The new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston at 5500 main street, which shows a large collection of international modern and contemporary art, will soon also have two new restaurants. This spring, New York-based Bastion Restaurants (formerly Invest Hospitality), which includes La Table in Houston’s Galleria neighborhood, is bringing Michelin-starred chefs Alain Verzeroli and Jonathan Benno to the bayou town. Verzeroli opens the product-focused fine dining restaurant The gardenerwhile Benno starts Leonelli coffee, an Italian comfort restaurant.
Chef Jonathan Benno from Café Leonelli. Photo by Evan Sung.
With a planned opening in mid-March, Café Leonelli will serve guests at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston throughout the day. “The Café Leonelli in the museum is modeled on the Leonelli Bakery in New York. First of all, we’re open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, with the exception of Thursday, when the museum is open until 8 p.m., ”said Benno (who also runs the Leonelli bakery).
He added that the menu will change with the time of day, “F.we offer from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. coffee, Breakfast pastries and some hearty dishes, and then we serve from 11 a.m. until the end Salads, Soups, Focaccias and Sandwiches. ” Some examples of these afternoon dishes are Eggplant with parmesan, lasagne and Focaccia. Of the three, Benno thinks the focaccia could be the star on the menu. “I’m really proud of it and I eat it too often,” he said. Café Leonelli serves four to five versions with different toppings. There will also be a gluten-free option that will be baked in a separate oven.
Compared to Le Jardinier, Café Leonelli will be the more relaxed of the two. The restaurant will be furnished in a cafeteria style, similar to Luby’s or Cleburne’s. However, the environment will not simply be a simple eatery. To decorate the ceiling is Spencer Finchs Installation Moon Dust (Apollo 17), which consists of 150 hanging lights that represent the chemical composition of the moon dust collected by the Apollo 17 astronauts.
Examples of focaccias served at Café Leonelli. Photo by Emily Chan.
To satisfy those with a sweet tooth, Café Leonelli also serves a wide range of desserts. Benno says it will be “Italian cookies and pastries, and our pastry chef, Salvatore Martone, has a concept in Miami called Frohzen, which offers ice cream and ice cream desserts. We’ll have the same here. An example is a Macaron Ice Cream Sandwich he does that, which is really sensational. “
The cafe will have many standard beverage options and the Benno also intends to serve local coffee from a Houston roastery along with a bespoke blend from Philadelphia’s La Colombe roaster. There will also be alcoholic beverages. “WWe will offer canned and bottled beers, half bottles of wine and also bottled cocktails that we make ourselves, ”said Benno.
Pastry chef Salvatore Martone creates Italian biscuits and pastries for both Café Leonelli and Le Jardinier. Photo by Emily Chan.
Depending on the COVID-19 situation, Café Leonelli has up to 100 seats inside as well as additional seats in the sculpture garden. And in the future Benno says: “We hope that after the opening and establishment of the brand we can also grow into a take-away and delivery service from the café, which will be our ‘2.0’. “
“Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two” by the artist Trenton Doyle-Hancock is the heart of Le Jardin. Photo by Thomas Dubrock, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Head gardener Alain Verzeroli. Photo by Nicole Franzen.
With a seasonally oriented menu and focus on fresh produce and herbs, Le Jardinier will be the more upscale of the two restaurants under the direction of Michelin-starred chef Alain Verzeroli. However, it is not exclusively suitable for vegans or vegetarians. Various protein options are also on the menu, including “sustainable seafood, poultry and flesh sourced from local partners. ”Confectioner Martine developed gluten-free baked goods and confectionery also for the gardener.
Guests can enjoy their meals al fresco as Le Jardinier shares access to the sculpture garden with Café Leonelli or in the dining room. Inside, the centerpiece is a huge tapestry of an abstract forest by the artist Trenton Doyle-Hancockwho was born in Oklahoma but raised in Paris, Texas. The work of art refers to his hometown, because the title is “Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two”. Further design features are Akari lanterns based on the designs of Isamu Noguchiwho died in 1988 and also laid out the adjacent sculpture garden.
A Q&A with Chef Jonathan Benno
Benno has been working in restaurant kitchens with sizes like Michael Mina at the Aqua, Daniel Boulud at the Daniel, Tom Colicchio at the Gramercy tavern and Thomas Keller In the The French laundry. After all, he was the head chef at Keller for six years Per se, which received three Michelin stars under his leadership. It would open wider Lincoln Ristorante in New York’s Lincoln Center, where he received another Michelin star.
With these new restaurants in development, Benno and his fellow chefs have spent a lot of time in Houston. Houston Food Finder recently had the chance to sit down with Benno to learn more about the projects and what he thinks of Houston, especially after his career in well-known restaurants on the east and west coasts.
Houston Food Finder (HFF): What’s your experience of setting up a store in Houston?
Benno: It’s a pleasure to work with the people down here. The people are pleasant, there is no bullshit [and] people do what they say they will do there is no attitude. I am impressed by the city and the people down here.
HFF: Are you experiencing difficulties adjusting to service in Houston?
Benno: The quality of the restaurants here and the quality of the ingredients – I don’t see any difference. Polenta is grits and everyone loves a good meatball, braised ribs or chicken cacciatore.
HFF: Is the establishment of Café Leonelli in Houston part of a long-term plan or a one-off opportunity?
Benno: It was a bit of both. Our financial partner Crest Investments is based here in Houston and is very active with the museum. We worked on it for six or nine months. The opportunity to do this unfortunately comes from the fact that New York restaurants are currently closed and will be a long time coming back. I’m really grateful to come here and work with Steven and at La Table and create a variation on a concept that we do in New York. Café Leonelli will be unique in the museum. There is no one else like him.
HFF: Check out your Instagram. It looks like your food is very approachable.
Benno: That is certainly our goal. In New York, our location is in a 155-room hotel. We see guests from all over the world, so quality, accessibility and fast service are our priorities
HFF: Houston has many Italian and pizza restaurants, but none that really specialize in focaccia.
Benno: This comes from a New Yorker: They have a lot of great pizzas down here [in Houston]. I’ve been to many places. We’re going to Coltivare tonight. They all do a great job for pizza but I think you’re right. Even in New York, I don’t see many places that offer the large format, crispy focaccia with premium toppings.
HFF: With a background in French cuisine, what made you transition to Italian cuisine?
Benno: My grandmother was Italian. While my career path was more in fine dining and French, my wife worked for many years with Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali in their restaurants in New York, so that I could really get infected by her. I was fortunate enough to really get to travel around Italy and ten years ago I opened a restaurant called Lincoln in Lincoln Center. So, I’ve been eating Italian food for a while.
HFF: How do you rate the museum’s business potential?
Benno: We’re the only food service on campus, and since it’s a casual site, Café Leonelli and Frohzen will be very busy.
HFF: So you’re saying that Leonelli is creating a new level of comfort for museum guests?
Benno: There is a captive audience and unfortunately I speak for New York. As far as catering to museums is concerned, it is more functional and there is still a lot to be done. The gourmet restaurant [La Jardinier] is open to museum guests, but perceived as a destination for excursions. There will be some lunches from the museum but with its price and personality the goal is to make it a destination
HFF: Will the restaurant be delimited in terms of location or be part of a gallery?
Benno: It’s a gallery. It looks like the Guggenheim in New York. It is absolutely beautiful. As part of this next phase of development, they connected each of the buildings with these beautiful tunnels and lighting systems. So you can switch from gallery to gallery without having to go outside. The gallery where our two restaurants are located is absolutely breathtaking. You are about to populate it with art. There is even a light installation – a work of art on the ceiling of our café. You can look inside a little now and see it. And then the Le Jardinier room is beautiful, with two to three large installations in this room too. It’s breathtaking – just a special place!
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