Lenoir dazzles with a French spin on 'hot-weather cuisine'
Reviewed by Claudia Alarcón, Fri., April 13, 2012
Lenoir1807 S. First, 215-9778
When I heard that Todd Duplechan had left TRIO to open a restaurant with his wife, pastry chef Jessica Maher, I almost jumped out of my skin in anticipation. The couple took over the small spot formerly occupied by Somnio's Cafe and gave it a complete makeover. Designer Chris McCray came up with a simple palette of blue and white with lots of wood accents to achieve a chic, romantic look using mainly repurposed or recycled materials – an approach as friendly to the environment as it was to Duplechan and Maher's budget. He covered the front of the building with a panel made from whitewashed scrap lumber and outfitted the bar with cabinetry from a home kitchen. He lined the windows with white linen curtains decorated with antique crocheted doilies and created a centerpiece chandelier out of a mishmash of lanterns from Habitat for Humanity. The tall wooden tables and chairs add a country kitchen feeling. The result is a stunningly beautiful and comfortable space.
Before the restaurant opened, I asked Duplechan to describe the menu. He called it "seasonal cuisine of the French colonies, or hot-weather cuisine," which means French technique, exotic ingredients, a judicious use of spice and heat, and strong Southeast Asian and Northern African influences. Diners customize a $35 three-course prix fixe menu from dishes in four categories: field, sea, land, and dream (aka dessert), with additional courses for $10. The impressive wine list, selected by TRIO's award-winning sommelier, Mark Sayre, is filled with excellent choices to complement the cuisine; practically any wine will pair well with any dish, and the friendly staff will gladly offer samples to help you make up your mind.
Our visit on opening day featured the winter menu. We enjoyed the green salad with pickled kohlrabi, radishes, and buttermilk dressing, followed by delicate poached fluke swimming in an herbed broth with baby bok choy and a black rice fried cake. Next, perfectly medium-rare medallions of Axis venison atop a fragrant spiced broth filled with house-made rawa (a kind of semolina) noodles, julienned Japanese turnips, and crunchy sunflower sprouts, then a tender pork osso bucco in a red curry sauce with creamy imperial lima beans and thinly sliced scallions. Because I'm familiar with Maher's proficiency in the pastry department, I ordered the brown-butter pecan cake, which was served warm with a dollop of crème fraîche and cranberry compote. Heavenly!
We returned recently to try the new spring menu. Our meal started with a salad of roasted beets with a beet green and radish slaw dressed with Brazos Valley bleu cheese and a braised artichoke bottom with duck-egg-mustard sabayon, crumbled Wateroak feta, and a dainty garnish of mache leaves and Rio grapefruit segments. From the sea, we chose the head-on roasted shrimp, served New Orleans barbecue-style over a bed of grits, and superb poached fish in a light-as-air green curry with shaved asparagus and toasted poha (Indian flattened rice) that added a crunchy touch. Our next choice was as unique as it was delicious: crispy wild boar compressed into cake form, served with roasted spinach and quinoa "à la carbonara." The icing on the cake of this meal was a mini Poteet strawberry pie with the flakiest of crusts, garnished with caramel-coated rice flakes and frozen rice milk. Maher's desserts are some of the best I have enjoyed in recent memory.
There are so many reasons why I'm in love with Lenoir: The chefs' meticulous selection of local ingredients and seasonal produce combined with ingredients previously unknown to me keep the menus fresh and exciting. The dishes are delicate, sometimes even dainty, but the flavors are big, well-balanced, and layered. The wine list features many underrepresented varietals and regions. The knowledgeable, professional, and courteous staff enhances the comfortable atmosphere. Plans are under way to turn the backyard into a Spanish-themed alfresco space serving a raw bar, beer, and wine from a repurposed cargo container. When that is ready, I don't think I'll ever leave.