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The turtle soup at Brennan's of Houston takes you on a magic carpet ride. From the moment the bowl of black stew hits the white linen, it commands your attention. Musky alligator snapper meat, dark roux and intricately spiced veal stock shimmer behind a veil of steam. And just as you lift your spoon, the waiter steps in. Your silverware hovers in the air as he uncorks the sherry bottle and lets the Creole genie out. A sudden whiff of sherry, bay, garlic and spices rises up, lifting you gently from your chair. Then you take a bite and go flying -- through a version of history as exotic and opulent as anything in 1001 Arabian Nights.
Consider this ancient urban legend: It's 1762. King Louis XV of France is playing cards with his cousin King Charles III of Spain. Louis is losing but thinks his hand is a sure thing, so he goes all out and bets the French territory of Louisiana. Charlie smiles. His cards are even better. In a fit of giggles and a flash of powdered wigs, Louisiana goes from French to Spanish rule.
Cut to a darkly lit interior on the other side of the globe: In the slave quarters of a Louisiana mansion, an elegantly dressed French aristocrat slips quietly into the bedroom of his lover and the mother of his children. The beautiful black slave girl is named Marie Therese. Whispering in French, her lover Claude Pierre promises her an impossible future. He will set her free and buy her a cotton plantation
Houston, TX 77006
Turtle soup: $7
Pecan-crusted fish: $25
Truffled shrimp maque choux:$11
Seafood stew Pontchartrain: $30
Creole Shack, 5519 Caplin, (713)633-3829. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Gumbo, cup: $3; bowl: $5.75
Catfish poor boy: $5.75
Okra Creole: $7.95
Shrimp étouffée: $9.95
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning: Brennan's dining room is dark and cozy, with a rose-colored granite floor and dark wood columns wrapped with Christmas garlands. It looks inviting, but I'm not allowed in.
"I'm sorry, sir, gentlemen are required to wear jackets at Brennan's," says the manager. "But we will gladly lend you one." I sheepishly select a large from the rack of identical blue blazers. I have never understood this strange custom of eating dinner in somebody else's jacket. But it's too late to retreat, so I sit down with my date and look over the menu.
Brennan's is the most famous Creole restaurant in Houston, and I am here to see what this style of cooking is all about. But what I read on the oversize menu makes me dizzy. Truffled maque choux! Foie gras on braised frisée with praline liqueur and pecans! Sweetbreads and foie gras on rutabaga cakes!
At Brennan's, you have to decide if you want classic Creole, nouvelle Creole or Texas-Creole. We shuffle the deck. For appetizers, we order the nouvelle truffled shrimp maque choux and the classic turtle soup. For our entrées, we select old-time seafood stew Pontchartrain and Texas pecan-crusted trout. The maque choux is a disappointment; I can barely smell any truffles in the corn-and-pepper stew, and the shrimp on top have no connection to the dish. You know about the turtle soup. The pecan-crusted trout is pleasant enough, but very delicate. Seafood stew Pontchartrain is a crustacean orgy, an obscene amount of lump crabmeat covered with shrimp on a bed of roasted trout with oysters swimming in butter and cream sauce. It is "as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin," as Mark Twain once described Louisiana seafood.
Near the reservations desk, I find a copy of a new Creole cookbook, Commander's Kitchen, by Ti Adelaide Martin and Jamie Shannon, the owner and chef of Commander's Palace in New Orleans. (The Brennan family has owned ten restaurants during the last 50 years, including Brennan's in Houston and the flagship, Commander's Palace in New Orleans.) In the book, the authors explain the lineage of the historic Creole cooking style, which has been lovingly preserved and handed down by famous old New Orleans restaurants.
In 1780 the Spanish government gave special rights to persons of European heritage, whom they called criollos or "Creoles." These refined souls embodied the affluent spirit of old New Orleans, and they loved to mimic the French and Spanish courts with elaborate banquets. The food was created by their African servants from classical French recipes and New World ingredients. To the existing French/African/ Native American cooking style of Louisiana, the Spanish introduced the ingredients that completed the New Orleans pantry -- tomatoes, chiles and exotic spices from their far-flung empire. (The French still thought tomatoes were poisonous.) And thus the foundations of Creole cuisine were created.
As the truffled maque choux and foie gras creations on the menu will attest, Creole cooking is neither static nor immune to innovation. Former head chefs at Commander's Palace include Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, each of whom has launched stylistic variations of his own. But the menus of the Brennan family restaurants also preserve such classics as turtle soup and shrimp rémoulade that trace their heritage all the way back to the bons vivants of the late 1700s.
George Thomas is blowing a soulful rendition of the line "chestnuts roasting on an open fire..." on the flügelhorn. His four-piece jazz band is set up in front of the fireplace at the Creole Shack. The crowd is mostly black, and everybody is in a good mood. Several families have brought their kids, who bounce their feet in time to the music and stare at the huge flocked Christmas tree covered with blinking colored lights. On Friday and Saturday nights, the Creole Shack is a "fat cafe." "A fat cafe is what they call a restaurant that has music back in western Louisiana," the bartender tells me.