Star New York Chef Chef Previews Houston’s Most Anticipated New Museum Restaurant — an Early Look at Café Leonelli

A PaperCity Exclusive

BY // 03.04.21

Michelin-starred chef Jonathan Benno already has his favorite item on the menu of Café Leonelli, which is set to open in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s new Kinder Building in early April. It’s the Eggplant Parmesan Focaccia.

“We do a thin layer of Eggplant Parmesan and cheese on top of tomato sauce and focaccia and bake it,” the chef tells PaperCity after pondering the question for only a moment. “And it’s really good.”

Benno, with outstanding culinary creds, is the talent behind the casual, all-day dining spot, which was revealed  in November along with the new MFAH fine dining restaurant Le Jardinier, which is expected to open in May.

Jonathan Benno
Famed New York-based Michelin-starred chef Jonathan Benno of Leonelli Restaurant & Bar and Leonelli Bakery makes one of many visits to Houston to oversee completion of Café Leonelli at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (Photo by Shelby Hodge)


As Café Leonelli’s opening date closes in, Benno is in Houston from his New York base to check on finishing details. For our visit, we met up in the bar of La Table, the Post Oak Boulevard restaurant under same corporate umbrella (Bastion) as the two MFAH eateries.

“It’s absolutely beautiful. There’s this beautiful light installation that is front facing at the counter,”  Benno says of the cafe, showing photos on his cellphone. A light installation by Spencer Finch, “Moon Dust (Apollo 17),” commands the 2,500 square foot space which will seat 100.

Outdoor patio dining will accommodate another 50 guests.

Perhaps unexpected because of the “cafe” moniker, food offerings will be presented buffet style from a service counter throughout the day. During breakfast hours, 8 to 11 am, offerings will include Italian breakfast pastries, oatmeal, egg dishes, yogurt, fruit salad, granola, coffee and juices.

The menu is based on Bastion’s wildly popular Leonelli Bakery in New York, where the company also operates Le Jardinier (with another outpost in Miami) and the Roman-inspired Leonelli Restaurant & Bar.

During remaining hours, 11 am to 5 pm, Benno says, “Similar to New York, we’ll offer two soups, a selection of salads and sandwiches, large format focaccia with various toppings, and Italian dessert pastries.”

The large format focaccias include meatball, pepperoni, margherita, and a gluten free option topped with stracciatella, broccoli rabe and grilled artichoke.

“What’s unique about Café Leonelli is that there will be hot food ready to serve on counter service,” Benno says. “The hot food will be in beautiful stove cast iron pots on induction burners.”

Leonelli Focacceria – focaccias 2, credit Evan Sung

Those dishes, which can be ordered a la carte, include Chicken Cacciatore, meatballs, braised rapini and Swiss chard, polenta from a local mill, roasted mushrooms for a local purveyor, baked salmon and more. Italian desserts finish off the offerings with the addition of chocolate chip cookies, a bold entry with fierce Houston competition coming from Tiny Boxwoods and Common Bond.

The delicious addition of Frohzen, the third entity from Bastion Restaurants to service the MFAH, is also coming. Think ice cream dishes in creative formats. There will be ice cream and sorbets, a play on milkshakes, ice cream sandwiches and ice cream cones. The original Frohzen, located in Miami, is the creation of Bastion executive pastry chef Salvatore Martone.

The operations of all three will be overseen locally by Stephen Conklin, executive chef of Bastion’s La Table.

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