Arts / Museums

With the Kinder Building Drawing Raves, MFAH Quietly Adds Two New Showcase Restaurants With Michelin Star-Proven Chefs and New York Clout

Houston's Museum District Gains Real Culinary Power

BY // 11.23.20

While the art world’s eyes are on Houston, with the spectacular unveiling of the Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Art’s Houston, there’s more good news to celebrate. Come spring the Museum District’s dining scene will heat up when not one, but two, Michelin star chefs create a pair of new MFAH restaurants.

During a press tour MFAH director Gary Tinterow — who’s delivered a coup with a majestic Steven Holl Architects-designed building opened on time despite two hurricanes and a global pandemic — revealed the name of the formal, 65-seat restaurant, which is expected to open by April 2021.

Get ready for Le Jardinier.

Tinterow predicts that this new MFAH restaurant, which boasts its own private entrance and looks out upon the Isamu Noguchi-designed Cullen Sculpture Garden, will become one of the city’s most exclusive restaurants and a top dining destination.

PaperCity followed up to get additional details for this major foodie story. The owners of both new MFAH restaurants are based in the dining mecca of Manhattan and also have long-standing Houston connections. Bastion Restaurants, formerly known as Invest Hospitality, includes Uptown’s La Table, with its pedigreed French-inspired menu and lauded service, in its restaurant portfolio.

Besides Le Jardinier, the MFAH will also unveil a more relaxed dining option, again created by Bastion. Café Leonelli, which adjoins Le Jardinier, also offers views of the Cullen Sculpture Garden and occupies a corner of the Kinder, which will allow diners to gaze towards the Law Building and Bissonnet as well.

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Tinterow tells PaperCity that the cafe could open as early as this January.

MFAH curator Alison de Lima Greene, and Odabashian’s Jaime Odabachian with Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two,” 2019-2020, in the Kinder Building space destined for Michelin-chef concept Le Jardinier. (Photo by CDA)
MFAH curator Alison de Lima Greene, and Odabashian’s Jaime Odabachian with Trenton Doyle Hancock’s “Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two,” 2019-2020, in the Kinder Building space destined for Michelin-chef concept Le Jardinier. (Photo by CDA)

Michelin Stars Plus a Side of Art + Design

The pièce de résistance? Both fresh restaurant concepts for the MFAH were forged in collaboration with Bastion chefs Jonathan Benno, Alain Verzeroli, and Salvatore Martone, who do their epicurean magic at Michelin-star establishments.

Benno presides over Leonelli and Verzeroli is the top toque of Le Jardinier, while Martone does double duty as the pastry chef of both. Both restaurants are New York-based, while Le Jardinier also has a Miami outpost.

Le Jardinier’s website touts it newly anointed Michelin star, awarded in 2020 in the fiercely competitive New York dining scene. “The French word for gardener, Le Jardinier’s cuisine and setting evoke a modern greenhouse in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. Michelin-starred Chef Alain Verzeroli‘s menu is focused on utilizing the highest quality vegetables, seasonal ingredients, sustainable seafood, and fresh herbs,” the site notes.

Prior to his time at New York’s Le Jardinier, Chef Verzeroli worked in Asia, in the iconic Château Restaurant Joël Robuchon in Tokyo, where his prowess led to three Michelin stars being bestowed annually for 11 consecutive years. Few restaurants in the world ever achieve that status — and consistency.

Diners at Le Jardinier will be rewarded by gazing out upon Aristide Maillol’s “La Rivière (The River),” 1938-1943, in the Cullen Sculpture Garden. The magnificent bronze, nestled upon a reflecting pool designed by Deborah Nevins & Associates landscape architects, was specially sited to face restaurant patrons. (Photo by CDA)
Diners at Le Jardinier will be rewarded by gazing out upon Aristide Maillol’s “La Rivière (The River),” 1938-1943, in the Cullen Sculpture Garden. The magnificent bronze, nestled upon a reflecting pool designed by Deborah Nevins & Associates landscape architects, was specially sited to face restaurant patrons. (Photo by CDA)

The New York Leonelli is situated in the Evelyn Hotel, an Art Deco jewel in Manhattan’s NoMad neighborhood. Its Old World Italy focus pairs a Roman trattoria with a bakery and cafe. Chef Jonathan Benno also earned one Michelin star in 2020, but prior to that he spent six years at Per Se, which garnered three Michelin stars.

Besides the exceptional and exciting culinary acumen and buzz these new Bastion restaurants will generate, each new MFAH spot will also feature a striking art + design element.

The serene interiors of Le Jardinier will be distinguished by a wall of rare highly figured African limba wood, which was sourced from Houston’s heritage millwork firm, Brochsteins, which had the limba planks in storage for decades, awaiting a perfect home.

Facing the wall of limba — which reads like an abstract painting — there will be a major artwork commission by Trenton Doyle Hancock, woven in record time by the firm Odabashian, which specializes in working with international artists to create important tapestries and rugs.

During the press preview, MFAH curator Alison de Lima Greene introduced Jaime Odabachian of the century-old Odabashian firm headquartered in Miami. Odabachian tells PaperCity that Hancock’s tapestry was hand-woven from New Zealand wool in Varanasi, India, a project that supported 25 families during the pandemic.

The artwork’s imagery, a vibrant forest, sets up a natured-focused dialogue with the trees and greenscape of the Cullen Sculpture Garden, which diners enjoy from a new perspective — showcased in Le Jardinier’s bank of windows.

Fittingly, Trenton Doyle Hancock is a former MFAH Glassell School of Art Core Fellow, as well as a two-time Whitney Biennial artist, who is arguably the most important talent working from Texas today. Hancock and his wife, artist JooYoung Choi, are both based in Houston.

Meanwhile, Café Leonelli weighs in with a light installation by Spencer Finch, who is best known as the artist for the sensitive installation at the National September 11 Memorial Museum, who is also concurrently on view at the University of Houston in “Color Field.” 

“We have been in the Houston market for the past decade and know it to be a great incubator of culinary talent,” Bastion COO Antonio Begonja tells PaperCity. “To that end, we wanted to bring the brands we have been developing in New York and Miami to further grow and develop them in this culturally diverse city.”

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