2011 Fine Dining Hall of Fame

Brennan's of Houston
Southern hospitality meets haute cuisine at Texas-Creole restaurant

By Ron Ruggless

Brennan's of Houston, which was devastated in September 2008 by Hurricane Ike, has returned as a stately doyenne of Houston's fine-dining scene.

Recovering from a 17-month closure from fire and rain damage, the Texas-Creole cuisine restaurant reopened Feb. 16, 2010--which, fittingly, was Mardi Gras -- and was greeted with open arms by Houston diners.

"The outpouring of warmth and affection really caught us off guard," said owner Alex Brennan-Martin.

The historic two-story building that houses Brennan's of Houston was constructed in 1926. It resembled the home of New Orleans, and the Brennan family saw the 21,000-squarefoot building as the perfect spot to expand. They opened Brennan's of Houston there in 1967.

"When the restaurant first opened, it was a direct copy of Brennan's in New Orleans. It was successful for a number of years," Brennan-Martin said. "By the time I got here in the mid-'80s, a lot of other restaurant had begun to open."

So Brennan's of Houston began using local ingredients in current and forward-thinking food, but also kept the New Orleans classics, Brennan-Martin said.

Teresa Byrne-Dodge, founder of Houston's My Table magazine, said: "Brennan's has always been a local leader in the dining scene. The kitchen, for example, was among the first in the city to make a point of seeking out area fishermen and supporting the Gulf fishing industry, even as the product was more expensive and, sometimes, less consistently available than what could be counted on from the giant distributors. That's [all] the rage today, of course; back then it was groundbreaking."

Brennan-Martin said Houston, which carries the nickname Bayou City, is "where the southern Louisiana culture meets the Hispanic culture. It's an interesting melting pot."

While turtle soup, crab cakes and bananas foster are among the signature dishes, Brennan's of Houston does good Texas trade in roasted beef tenderloin, as well. But Brennan-Martin said the restaurant frequently puts twists on dishes, like his current favorite dessert: Creole cream-cheese ice cream with homemade cookies.

And the restaurant works to appeal to a wide variety of customers, he said.

"We will have as many pickup trucks in our parking lot on a Friday night as we will have Bentleys," he said. "Houston is a blue-collar town. We pump things out of the ground. We ship things out of our port. We refine and manufacture things. We get up early and go to bed early. As far as fine dining restaurants go, we're not stuffy. Southern hospitality is our hallmark. It's something we live and breathe."

Chef Danny Trace added that "Brennan's of Houston is definitely a locals' restaurant. People here will let you know what they want."

Brennan-Martin says the restaurant is at "the crossroads of tradition and the future."

"With the [post-hurricane] remodel, we were able to express that very well. I wanted people to feel like they were coming back to an old family home, but one that had been 'gussied up' some," he said, adding that he doesn't get to use that phrase "gussied up" very often.

Byrne-Dodge added that "Brennan's has become 'family' to thousands of Houstonians. People celebrate anniversaries, births, promotions there. I think Brennan's sets a standard for hospitality that goes beyond professionalism; there's real warmth there.

"Brennan's also supports hundreds of local nonprofits and givebacks in the Houston community with their contributions and participation," she added. "And, of course, there's the complimentary pralines that guests are urged to tuck into their pocket up leaving the restaurant."

Brennan-Martin summed it up by saying: "It boils down to memories. Our goal is to create great memories for our guests. We call it the simple truth of our business."

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