Le Jardinier Brings Elegance & Excellence to Brunch in the Museum District

Ora King Salmon with broccoli florets and quinoa at Le Jardinier in Houston

Thanks to excellent service, artful dishes and a locale at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) with a view of Aristide Maillol’s remarkable “La Rivière” bronze statue, dining at Le Jardinier always feels like a special occasion. In fairness, the prices are somewhat in the “special occasion” realm, too, but it’s a worthwhile experience. Le Jardinier is specifically located in the Nancy And Rich Kinder Building at 5500 Main. 

For those who don’t want to go all-out on dinner, there’s a recently added option: brunch. Offered on both Saturdays and Sundays, it runs from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. We were invited to visit and try some of the new dishes. 

The day of my visit coincided with that of a special guest chef: Alain Verzeroli, a protégé of the late, famed, French chef Jöel Robuchon and the culinary director of all of Le Jardinier’s locations. During his 18 years at Le Château de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo, the restaurant received the Michelin Guide’s highest award of three stars. I’d hoped to meet Verzeroli during my brunch visit, but never caught a glimpse of him. 

Wagyu Beef Bavette with a fried, soft-boiled egg at Le Jardinier in Houston
Wagyu Bavette with a fried, soft-boiled egg at Le Jardinier in Houston. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

He’d created a special, four-course brunch for the day. I’d hoped that my companion could order that while I ordered a few items from the regular menu. I have a rule when I visit restaurants to only order dishes that my readers can also order after my article is published. Unfortunately, the restaurant required that the entire table would have to participate in the brunch tasting, so we both ordered from the regular menu. That said, variations of two dishes from the special menu, the Slightly Smoked Ora King Salmon with croustillant (crisp) potato and wasabi cream, and the Wagyu Beef Bavette with celeriac macaroni “gratinated” and fried organic egg, appeared on the regular menu anyway. So, in a sense, we still had a taste of what Verzeroli intended to offer. 

The regular version of the New Zealand-raised Ora King Salmon dish comes with broccoli florets and is presented atop a citrusy quinoa salad — and let me tell you, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything, despite not getting Verzoli’s more “cheffy” version. My companion and I agreed it was one of the best salmon dishes we’d ever had. The filet was presented skinless, and part of the dish’s magic was the utterly perfect sear that penetrated deep into the surface. It presented compelling textural contrast from the silky, rich interior. This dish alone is worth the trip and the $38 cost. 

The Wagyu bavette, a flank cut full of beefy flavor, drew similar praise. The regular version of the brunch dish is struttingly decadent. Like the salmon, it sports a perfect sear and is adorned in a generous amount of béarnaise. The sides have changed since our visit. The steak now comes with Dauphine potatoes and Brussels sprouts, which I’m sure will be just as pleasing as what we experienced. The cost is $62.

Pork Belly Benedict at Le Jardinier in Houston
Pork Belly Benedict at Le Jardinier in Houston. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

The one that was a disappointment was the $24 Pork Belly Benedict. It was a case of too many clashing flavors brought together in one dish. The roasted acorn and butternut squashes and ample application of barbecue hollandaise brought an unwelcome sweetness that was nearly cloying. Substituting a round of brioche for a traditional English muffin wasn’t successful, either. Brioche lacks the heft needed to complement, support and contrast with the toppings. If the Pork Belly Benedict remains on the menu, I suspect that when spring rolls around, this dish will come with new accompaniments, and I’d happily give it another try. 

Culinary Canvas: A Play on Light is a beet and green apple salad at Le Jardinier in Houston
Culinary Canvas: A Play on Light is a beet and green apple salad at Le Jardinier in Houston. Photo by Phaedra Cook.

Among the food we tried, a last nod is in order for a starter with a very fancy name: Culinary Canvas: A Play on Light. It’s a salad of impeccably diced beets and apples plated with dabs and swashes of sauce; an excellent visual play on beef tartar. The earthy beets play well with the tart green apple, and the overall plating is an homage to Le Jardinier’s beautiful MFAH setting. (In French, Le Jardinier means “The Gardener”, so there’s good reason for the excellent execution of vegetarian dishes.) 

When it came to choosing a drink, it was hard to eschew the excellent French wine list — which is full of delights such as Sancerre, Syrah and rosé Champagne — in favor of cocktails, but we were curious about what the bartenders were concocting. We tried Gift of the Goddess, made of cognac, orange liqueur, lemon juice and crème de cassis. The texture was lightened a bit with sparkling wine and the surface was garnished with gold flakes. It’s a properly decadent drink for a decadent brunch, but I did feel a little more sparkling wine would help the fruity additions pop a little more. At $20, the price of the drink is a little rich, but that’s what you get when you want gold in your drink. (The least-expensive cocktail is the $17 Cromosat & Tonic with pink peppercorn, butterfly pea flower and citrus.) I’m also always quite entertained with the “Amuse Juice” that starts the meal, this time a concoction of beet, grapefruit, pear and ginger. 

There are certain restaurants in Houston that you can’t wait to show others, and Le Jardinier ranks among them. Service is always impeccable, and what goes on in the kitchen matches the vibrant surroundings. No matter what day or mealtime you decide to visit, you’ll likely walk out feeling like you really did just have a special occasion. Reservations are available Monday from 5 to 9 pm., Tuesday from 5 to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. 

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