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Simplifying Chic

by John DeMers | Photography by Debora Smail | Houston magazine | June 5, 2014

When the owners of Philippe Restaurant + Bar parted company last fall with the restaurant’s high-profile namesake chef Philippe Schmit, they suddenly had almost as many new options as he did. They could pretend nothing had happened and roll along business-as-usual, or they could close the doors forever, or they could do almost anything in between. Over the months, their plans evolved toward creating a new restaurant in the BLVD Place space with a new sense of style—but with “French Cowboy” Schmit’s right-hand chef still running the kitchen.

A new name seemed a good idea; Table on Post Oak it became. The owners completely revamped the interior, and, in May, they launched Table as a place they hoped would be accessible, comfortable and more affordable than the previous incarnation. “Before, it was clean and cold,” opines new GM Henrryk Cid, fresh from management gigs in Hawaii and New York City, as I try to superimpose all I’m seeing over what I remember from the original. “We’ve kept a couple key features from the old Philippe, but it’s been a complete transformation. Now it’s very warm and very cozy. We’re looking to be a very welcoming restaurant.”

In any way that I consider important, the owners and designer Roberto Cervantes have succeeded. Beginning in the bar on the ground floor, what I recall as white and black with Sun King flourishes of gold has morphed into a host of reds, blues and browns. The echoing open staircase to the dining room (for those who don’t take the elevator) has now been encased in glass, so the rowdiness of any night’s bar scene doesn’t impose upon dining. In the dining room itself, whites have muted into creams, and, to one side, a remarkable wall has appeared, with waves of silver chain mail spread over an antique mirror, a remarkable accent that seems in conversation with the wiggly white fabric flowers left from Philippe on the ceiling.

That’s not all that’s left from the popular and handsome former chef’s reign. Ecuador-born Exec Chef Manuel Pucha cooked beside him years ago in New York before joining him at both Philippe and the previous, now-defunct Bistro Moderne in the Hotel Derek. Pucha’s mission seems to be to express himself when it makes sense, but mostly to keep customers’ tastes front and center. The result is a menu that’s French in technique and stylishness, yet poised and ready for flavorful detours to Latin America, Asia and other corners of Europe.

Even for a work-in-progress, the starters at Table on Post Oak show little reticence; indeed they seem to playfully salute recent expansions in Houston’s restaurant vocabulary. Grilled octopus—quickly grilled after hours of boiling to tenderize—shows up topping a savory puree of cannellini beans with kalamata olives, saffron onions and capers, perfect for transport on crispy lavash. Another unexpected home run is the tuna carpaccio flatbread, an unfamiliar gathering of familiar elements, starting with sushi-grade tuna.

The most memorable appetizer of all is called simply ponzu crab, its path to familiarity cleared by the likes of Uchi and Kata Robata. Sweet, colossal lumps of crabmeat turn up with avocado and shishito pepper in a citrus-kissed Japanese vinaigrette.

All main courses get pulled together on Table’s menu under the words “Knife and Fork,” which doesn’t tell us a whole lot. And maybe it doesn’t need to. There are no fewer than 15 full plates offered and aiming to please. If you doubt the latter, just picture the Prime bacon cheeseburger with parmesan rosemary fries. No restaurant prioritizing its artistic statement (or its chef’s ego) would let diners simply enjoy something that good.

Several pastas also mix lovability with affordability, including the orecchiette with broccolini, zucchini and yellow squash—and the even-better spinach-ricotta ravioli in a traditional Italian sage butter sauce. I like a restaurant that recognizes perfection and doesn’t feel compelled to “deconstruct,” “reconstruct, “reinvent” or almost inevitably screw it up.

Still, Pucha’s kitchen has its flights of fancy. I love the plump, medium-rare duck breast glazed with blackberry ponzu and served with fresh (not canned!) water chestnuts, bok choy and beech mushrooms in a smoked-tea broth. There are sea scallops grilled a la plancha, with Latin corn cake, corn salsa and peppery chile sauce along for the ride.

And then there’s my own favorite entree at Table: lamb lasagna. The name barely scratches the surface of this pop Italian icon, its Bolognese luring us in with normalcy only to surprise us with tiny lamb meatballs that taste Moroccan, and kalamata olives, feta and capers that taste 100 percent Greek. This lasagna might be the most profoundly Mediterranean dish I’ve ever tasted, transporting me instantly to my favorite piece of real estate on Earth.

All people-pleasing stops get pulled when it’s time for dessert—and really, when better? Pastry Chef Jami Kling (another Philippe alum who also worked at Tony’s) gives us a pleasing spin on the faddish cronut—a croignet. That would be a New Orleans-inspired beignet layered with butter like a croissant, offered with a trio of chocolate, coffee and lemon sauces. Even better? The warm Dr Pepper cake. In addition to showcasing a beloved Texas soft drink, this is a chocoholic’s fantasy kicked up with pecans and vanilla ice cream.

“It’s a new challenge, something I’ve always been looking for,” Pucha says of Table. “We want to come up with something everybody’s going to understand and everybody’s going to love. For me, it’s a new beginning.”

Table on Post Oak
1800 Post Oak Blvd., Suite 6110
713.439.1000

Prices
Appetizers $8-$15, entrees
$15-$45, desserts $9

Hours
Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-3pm;
Dinner Mon.-Thu. 5:30-10pm
and Fri.-Sat. 5:30-11pm

Why Go?
It’s a heartfelt and sometimes masterful reworking of one of the city’s most famously chic and chef-driven restaurants—after the chef’s departure—with a worldly but ultimately straightforward and accessible menu.

From the Bar
Thanks to bar manager Hector Vargas, from hot hotelier Liz Lambert’s Hotel Havana in San Antonio, the downstairs bar touts winners like the peachy Amore Frizzante and the creamy Agave Kiss, a cocktail by way of dessert.

Midday Munch
In this busy retail and office district, lunch is no mere afterthought. Versions of most dinner items are available, along with lunch-only hits like the spicy lamb burger with cabbage slaw, and the pulled-pork flatbread.