My first test of the place was to order a Sazerac. This is the drink I use to see if a restaurant that claims any link with New Orleans (or the right to be in New Orleans) really knows what it is doing. I at least expected the waiter at Brennan’s of Houston to gulp unknowingly before saying that he would have to check with the bartender. But no, the waiter took the order without flinching as if the drink was ordered as commonly as Merlot. But maybe he was just faking it. The test would be with the bartender. Moments later a Sazerac arrived, perfect in its presentation, color, flavor and with the preferred twist of lemon served in a correct Sazerac glass. First test- passed.
Already the restaurant had passed the second test- that was ambience. There is no 18th century neighborhood in Houston like the one where the New Orleans Brennan’s is located. Instead, the building stood in a quiet neighborhood. The restaurant resembled the Royal Street flagship in subtle ways without overdoing it. There was a patio and there were splashes of the old New Orleans brick and mortar look. As for the service, there was was the quality that all Brennan’s restaurants-no matter which side of the family owns them-are noted for.
What I expected from the menu was a faithful rendition of the New Orleans classics. To my surprise, not only was there more than that, but I also found the answer to a question that had puzzled me.
During previous trips to the Texas city I had wondered about what might be called a Houston Cuisine. It would not be Tex/Mex, that belonged to San Antonio and places west. Steaks and cowboy food were linked more to Dallas and the rest of Texas. Scanning the menu I found my answer. There is indeed an indigenous Houston cuisine and it is shaped by three geographic influences: closeness to the Gulf of Mexico, Texas culture and proximity to Louisiana.
Brennan’s menu turned out to be the bible of that cuisine. There were the expected New Orleans classics such as Shrimp Remoulade, turtle soup, crab cakes and Bananas Foster. But there was also – and this is where I got excited – Chili Fried Oysters, Shrimp with Biscuits and Gravy, Jalapeno Cornbread Pudding, Chicken and Dumplings, and a fowl dish made with Galveston County Lacquered Duck.
This restaurant, I realized that evening, was not another New Orleans rip-off but an important bridge to the cooking traditions simmering south of I-10 between Orleans Parish and Harris County. The menu referred to the food as "Texas Creole."
Last Friday a fire at the time of Hurricane Ike destroyed the restaurant that was in its fourth decade. Stilled for the moment are the creativity of owner Alex Brennan-Martin of the New Orleans Brennan family and Chef Randy Evans. But this place is too important to let go – it needs to be returned, not just for the sake of fine dining but also for historic preservation.
Meanwhile we all are recovering from the trauma of an overactive tropical season. My prescription is a good Sazerac and to take seriously the words of Alex Brennan-Martin found on the menu: "Life is Short – Eat Well."
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