First Bite: French Restaurant by Respected Chef Opens With Culinary Standouts & Misses
Those who have followed Houston’s food scene for the past decade will know executive chef Philippe Schmit from his eponymous restaurant Philippe Restaurant + Lounge and, before that, from his time at Bistro Moderne at Hotel Derek. A longtime Houstonian at this point, he adopted the moniker “The French Cowboy”, a name he also used for his catering business. After almost a decade away from helming a restaurant kitchen, he’s returned with a new, modern, French bistro, PS21. It’s in Upper Kirby at 2712 Richmond, which was once Queen Vic and Olive & Twist, and opened on March 9th.
Schmit has partnered with Sébastien Laval, a hospitality veteran who has helped launch elegant restaurants such as MAD, Musaafer and Le Colonial, among others. Schmit’s vision with PS21 is to return to his classic French roots and cook the food he enjoys.
I have only fond memories of Philippe Restaurant + Lounge. The menu rang true to both his heritage and adopted hometown. The dishes were bold and creatively combined Texas flavors with French sensibilities; the duck confit tamales was one of those unforgettable dishes. I was very excited and hopeful that PS21 would capture some of that same flair.
The space is a little reminiscent of the aforementioned Philippe. The bar area and dining room is enveloped in handsome dark wood and leather with white-clothed tables. The focal point of the main dining area is a framed and lighted mirror that helps open up the intimate space. There is a patio just to the side of the dining area that has a romantic garden feel, and it should be a popular choice for mild Houston evenings.
After being seated, the first order of business for our server was to explain the name that was prominently displayed at the top of the menu. PS21 combines the first name initials of Phillipe and Sébastien and the year in which the idea of opening another restaurant came to light. After taking our drink orders, another server came by with bread service, which turned out to be a woeful slice of white bread that was too hard to eat and butter that was too cold to spread. We set it aside, hoping that was not a sign of the meal to come.
The menu begins with a selection of “L’Apéro”, an assortment of snacks meant to be shared. We ordered the Tarte Flambée, a classic Alsatian flatbread topped with crème fraîche, caramelized onions and lardons. It was one of our favorite dishes of the evening. The only thing that would have made it better would have been more caramelized onions and crème fraîche to cut through the very generous amount of crispy lardons.
Moving on to the “After L’ Apero”, a menu of starters, we ordered three dishes to share: Steak Tartare Rossini, hand-cut beef with seared foie gras, truffle vinaigrette and served with toasted bread; Lobster Bisque Two Ways, one topped with flaky puff pastry and the other with a fish quenelle and the playfully named Childhood Chicken Wings, deboned chicken wings confit in garlic butter on a marrow bone. The tartare was everything you want. The expertly chopped beef left the meat in small, tender cubes that gave it the perfect texture, and the liberal amount of capers strewn throughout added acidity and brininess. The decadent addition of seared foie gras put it over the top with buttery richness.
While the tartare was a hit, the bisque was not nearly as successful. It was too thin, and lacked the velvety richness that’s a hallmark of the creamy soup. The puff pastry on top added very little, as it was mostly flavorless. The quenelles of white fish served in the second presentation of the bisque was also bland and had a gritty finish to it. Instead of the fish, the sweetness of a small portion of lobster meat would have been much more welcome.
The chicken and bone marrow sounded intriguing, as it is a combination you don’t normally see. The chicken itself was tender and juicy, but the skin of the chicken was slightly rubbery. The marrow bone felt lost and out of place, and when spread on the toast points that came with it was rather flavorless.
For the main entrée, we decided to share the Duck Breast Wellington, duck wrapped in puff pastry with foie gras and cognac sauce, and served with a side of braised mushrooms and fingerling potatoes. I wanted to love this dish, but unfortunately, everything about it left me disappointed. It was rather difficult to cut through the puff pastry. It was dense, not flaky, and — again — mostly flavorless. The small portion of duck inside was overcooked to the point where it was almost gray. The cognac sauce was the best part, but did little to save the rest. To top it off, the underwhelming braised mushrooms and potatoes came to the table cold.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with dessert after the disappointing dishes we’d had, but the Grand Marnier Souffle was perfect. Our server presented the souffle, spooning out the middle to pour in the Grand Marnier crème anglaise (custard sauce). It was light, airy and melted in your mouth with creamy, rich, eggy sweetness. I didn’t understand the purposeless “clementine salad” on the side, which was slices of clementines in simple syrup.
The drinks are a highlight at PS21. Bar specialist Souvik Dasgupta’s seasonally driven cocktail program offers signature cocktails as well as creative takes on classics. The Saigon cocktail made with tequila, mezcal, Cocchi Americano (a quinine-flavored aperitif wine), verjus (grape juice) and midori was a balance of smoky and sweet. The Paris cocktail is a take on the classic French 75 with the addition of a French cordial from Normandy. The drink is served with a housemade mini-macaron. The wine list is made up of 50 bottles from different regions of France, and prices range between $49 and $250.
By the end of the evening, I felt terrible that I didn’t enjoy the food more. The space was lovely, and the service was impeccable, an area where most new restaurants have trouble. Our server was attentive, knowledgeable and quick to find the answers if he did not know. The pacing of each course was appropriate, and the front of house staff stopped by each table to check in with diners.
My visit was not what I had hoped for, but not every new restaurant rolls smoothly out the gate. The dishes that did work well showed the level of cooking for which Schmit has come to be known, and PS21 is worthy of another visit to see if things do improve.
Currently, PS21 is open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m, and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. Brunch, lunch and an early afternoon Apéro Hour are upcoming.
Minh Truong is an avid lover of the Houston food scene and has written about it since 2011, starting as a freelance contributor for the Houston Press. She never stopped exploring all that Houston has to offer, and after a seven-year hiatus returned to writing about it, this time with Houston Food Finder.