Brennan's is back from the ashes
By Alison Cook | June 9, 2010
The recently reopened Brennan's of Houston conjures up the 19th-century dining traditions of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, including this duck breast served with confit-enriched dirty rice and a bold hunk of duck-and-sage sausage.
So fresh and pretty is the main dining room at the reopened Brennan's of Houston that it takes awhile to notice the bricks. First your eye gravitates to the butter-yellow wing chairs, welcoming cocoons the size of a Mini Cooper.
Then it travels to the crisp white napery, the modern glass chandeliers, the rich wood trim painted a glossy shade of palest cafe au lait.
The brickwork makes a rich mosaic at the edges of the French-windowed room, and in the airy, open-to-view hallways: sienna and umber and whitewashed buff, rescued from the original walls and scrubbed individually with wire brushes. But here and there a patch of charcoal gray stands out. The effect is subtle, beautiful in its imperfection, and then the significance dawns: These bricks were burned in the devastating fire that gutted the restaurant the night of Hurricane Ike nearly two years ago, severely injuring sommelier James Koonce and his young daughter.
They're beautiful, those reborn bricks, a poignant reminder of what was and what still can be. So is the whole rebuilt structure. I felt strangely reluctant to go look at the redo when Brennan's opened this spring in time for Mardi Gras. I wondered if I'd ever feel the same about the historic John Staub building in which I had experienced so many happy times.
I needn't have fretted. Alex Brennan-Martin, the scion of the Commander's Palace branch of New Orleans' Brennan family, has superintended a spectacular rebuild that makes Brennan's the grandest restaurant in the city.
Sure, you can get by with a guayabera or Gap here, but now more than ever, Brennan's inspires the diner to dress up a bit; to address the veteran waiters with politest respect; to break into an eloquent toast rather than just clinking glasses. Clasped in the leathery embrace of those astonishing wing chairs, it is easy to feel connected with New Orleans and Gulf Coast dining traditions that go back to the 19th century.
Speaking of which, there's the old familiar turtle soup, made with simmered-forever veal stock these days and finished with a ceremonial pour of sherry. It tastes more vibrant than ever. So does a more modern, more Texas-style notion: a deft pureed soup of deeply smoked local tomatoes, with sweet small curls of crawfish bobbing near the surface.
Texas wild shrimp remoulade, another old-time Brennan's favorite, has undergone a makeover that actually improves it: the pearliest, sweetest shrimp materialized with a remoulade galvanized by preserved lemon and a raft of pickly “shrimp boil vegetables.” Clever and classic both.
If there is a dish that expresses the current direction of the kitchen under chef Danny Trace — a Thibodeaux, La., native who comes to the post via the Brennans' Commander's and Cafe Adelaide in New Orleans— it might be the duck debris pancake, a lunch special I tried recently. Towering over its downy sweet-potato pancake base, this extravaganza entailed a lush heap of soft-and-crisp duck shreds and no fewer than three sauces: a minted Bourbon Hollandaise; a reduction of stock and pan juices; and a blue-cheese butter. No lie. Would you be surprised if I told you there was a poached egg on top, and that the poached egg was coated in bread crumbs and deep fried? And that the effect of all this excess was astonishingly good?
Well, it was. At their best, the rococo creations of this less-is-a-bore kitchen can dizzy and delight. Rosy duck breast came athwart a heap of confit-enriched dirty rice and a bold hunk of duck-and-sage sausage. Crunchy fried duck-skin cracklings, tart-sweet slivers of Texas peach and a simple Bourbon reduction touched with orange turned the dish into a Cajun-country duck a l'orange that the folks in Thibodeaux could appreciate.
But there's a tendency toward busy-ness and over-ornamentation at work in this reconstituted kitchen, too. A dinner entrée of pecan-crusted mahi mahi Meuniere, a takeoff on a longtime Brennan's standby, seemed to have no resting points among its welter of spiced pecans, spicy crush-corn maque choux, green beans and Creole Meuniere sauce, which had a sweet note that seemed to have come from the house-made Worcestershire sauce that chef Trace, admirably, is aging in his own barrels. I longed for a clean, simple spark of lemon or acidity somewhere on the plate.
I confess that I found it exhausting merely to read the description of “Morel Crusted Black Grouper & Tasso Shrimp with black eye, creamer and purple hull peas with fresh morels, melted leeks and fire roasted Gulf shrimp.” I wanted those peas, but a morel crust? Nuh-uh.
And that Brennan's classic of the last decade, the pioneering house-made charcuterie platter, displayed the same tendency of being delicious in all its many, many parts but muddled as a whole. A pool of sweet, winy onion confit sauce overwhelmed a superb torchon of bruléed foie gras, and so many were the condiments and sauce dabs on the plate — which took the all-too-tempting shape of an artist's palette — that the rustic venison and tasso terrine, the duck rillets and the garlic lamb sausage had to fight to express themselves.
Yet Trace is such a promising talent that I look forward to the day he feels confident enough to subtract rather than to add when he's working out a dish. I'm hoping (and betting) that he will find a way to restore the strong current of Texan-ness the old restaurant brought to the New Orleans-inspired oeuvre. He is already fashioning such hits as a Texas peach salad with Texas blue cheese and a subtle dressing of balsamic cut with cane vinegar.
Trace is presiding, too, over a kitchen that seems to have quelled the fits of oversalting that plagued the Brennan's of old. Indeed, the trend now is toward the modern quirk of sweetness in many guises, although things rarely get out of hand. The only serious execution flub I experienced in four visits was an otherwise delightful blue crab Ravigote — the sauce enlivened with charred lemon — that came with green tomatoes with a fried crust the approximate texture of tree bark.
The Brennan's wine list continues its latter-day tradition of well-edited intelligence leavened with just enough playfulness so that the curious wine-lover may discover a Greek rose from Gaia that is food-friendliness personified. Desserts are in fine shape, too, from the local strawberry shortcake to the fabled Bananas Foster, which send the scent of butter and brown sugar and rum through the air when they are flamed at tableside. Service is as hospitable and genteel as it ever was, even from the young sprats working the subsidiary dining rooms, like the terracelike slot that has been redone in lattice and mirrors and bamboo gilt.
Yet it is that main room, with its cushy wing chairs and sense of grand occasion, that remains the heart and soul of the remade restaurant. Pause to listen for a moment, and you'll hear the muted babble of conversation and laughter, the gentle clink of silver and glassware, that is the unique sound of a happy restaurant — and a city grateful to have a beloved restaurant back.