By Greg Morago
March 13, 2017 Updated: March 14, 2017 10:48pm
Mardi Gras is over, but the whiskey sours and champagne are flowing as a jazz quartet thumps out foot-tapping tunes. Thickly napped tables groan with plates of grilled oysters, bowls of dark turtle soup and entrees of rich elegance: shrimp glossed in white wine cream, butter-drenched trout festooned with crispy almonds, beds of rice mounded with fist-size thickets of voluptuous backfin lump crabmeat. And the room sparkles as the flames of Bananas Foster, fed by generous shakes of ground cinnamon, lick the air.
Just another magical night of saints-go-marching-in revelry at Brennan's of Houston, to be sure. Except this night in early March was particularly special - it officially marked 50 years since the Brennan clan of Commander's Palace fame opened its temple of Texas Creole fare in Houston. Invited guests supped on vintage dishes rolled back to 1967 prices: Crabmeat Russe lapped by Burgundy wine sauce ($2.75), Escargots Bourguignonne ($1.95), the famous house turtle soup (85 cents) and Filet Mig-non Stanley ($6.25, the most expensive dish on the menu).
While diners were happy to reflect on Brennan's legacy, the man sitting at the bar with a glass of wine nursing a slight cold ("the crud," as he called it) was looking ahead. Not just to tomorrow's service but to the next 50 years of the business his family built from scratch.
It fell to Alex Brennan-Martin, the 58-year-old son of Ella Brennan, the legendary New Orleans restaurateur who revolutionized Creole cuisine, to guide the Houston restaurant for more than three decades and ensure it continues building memories for generations to come.
Still, he can't help but reminisce about his own history with the restaurant - a post he never thought he'd keep for long. A trained chef who graduated from the prestigious La Varenne culinary school in Paris, Brennan-Martin had been working in New York when his mother tapped him to make his way to Houston.
"I came to help out my family when they needed a little extra assistance, with no intention of staying forever," he said. "And here I am, 30-some years later, having fallen in love with the city."
He describes Brennan's of Houston at that time as a restaurant that "hadn't taken on the terroir of Houston" yet but was essentially a carbon copy of the original Brennan's in New Orleans.
The original Brennan's opened in 1956, a two-story structure in the French Quarter that had been built in the late 1700s by the great-grandfather of artist Edgar Degas. Houston architect John Staub's 1929 design of the Junior League Building, which now houses Brennan's of Houston, was based almost entirely on that very structure where Brennan's still stands today.
Ella Brennan and her siblings made Brennan's the most talked-about restaurant in New Orleans for many years. But a long-simmering family rift led to Ella being relieved of her duties at Brennan's in 1973. She and her siblings, who joined her in walking out, ended up with several restaurants in the legal settlement, including Brennan's of Houston and Commander's Palace. Ella and her sister Adelaide turned the latter into the family's new flagship and began writing a new chapter. Today, Brennan's of Houston is owned and operated by Brennan-Martin, his sister Ti Martin and their cousin Lally Brennan, who all guide the Commander's Palace family of restaurants.
Brennan-Martin employed his family-ingrained skill sets as soon as he arrived in Houston. He used his culinary knowledge to begin improving the menu. He honored farm-to-table practices decades before it became a foodie phrase. He hammered home the importance of hospitality. He recognized the cultural contributions of his kitchen staff - the famous crawfish enchiladas were born from the Mexican influences of devoted Brennan's cooks. And he made friends.
Those friends helped the restaurant weather oil busts, stock-market dips, recessions and its darkest moment: the night in September 2008 when flames engulfed the building as Hurricane Ike ripped through Houston. (Sadly, an employee and his daughter suffered serious injuries.)
After extensive renovations and improvements, the restaurant reopened in 2010, picking up right where it left off. And it reopened with a new face in the kitchen, executive chef Danny Trace, plucked from within the Brennan's family of restaurants to usher in a new golden age.
Trace is the latest entry on an impressively long list of chef talent cultivated at Brennan's. James Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd of Underbelly; Randy Evans, now director/chef of restaurants for H-E-B; Mark Holley of Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar; Mark Cox, formerly of Mark's American Cuisine; Bobby Matos of State of Grace; Kevin Naderi of Roost; Lance Fegen of F.E.E.D. TX Restaurant Group; and 2016 James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year winner Daniela Soto-Innes of New York's Cosme restaurant, among others, have all passed through the kitchen.
Working at Brennan's was demanding but incredibly rewarding, said Randy Evans, whose Brennan's career began in 1996 on the salad station while he was a student at the Art Institute of Houston and ended in 2008 when the fire gutted the restaurant.
"When I started there, I weighed 180 pounds. Three months later, I weighed 150 pounds," said Evans, offering an example of how hard the work could be. "I never worked in a salad station so difficult. They demanded a lot. Everything was made from scratch."
Evans eventually became lead cook in 1998 under Holley, sous chef (with his buddy Shepherd) in 2000 and executive chef in 2003.
"It was a very competitive kitchen. All the cooks worked together, but we also knew we were all competing for a position. But it was a grinder. I've seen grown men cry," Evans said. "But every day I felt like I was learning."
He said his culinary philosophy was formed at Brennan's. "The whole restaurant was never the front (of the house) against the (kitchen). Everyone had a common goal: to put out the best food and service and crush it every day. It was hard, and sometimes you thought you couldn't take it anymore. But at the end of the day, it was so rewarding."
Evans echoes Brennan-Martin's assessment that everyone on staff is part of the dynamic that drives the restaurant to do its best daily.
Indeed, staffers seem to remember everything and everyone, lending the place a fancy "Cheers" type of vibe. Even more impressive is that some 400 seats spread throughout the restaurant's series of impeccably dressed rooms.
"I could name a dozen people who continue to work here instead of bouncing from job to job. They come here decade after decade with a smile on their face and take pleasure in their craft," Brennan-Martin said. "They show up to work not as a chore but as approaching a craft. In this crazy impersonal world, what could be more honorable than giving the gift of great memories to another human being?"
Those memories - hundreds that are made every week at Brennan's - are what fuels Brennan-Martin. The secret to lasting 50 years in the restaurant business? Embracing tradition while always evolving.
He hints at plans for taking Brennan's to the next level, although he's mum about details, saying only that it's going to be good and in keeping with Brennan's level of mindful innovation: "You better always be looking forward, moving forward."
Chicken & Collard Green Creole Gumbo
Courtesy Brennan's of Houston
Makes 10 servings
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup grapeseed oil
4 cups small diced onions
¾ cup small diced celery
3 cups small diced green, red, and/or yellow bell pepper
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1½ pounds andouille sausage
2½ quarts chicken stock or water
2 teaspoons fresh herbs (sage, oregano, thyme) chopped
6 bay leaves
3 teaspoons Creole seasoning
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound collard greens, stemmed, rinsed and finely chopped
2 pounds chicken meat (picked from whole roasted chicken)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons Louisiana hot sauce
½ cup chopped green onions
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
Steamed white rice
Instructions: Heat a 6-quart, wide-mouthed Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the flour and oil to the pot and stir to combine. Cook, stirring constantly, until the flour mixture is a deep mahogany color, about 20 minutes.
Add the onions, celery and peppers to the roux and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic, stir and cook for 1 minute. Add andouille and cook for 5 minutes more.
Add the stock, herbs, bay leaves, 2 teaspoons of Creole seasoning, salt and cayenne.
Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and skim the impurities. Add the collard greens to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 45 minutes.
Add the chicken, Worcestershire and hot sauce to the gumbo. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste the gumbo and reseason if necessary.
Add the green onions and parsley to the pot.
Serve with steamed white rice and top with cornbread croutons. Dust with file.