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By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
There is a pleasant aroma inside Brenner's Steakhouse and it isn't my medium-rare New York strip: I sent the steak back. My dining companion, who ordered a medium filet mignon, sent hers back too. Both were too rare. My tablemate detects the same aroma, sort of like the inside of a cedar chest. Maybe it's the newly restored knotty pine paneling, or maybe it's the cedar shingles on the outside of the building, but the woody smell reminds me of spending the night in an old summer cabin in the mountains.
Brenner's looks the rustic part. The 14-table main dining room is softly illuminated by antique lighting fixtures. The woodwork is installed with the kind of craftsmanship you don't see much anymore. One wall is made of flagstone with a built-in fireplace and the opposite one is a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over an enormous garden.
Our steaks make a reappearance. This time they are done to perfection. I never fault a steakhouse for erring on the rare side. It's disastrous to overcook a steak; either the diner has to compromise or the restaurant has to throw the expensive meat away and start over. It's easy, on the other hand, to take a steak back to the kitchen and cook it a little more.
10911 Katy Freeway
Houston, TX 77079
Region: Out of Town
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The steaks at Brenner's are wet-aged, USDA Prime (see "Aging with Grace and Science," August 30, 2001). They are served on an oval plate in a puddle of au jus. It's a smart idea. The meat juice soaks in as you cut each bite, so there's never a chance for the meat to be dry. My companion's filet mignon is softer than butter, it's barely solid enough to chew. By comparison, she finds my New York Strip tough. In my two visits to Brenner's, I have also tried the ribeye and filet, but I like the New York strip the best. It's chewier, although you enjoy the flavor more. If you prefer meat that melts in your mouth, get the filet.
We try the German potatoes as a side dish. They are stained dark brown by the heavily caramelized onions and cooked until very soft. The house salad is not much more than lettuce and tomato. I get a laugh from the dressing. I went for something described as French garlic. It tastes like old-fashioned French dressings of yesteryear. Remember the kind your mom made with ketchup?
On the previous visit, I sampled a Gulf red snapper filet served simply with huge pieces of lump crabmeat over top and a wine butter sauce on the bottom. Incredibly fresh and moist, it was among the best snapper I have ever eaten.
The wine list is atrocious. I've tried ordering wine by the glass each time I've visited. With the fish, we got a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that tasted like the last glass from a bottle that had been open too long. Tonight we are sampling both the Chateau Greysac, which is sturdy but a little dull; and a Dry Creek Zinfandel, which is a so-so zin, but the only one available by the glass.
Gallo, Dry Creek, Beringer and other supermarket wines are on the short list of by-the-glass choices. Clearly, the management is trying to encourage you to order a bottle. But there aren't many interesting bottles either. The chic European couple at the table next to us is drinking a $195 bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet, one of the world's most overpriced wines.
Out the window, the sun is setting on the garden. With its stone waterfalls, wooden waterwheel and pouring overhead fountains sprouting from the rock-enclosed ponds, it looks pleasantly hokey in a Middle European sort of way. Behind the garden, there's a back wall of facades built to look like several adjoining country houses. The little Potmekin village was erected to block what would otherwise be a view of the Katy Freeway. Recently, a new walkway was installed around the garden perimeter so the restaurant's patrons can take a stroll. Some magnificent flowering plants have been added too.
The improvements are part of Brenner's complete renovation by its new owner, Landry's Restaurants, Inc. The company's CEO, Tilman Fertitta, reportedly put $1 million into sprucing up the interior, expanding the garden and adding an outdoor gazebo for parties. Fertitta evidently has fond memories of the place. According to the story printed on the back of the menu, the Fertitta family used to gather at Brenner's for special occasions when the young Tilman was growing up.
Brenner's was well-loved by several generations of Houstonians, and there were a lot of moans and groans when it closed its doors last year. But Mrs. Brenner was ready to retire. Lorene Brenner and her husband Herman opened the first Brenner's Café (not far from here) in 1936. Lorene, a German immigrant, met Herman while they were employed at The Old Vienna restaurant downtown. During the Depression years, Brenner's Café served sandwiches, fried chicken and even a steak now and then.
The original restaurant was torn down to build Katy Road. When the Brenners relocated to the current location, Lorene decided to build the kind of elaborate gardens she remembered from her childhood in Germany. They also changed the format; Brenner's Café became Brenner's Steakhouse. From the beginning the restaurant served only USDA Prime beef. The charming little cottage with the excellent steaks and the peaceful garden became a favorite of Houston's new western suburban set who were building houses along Memorial Drive in the 1950s and 1960s.