The Menil Collection will open its namesake restaurant, Bistro Menil, just north of Richmond Avenue by the end of this month. The bistro aims to be Houston’s first large-scale cask wine bar and will also serve craft beer, along with a range of familiar European and American dishes. Greg Martin, former chef of Café Annie and Taco Milagro, will lead the kitchen, while Sean Essex, who previously worked with Jackson and Company Catering and City Kitchen Catering, will head the craft beer and cask wine programs.
The beer program will focus on local Texan microbrews, while the wine list will center on classic European and Western American regions, which will showcase the strengths of the cask storage method.
“We had to pick something at some point,” Martin said. “Sean’s developed a really elegant wine list, focusing on Italy, France, Spain, a little Germany, California, Washington and Oregon.”
Cask wine, also referred to as “wine on tap,” is simply wine stored in metal kegs. Although, in the past, cask wine has been likened to keg beer and box wine as a low quality and unfashionable beverage, interest has surged recently due to its low environmental impact.
“The movement in Western Europe and the United States for the last 20 years has been to make all wineries biodynamically sustainable, and in California, Washington and Oregon there’s been a real boom focusing on how we can make the greenest product possible, and the greenest way to get the product to the guest is in casks,” Martin said.
The casks are made of steel similar to the tanks that many wines are conditioned in and hold 26 bottles worth of wine for up to 60 days, inserting nitrogen into the cask as wine is removed to preserve the remaining wine’s freshness. Because the steel casks maximize crisp characteristics in wine, the wines will be mineral, fruit-driven and receive no oak aging.
The bistro will feature a daily happy hour named “This is not a happy hour,” a nod to the famous René Magritte painting, The Treachery of Images, formerly housed in the gallery. Martin explained that, since high-profile museums like the Prado, Centre Pompidou and Museum of Modern Art began adding restaurants to their campuses, museum bistros have become a worldwide trend benefiting both restaurateurs and museum directors.
“We have a unique location in a park-like setting, and there’s not a whole lot being offered [in that area] right now,” Martin said.
To fill that void, Bistro Menil plans to offer entrees ranging in price to accommodate multiple types of dining experiences.
“We want something that’s really approachable for the casual diner, so on our lunch menu we wanted to have sandwiches, flatbreads and salads — very approachable, more economic fare,” Martin said. “At dinner, we expect people will have more of an entree driven experience, you can come in with that someone special and split a half bottle of the house rose with a Caesar salad and a pizza and be out for under $40, or you can come in for a special occasion and have a much bigger experience.”
As opening day approaches, Martin said he remains confident that the restaurant and its cask wine system will become important fixtures in the Houston restaurant scene.
“I think Houstonians are suffering from something I call $12-a-glass Chardonnay fatigue, and I think they want a break from it,” Martin said. “They want to be able to go some place and get a good six, seven or eight dollar glass of wine, and this is the way to do it.”