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So don't order the andouillette at Brasserie Max and Julie — as if you were going to anyway.
It's wonderful to have a brasserie in Houston — it's one of my favorite French restaurant inventions. "Brasserie" means "brewery" in French, and when Brasserie Bofinger introduced draft beer to Paris in 1864, that's all the Alsatian brewer had in mind. But 1864 was the same year that the French vineyards were devastated by phylloxera. With no wine to drink, the French turned to beer, and Bofinger had a gold mine on his hands. Today, it's one of the most ornate restaurants in Paris.
More Alsatians fleeing the hostilities of the Franco-Prussian War came to Paris and opened brasseries in the late 1800s, which accounts for such German-sounding names as Brasserie Zimmer, Brasserie Zeyer and Brasserie Wepler. Soon all the Paris brasseries were serving draft beer, charcuterie and the Alsatian sauerkraut dish called choucroute. They also became famous for serving seafood, especially oysters, though why, exactly, I have never been able to figure out.
4315 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006
Onion soup: 5.95
Fruits de mer Julie
(for 2 to 4): $45
Fruits de mer Max
(for 4 to 6): $75
Brasserie Max and Julie has done an admirable job of re-creating the spirit of a brasserie in Montrose. I look forward to returning in a few months when the weather gets colder to enjoy the boiled beef and vegetable dinner called pot-au-feu and the white bean and sausage stew called cassoulet. This kind of old-fashioned French comfort food with some crusty bread and a bottle of unpretentious wine is hard to beat.
I can't say I envy chef Jason Blankenship, though. This kind of food doesn't allow for a lot of creativity. Critics and the culinary cognoscenti attack a chef mercilessly for varying the slightest bit from orthodoxy when preparing traditional French foods. And, I'm afraid, I'm no exception.
Blankenship's choucroute disappointed me. The menu describes it as "traditional Alsatian sauerkraut." The dish came to the table in an earthenware bowl. In the bottom of the bowl was a cup or so of sauerkraut simmered in a dark brown meat sauce until it was tender and full of flavor. Slices of various sausages were well-coated with the sauce and served over the top along with a joint of pork and some split fingerling potatoes and cherry tomatoes. It was a tasty dish, even if it was awfully short on the sauerkraut. But mainly, it was lacking in exuberance.
The classic presentation of choucroute garni is as spectacular as the classic three tiers of the fruits de mer. An oval metal platter is mounded with sauerkraut that has been simmered in wine or stock. It is garnished with an array of sizzling sausages and pork pieces. A bowl of potatoes comes on the side. The process of cutting the sausages and serving the sauerkraut is part of the fun.
In Alsace, they sometimes top choucroute with fish, or even fried oysters. The best I ever had was topped with a small suckling pig and smoked foie gras. The worst was served cold as a salad with smoked salmon. You can be as creative as you want with the choucroute — just make them say "wow" when it comes to the table, and don't skimp on the sauerkraut.
At Brasserie Max and Julie, some dishes are done traditionally, and some aren't. The onion soup topped with gooey cheese I had before the choucroute was classic. And the pistou and bean soup my tablemate started with was just as garlicky as you'd expect. The tarte tatin, which had lots of deep-brown caramelized apples, was unconventional, but I loved it anyway. Alison Cook, my counterpart at the Houston Chronicle, complained that it wasn't a real tarte tatin because it wasn't inverted after baking.
I hope chef Blankenship doesn't take this kind of criticism too personally. What do you expect when you put a bunch of French classics on your menu and then tinker with some of them? You get a lot of carping from Frenchmen and food critics about how that's not the way it's served in Paris.
But when you have the only brasserie in town, you can also expect to see those complainers hanging out in the dining room on a regular basis. I know I'll be there — bellyaching with the best of them.