By James Brock
Brennan’s of Houston is a fine place. I always enjoy my visits there, whether sitting at the bar with a glass of wine or having dinner in one of the restaurant’s dining rooms. It’s the perfect place to take a certain kind of guest — my aunt comes to mind, a woman whose wardrobe and demeanor whisper elegance — and one can always rely on a high level of service, no matter the time of day.
Fancy a Sazerac? How about a a grilled elk chop? You’ll find good versions of these (and much more) at Brennan’s.
A few evenings ago I found myself seated a table at Brennan’s; I had been invited to try something from the wood-burning grill, a new addition (installed earlier this year) to the kitchen. I chose lamb — Creole Mustard Crusted Colorado Lamb as stated on the menu.
But first, we began with a seared scallop and an order of frog legs. The scallop was beautiful, seared well, served in a small cast iron skillet with a Creole corn maque choux and grape tomatoes. A few sweet potato ribbons, crisp and warm, were placed atop the scallop, adding good textural juxtaposition. The frog legs, done in the almondine style, are farmed in Louisiana, and crusted with cornmeal. Meaty, juicy flesh, crispy coating, served over baby spinach that’s tossed in a warm andouille vinaigrette. Plus, there are brown butter-toasted almonds on the plate. Not a bad note here.
Next came the main course; the lamb for me, and Shrimp Chippewa for my friend, the latter item a very good rendition of classic shrimp and grits. The crustaceans are flamed tableside in cognac and finished with a touch of cream. The stoneground grits, which hail from Waco, Texas, are mixed with goat cheese, and the combination is intriguing, and delicious. Sun-dried tomatoes are also in the dish, and a spoonful of everything, tasted together, is fairly magnificent: salt, acid, richness (and creaminess) from the grits and cheese, and shrimp that were in no danger of being overdone.
I love lamb, and cook it often, all kinds of cuts. This plate looks magnificent, three beautiful chops perfectly Frenched, arranged over sugar snap peas, carrots, lamb bacon, a wonderful house-made lamb sausage, and a chimichurri made with mint. I was looking forward to my first bite, and … then.
The slightly acidic and, to me, unpleasant taste at the back of my palate. I am a giant fan of funkiness and umami, but there was something there that was not to my liking. I tried a few more pieces, and stopped. What was it? My tastebuds were registering something akin to “chemical.”
We continued enjoying the shrimp and grits, and I continued trying to isolate what I tasted on the lamb. I had decided to not say anything to the waiter, but when a captain saw that I had not eaten much of the lamb and asked me about it, I did not want to lie. I explained the issue to him, and he took the plate away. A few minutes later, Danny Trace, the executive chef at Brennan’s, came to the table. He told me he had tasted the lamb, and that the only thing he could think was that the mustard crust was the source of the acidic note. He apologized, a gesture I appreciated but told him was unnecessary, adding that the sausage was excellent.
In fact, when he asked me if I wanted anything else, I told him another piece of the sausage would be fine. (As I said, refined elegance and class. Trace was discreet, genuine, and self-confident. I am not one who thinks the customer is always right, but when I cook, I analyze the source of the feedback I received and respond accordingly. If I don’t trust the source’s palate, I diplomatically take the the comments with a grain of salt.)
We continued our meal, which included a good Pinot Noir from Oregon, and a few minutes later my sausage arrived. But Trace had decided to serve it with more lamb, a touch of grace. This time the lamb was flavorful, in a way I expected. Loin meat, medium-rare, served with asparagus and beets, both crisp and right. And that sausage. Go to Brennan’s and give it a try.
Desserts? Well, how can one dine at Brennan’s and not order Bananas Foster? Created by Paul Blangé at Brennan’s in New Orleans in 1951, it is a classic, for a reason. Simple yet elegant, and created with another tableside performance. There’s also a bread pudding, pecan pie, and a lemon meringue pie (I appreciated the latter’s brightness and thick meringue), to name several other items on the dessert menu, surely something for all tastes.
Looking for a place to take your fashionable aunt (or anyone else with style and class, not matter their age)? Brennan’s of Houston is likely not to disappoint.