The dish that’s most special to Michelin-starred chef Matt Baker at Michele’s, the smart new upscale restaurant he debuted at the Eaton Hotel this week, isn’t even on the menu.
Michele’s gets its name from Baker’s late mother, a New Orleans native who raised him in Houston. When patrons sit down to dine, each receives a small canapé of warm artichoke velouté dusted with black truffle powder. This small gift, or lagniappe (as it’s called in Louisiana), is a homage to Baker’s mother.
“My mom’s favorite food at Super Bowl time was an artichoke soup. This was the last dish I ever cooked for her. It will be our standing canapé at the restaurant forever,” he said.
Much of the menu at Michele’s pulls from Baker’s time spent growing up in Houston and visiting his mother’s family in New Orleans. He appreciates that it’s not clear what this might mean for diners who only associate the cities with Tex-Mex, barbecue, or Creole food.
Baker points out that both cities are culturally diverse. Louisiana’s food evolved from the influence of many different groups, including French, African, German, Italian, Choctaw Indian, and others, each taking a turn stirring and adding something new to the culinary melting pot. More recent additions to the Crescent City’s culinary cannon include influences from Vietnamese and Honduran immigrants. Meanwhile, Houston is ranked as the most culturally diverse city in the United States.
Neither of Baker’s parents were exceptional cooks. They were good cooks, but not great, as he puts it. They loved food and restaurants, though, and his family ate out 5-6 times a week. With so many culturally diverse restaurants, he got a crash course in the flavors of many different cuisines at a young age.
Baker opened his light-filled fine dining restaurant Gravitas in Ivy City in 2018, bringing with it the area’s first tasting menus. He went on to earn a Michelin star for the Chesapeake-centric menu laden with flawless French technique and a refreshing dose of inspiration from the chef’s Houston upbringing and his time working in Singapore and traveling throughout Asia.
“I don’t feel like I’m cut from the normal cloth of a traditional fine dining Michelin chef,” Baker says. “My time in Houston experiencing a variety of different styles of restaurants and cultures and diversity has impacted my career and how I shape the restaurants.”
Baker says that the idea for Michele’s was already percolating when he was developing Gravitas, which endured two years of construction delays before opening.
The hamachi crudo at Michele’s takes its cues from tacos al pastor, easily found in Houston. The hamachi is encrusted with Tajín, a chile and lime seasoning, before being tossed in a guajillo pepper vinaigrette. Compressed pineapple, avocado mousse, dehydrated corn nuts, onion mojo, and fresh cilantro join the plate.
Nuoc cham, greens, steamed rice, and crispy garlic accompany the fried whole fish, recalling the abundant Vietnamese contributions to Gulf Coast dining. Both Houston and New Orleans have large Vietnamese populations.
New Orleans comes into play in several other dishes, including the barbecue carrots, a vegetable-centered variation of the buttery, New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp flavored with Worcestershire, spices, and lemon. The original dish grew out of an Italian restaurant in New Orleans over 100 years ago.
Louisiana crawfish, rather than the cheaper, less flavorful, and easier-to-find Chinese mudbugs, stud the silky, crawfish linguine dressed in crabe nage, lobster butter, brandy, and tarragon.
The attention to sourcing details, even those that most might not think to ask about, finds its way to all aspects of dining at Michele, including the expansive, 10-seat, marble-topped raw bar that delivers regal seafood towers, classic caviar service, and locally sourced oysters. An 18-20 course omakase menu served at the raw bar will launch soon after opening.
French cuisine anchors Baker’s formal culinary training and he considers it the backbone of his kitchen. It’s apparent in the pork crepinette. Ground pork meatloaf is emulsified with pork fat and warming spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, as well as sage. Baker wraps, sears, and glazes it in pig trotter jus before adding some rosemary. It’s a hearty dish that he thinks would be right at home in France.
Baker wishes he didn’t have to put a label on what kind of food he’s making. “At the end of the day, I would love to be able to say this is an upscale restaurant by Chef Matt Baker that has really fucking good food and that’s it.”
Pastry chef Aisha Momaney, who works with Baker at cafe and market Baker’s Daughter, brings sour cream cheesecake, chocolate mousse, and a bananas Foster ice cream sundae to the menu. Chef de cuisine Andrew Cleverdon joins the team after a stint at the late Siren as well as time spent leading the kitchen at Bourbon Steak.
The 3,000 square-foot, 124-seat restaurant includes cobalt blue and neon pink in the decorating scheme, as well as new artwork from local artists Naomi Whitestone and Emon Surakitkoson. A double-sided glass wine display separates the dining room from the bar.
An additional 32-seat, partially enclosed “streetery” with heating and cooling for all-weather outdoor dining will debut later this year. Michele’s is open Wednesday through Sunday for dinner service, with brunch to follow later this winter.
Michele’s takes the place of American Son at the Eaton. Tim Ma, another of D.C.’s most notable chefs, opened that restaurant shortly after the hotel’s debut in the fall of 2018.