New MFAH restaurants boast chefs with Michelin stars galore

The culinary offerings within the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is taking shape with Michelin-star talent poised to make the museum’s two new venues dining standouts.

Bastion Restaurants, the group formerly known as Invest Hospitality that owns and manages Houston’s La Table restaurant, recently announced that the casual Café Leonelli will open in March followed by the fine dining Le Jardinier in April, both in the new Kinder Building that opened in November.

Chef Jonathan Benno, an alum of Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and Per Se as well as Daniel Boulud’s Daniel, will oversee Café Leonelli, offering buffet-style service of Italian dishes. The chef’s Benno, the eponymous restaurant he opened in 2018 in New York’s Evelyn Hotel (which also houses Leonelli Bakery and Leonelli Restaurant & Bar) earned a Michelin Star in 2019. Benno’s work as executive chef of Lincoln Ristorante also earned the Lincoln Center restaurant a Michelin Star.

Le Jardinier, adjacent to Café Leonelli, will be the museum’s fine-dining venue under the direction of chef Alain Verzeroli, whose resume includes some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants. Verzeroli has worked at three Michelin star restaurants Guy Savoy and Taillevent in Paris followed by a two decade-long association with superchef Joel Robuchon. He currently serves as culinary director for L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon restaurants as well as Shun restaurant and the one star Michelin Le Jardinier in New York (the latter two temporarily closed during the pandemic).

Houston’s Le Jardiner is described as a restaurant sourcing the highest-quality organic vegetables, seasonal ingredients, poultry, meat, and sustainable seafood treated to French culinary technique.

Café Leonelli, meanwhile, will offer high-quality quick-service Italian fare such as assorted focaccia, focaccia sandwiches, soups, salads, and mains such as lasagna, eggplant parmesan, braised short ribs, chicken cacciatore, meatballs, and salmon with capers and lemon. The café also will serve Italian pastries created by Bastion’s executive pastry chef Salvatore Martone, whose ice cream shop, Frohzen, will be located inside Café Leonelli.

Martone, who comes to project with his own shelf of culinary honors, will serve as pastry chef for both museum dining venues. He has served as pastry chef at multiple Michelin star restaurants including L’Atelier Joel Robuchon restaurants and Joel Robuchon Restaurant.

The restaurant and café within the Steven Holl Architects-designed Kinder Building, feature interiors and finishes designed by Steven Harris and Lucien Rees-Roberts of Steven Harris Architects in New York. The restaurant features a wall-size tapestry by Trenton Doyle-Hancock commissioned for the space, and overhead lighting comprised of an array of lanterns originally designed by Isamu Noguchi whose sculpture garden will provide al fresco dining for the restaurant. Spencer Finch’s light fixture installation will be featured in the café.

While Benno will direct operations for Café Leonelli, the operations will be overseen on a daily basis by Stephen Conklin, executive chef of Bastion’s Le Table in the Galleria neighborhood.

Greg Morago writes about food for the Houston Chronicle. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Send him news tips at [email protected]. Hear him on our BBQ State of Mind podcast to learn about Houston and Texas barbecue culture.

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