In our new feature Deep Dish, foodie-about-town Holly Beretto takes you behind the kitchen doors to share the personal stores about the dishes that shaped the lives and menus of some of Houston’s most prolific and popular chefs.
“It really starts with the pioneers,” says Bistro Menil Chef Greg Martin. “But for me, it’s also about the time [my partner] Paul ate a financier [cake] and palmier that had been squashed together in his backpack one time we were in Paris.”
Let that progression of thoughts marinate a minute. If it sounds like the beginning of an odd an involved story, that’s just par for the course with Martin; every dish on Bistro Menil’s menu has a story behind it. Food is a story for him, not only the telling of it, but actively sharing it.
Now, about the financier and palmier, two styles of pastry, he and Paul picked up at patisseries along their rented flat’s street in Paris’s seventh arrondisment. The financier cake is a small baked good, similar to a sponge cake; the palmier is made of puff pastry, usually dusted with sugar, multilayered and shaped into palm leaves – Americans sometimes know it as the elephant ear. Somewhere in a day of wandering, the two became melded together in Paul’s bag. He didn’t seem to care.
“I saw him in our kitchen, eating these two things and I said, ‘you know that’s a palmier and a financier squished together, right?’” He laughs. “He just looked at me, like, who cares.”
But it got Martin thinking – what might he do to recreate that kind of texture and taste? The answer loomed surprisingly close to home.
Ingredients Hiding in Plain Sight
There was a cake his grandmother made that he remembered from his boyhood. It was done with buttermilk and blackberries, simple really, he reasoned.
“This style of cake dates back to the middle of the 19th century,” he explains. “People were moving west in wagon trains. They didn’t have a lot of ways to preserve things on the trail, so most of their provisions were dry goods. They had buttermilk, they had flour, they had eggs. And whatever it was they were making, it needed to be cooked in a cast-iron Dutch oven over a fire. This cake ticks those boxes.”
Martin says his grandmother was of modest means, but she always had these ingredients on hand. She’d pick blackberries from the bush that grew wild in her backyard, combining them in to this cake when the berries were in season.
A Nostalgic Treat
That’s the recipe he’s now bringing to the table at Bistro Menil, where it’s been on the menu since day one. It’s also one of the restaurant’s most popular desserts – and Martin attributes that to the same kind of nostalgia he feels about it.
“For those who are over a certain age, this reminds them of their childhoods,” he says. “They had mothers or grandmothers who were at home, in the kitchen. Everybody cooked at home, everyone knew how to bake. And these are simple ingredients, things people had on hand.” Younger guests, he says, enjoy it for what it is.
But his goal at Bistro Menil has always been to let the ingredients speak for themselves.