Dishes that refused to die
By Mai Pham
Published 05:15 p.m., Tuesday, March 13, 2012
It happens more often than not. In an effort to update, modernize or simply begin with a clean slate, a favorite restaurant dish is altered or disappears entirely from a restaurant menu.
In the case of truly beloved dishes from iconic Houston restaurants, you can pretty much guess the reaction: Hand wringing, gnashing of teeth, anger-tinged nostalgia and a big fuss.
So why would a chef or restaurateur make such a rash decision in the first place? We polled 10 Houston restaurants about their woes when they tampered with customer favorites. Here are the Houston restaurant dishes too tough to die:
1 Pecan-crusted Gulf fish at Brennan's:
Since Brennan's opened in Houston in 1967, it served pecan-crusted Gulf fish - a charming dish of pan-sauteed fish topped with Creole meunière sauce and resting on a bed of haricot verts garnished with pecans and succotash. When chef Danny Trace came on board with the rebuilt Brennan's in February 2010 following the fire during Hurricane Ike, he tried to change the recipe. He tweaked the presentation by pairing the fish with sweet corn and leek cream, crushed corn maque choux and petite farm greens. When the revised version hit the dinner tables, longtime customers noticed that it tasted and looked different. One customer told the general manager, "Carl, this is a dealbreaker." Brennan's got the message: The dish returned to its original version and remains on the menu today.
2 Crisp Flattened Chicken at t'afia
Twenty years ago, when she opened her first critically acclaimed restaurant, the Quilted Toque, Chef Monica Pope introduced Houstonians to a dish that would follow her through the years: Crisp, Flattened Chicken. A version of Campanile's brick-flattened chicken, Pope's take featured a pounded marinated breast, breaded with panko crumbs, sauteed in clarified butter, and served with potatoes and topped with pickled red onions, salsa verde, and a lemon butter white wine sauce. "We tried to take it off the menu, but people came back and always wanted that exact same dish," Pope said. Over the years, she's tried to improve it by using better chicken and different methods, but she recalls what a chef friend told her about it once: "The chicken tastes like chicken, the potatoes taste like potatoes." It's a chicken dinner winner (served occasionally as pounded breasts or a leg confit) that customers request time and again, Pope said. "It just eats well," she said. "It's a dish I can never take off my menu."
3 Coffee-Rubbed Filet at RDG + Bar Annie
Early one Christmas morning in the 1990s, chef Robert Del Grande was in what he calls an "innovative state of exhaustion." While prepping for his Christmas dinner he accidentally spilled coffee grounds onto the steaks he had placed on the counter. Instead of cleaning up the grounds, he decided to roll the steak in them to clean the cutting board, thus giving birth to what became known as the Coffee-Rubbed Filet, first introduced at Cafe Annie. Not only did it become the restaurant's signature dish, it earned Del Grande huge local, regional and national acclaim, and was even taught in culinary schools. Over the years, the java-jolted steak was taken off the menu at Café Annie. But it found its way back on the menu when the new RDG opened in 2009. Again, it dropped off, despite it being included by chef Michael Chiarello on the Food Network's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate." Today, you won't find it on the RDG menu but it is served to loyal customers upon request.
4 Octopus a la Plancha at Ibiza Food and Wine Bar
There aren't that many restaurants in Houston that serve octopus, so when Charles Clark debuted his Octopus a la Plancha on the Ibiza menu in 2004, he had no idea that it would gain such a huge following. Latin customers would come to the restaurant just so they could order the octopus (and one longtime customer always requests a double order), Clark said. At one point, he removed the octopus from the menu but people literally walked out of the restaurant when they found out he wasn't serving it. Others would call to request it before they committed to a reservation. Clark changes his menu three times a year, and though he's toyed with removing this dish, he's learned from experience not to tamper with a strong customer favorite. The Mediterranean octopus, which is braised overnight until tender, is then finished on the grill and topped with Spanish chorizo and salsa verde.
5 Hunan Beef at Gigi's Asian Bistro & Dumpling Bar
Gigi Huang's father served Hunan Beef, an orange beef dish, at his Hunan Restaurant for 30 years. He began serving it in 1976 at his Post Oak location, and it was a staple dish that starred on menus at all his other restaurant ventures, such as Szechuan Restaurant and Hunan in Galveston.
The dish was never meant for the menu at Gigi Huang's Gigi's Asian Bistro, which is an entirely different concept than her father's restaurants. But when his Hunan Post Oak location closed, his regular customers would come to Gigi's looking for their old favorite, Hunan Beef.
Huang gave in as a tribute to her father and his longtime customers by putting the Hunan Beef - also called Orange Beef - on her menu.
Today, it's only available on the weekday lunch menu.
6 Sopa Tomas at Tony Mandola's
When Tony Mandola opened his original Blue Oyster Bar on the Gulf Freeway in 1982, he had a regular guest who wanted seafood soup three times a week. Not a seafood gumbo but a seafood soup. And that's how Sopa Tomas, a Mexican-flavored spicy shrimp soup with pico de gallo and rice, was born. Although it was a staple dish at the Blue Oyster, it wasn't exactly a best-selling menu item. So when he opened Tony Mandola's on West Gray in 1989, Mandola took it off the menu. Mistake. Patrons unhappy about its absence told him so. After four months of complaints, Sopa Tomas got back on board.
7 Tres leches at Américas
Américas Restaurant and the Cordúa Group are probably as well known for their tres leches cake as they are for their churrasco steak. When the Américas Woodlands location launched, David Cordúa (son of owner Michael Cordúa) opened a test kitchen with chefs Jonathan Jones, Randy Rucker and pastry chef Plinio Sandalio, and began experimenting with new recipes. One they tinkered with was the iconic tres leches, a cake soaked in three types of milk. The newly revised tres leches was stunning - three individual cakes, soaked to order, topped with sweetened crème fraîche and served with a white chocolate sphere. Customers utterly rejected it. In the words of Michael Cordúa, "quite simply, a catastrophe." The original tres leches was returned to the menu and it remains the signature dessert.
8 Chicken-fried steak at Killen's Steakhouse
In 1990, when Ronnie Killen opened his first restaurant, Killen's Kountry Barbecue, one of the items that quickly became a hit was his chicken-fried steak. "I used to say that we make it like your mama would make it," he said of the pounded sirloin steak bathed in buttermilk and coated in flour. When he opened Killen's Steakhouse in Pearland in 2006, the chicken-fried steak reappeared on the menu and drew raves. In spite of the good reaction, Killen took it off the menu because he wanted people to come for his prime beef. In the following six months Killen received a surprising number of complaints. He got wise and put it back on the menu but not before he revamped it so that it would be better than ever.
9 Cuisse de Canard Confit at Bistro Provence
According to owner Jean-Philippe Guy, from the day that Bistro Provence opened in 1998, the Cuisse de Canard Confit (or confit of duck leg) was a bestseller. The original recipe called for the duck to be cured overnight in salt before the salt was washed off and the duck simmered in fat for several hours until the meat melted off the bone.
About four years ago, a new young chef decided to skip the salt-curing process because he thought it took too long. Regular patrons noticed immediately.
After several months of complaints, Guy discovered the missed step in the process.
The original recipe was reinstated, the customer complaints stopped, and the classic French Cuisse de Canard Confit triumphed.
10 Romanian Chicken Fricassee at Kenny & Ziggy's
When Ziggy Gruber opened Kenny & Ziggy's in 2000, his vision was to have the most extensive Eastern European/Jewish menu in town.
One of the many dishes he offered at the time was a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs stew-like concoction called Romanian Chicken Fricassee.
Made of disjointed chicken, wings, giblets and beef meatballs, and slow-cooked with carrots, garlic, celery and spices, the dish is served over a bed of egg barley farfel.
It didn't sell well during the hot Houston summers, so Gruber 86'd it, not realizing that people loved it because it reminded them of their childhood.
"When we took it off the menu, all of sudden, people kept on asking me, 'Where's the chicken fricassee?' " Gruber recalls.
So after about a month, he started making it again in small batches, eventually putting it back on the menu permanently.
Nowadays, the old-time dish is not only back to stay, it's a dish that Gruber's older customers have introduced to their friends and family, spawning a whole new generation of Chicken Fricassee lovers.
Mai Pham is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Fox 26 segment "Houston Bloggers," which airs Fridays during the 9 p.m. newscast.