roadmap for onion, cognac, cream and demi-glaze. At its (and perhaps my) best, I told listeners this sauce is “liquid meat.”

Apparently, while Artisans offers several versions of “dessert sampler,” the one we tasted for the radio was created “only for me.” Then again, I’ve been told stuff like that before. This again-large and again-white plate includes a superb apple tart (flipped and baked something like three times, with more butter brushed on each time – how French!), poached pear, cappuccino creme brule and a combination of lush flourless chocolate cake alongside what classicists call an “opera cake.” I was singing the arias myself before these two wildly talented French chefs had finished feeding me lunch.

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About John DeMers

I've been a journalist and author forever. My favorite single word in the English language is "foodandwine." This spirit drives my 45 published books and my weekly radio show heard in Houston, Dallas and Austin.

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