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"Taste this," my Cajun dining companion said as she nudged her bowl of turtle soup to me at Brennan's. The disapproving look on her face indicated that she was not happy.
I took a bite. And then another, to make sure that I was registering the same thing a second time. Metallic. Coppery. Thin. Gritty. I still took a few more disbelieving bites of the soup. It was terrible.
Houston, TX 77006
Turtle soup: $9
Peach salad: $9
Chef's playground: $20
Soft-shell crab: $44
Pecan-crusted hake: $25
Shrimp and grits: $24
Bananas Foster: $8
Creole bread pudding: $9
3300 Smith, 713-522-9711.
"Did they even use actual turtle in the soup?" I asked quietly. My friend just shrugged. "It tastes to me like they didn't even use real turtle stock to make it," she said, pushing the bowl away and picking up one of the tiny slices of garlic bread that kept appearing on our table.
The restaurant uses veal stock, not turtle stock to make its soup — perhaps a cardinal sin in Louisiana, but perfectly acceptable here. I've eaten divine turtle soup at Brennan's more times than I can count in my nearly 30 years in Houston. And it's never tasted like licking a penny before. On my first visit, something was wrong.
On my second visit, I ordered the turtle soup again. My dining companion this time — an old-school Brennan's veteran who hadn't been to the restaurant since it reopened — was nearly salivating with expectation. I didn't have the heart to tell her that my first bowl was so monstrous.
When it arrived, the waiter added the customary splash of sherry to the bowl and my dining companion dug in. "It's wonderful!" she gushed. I grabbed a spoon and dug in. It was completely different from the turtle soup I'd had only six nights prior. The soup was thick and rich, chunky and velvety at the same time, with the telltale tang of expertly cooked roux and real turtle.
Brennan's has a long and storied history that reaches further back than the Bayou City location. Part of the New Orleans-based dynasty that has spawned restaurants as far away as Tennessee and California (yes, there's a Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen at Disney World), the Brennan's here in Houston was opened more than 40 years ago in a gorgeous, 1930s-era building that was once the headquarters of the Junior League. It easily evoked the grand elegance of the Garden District in New Orleans and became a Houston institution almost overnight.
Alex Brennan-Martin, a descendant of Owen Brennan, comes from the same branch of the family that owns Commander's Palace back in the Big Easy. In the 20 years that he's run Brennan's in Houston, the kitchen has played host to some of the city's most important and talented chefs: Mark Holley, Carl Walker, Mark Cox and — most recently — Randy Evans, who was the chef at the restaurant leading up to its darkest days.
Houstonians will always remember September 12, 2008, as the day that Hurricane Ike slammed into the city with fury, uprooting trees, flooding streets and cutting power off for weeks. It was also the day the venerated restaurant burned almost entirely to the ground, the victim of a transformer which exploded during the brutal storm. Carl Walker as well as another employee, James Koonce, and Koonce's young daughter were all injured in the resulting blaze. The city mourned the loss of one of its crown jewels while the stunned Brennan's family tried to decide how — or if — to rebuild.
After nearly two years, the restaurant reopened its doors on February 16, 2010. The revamped interior is more brilliant than ever, a jewel box of richly hued rooms and dramatic yet understated touches: shiny, 1960s-inspired wallpaper on the ceiling in the main dining room; deep chocolate and taupe mingling with geometric accents in the John Staub room; whimsical, hunting lodge-inspired fabric on the chairs in the elegant Courtyard Bar under fantastically modern chandeliers. The food is almost an afterthought when you walk in: The new Brennan's is a feast for the eyes.
So how does Houston's ultimate grande dame of a restaurant completely destroy its signature dish? That's a question for the kitchen the Wednesday night of my first visit, but — ultimately — it's a question of consistency, a factor that will bring even the mightiest restaurant to its knees.
On the first night, my dining companion and I ordered the Chef's Playground, primarily because of the promise of a venison terrine made with tasso, a spicy sausage made from cured pork butt that's only readily available in Louisiana (although you can also find it here in Houston at Hebert's). The terrine wasn't nearly as good as expected, lacking the kick one expects with tasso, while the other meats on the plate — with the sole exception of the outstanding brûléed foie gras torchon — were bland and somewhat boring.
Undeterred by that and the awful turtle soup, we plowed through a dish of dark, plush, seafood-heavy gumbo with a filé so perfect it would have been welcomed at any Cajun Christmas. It needed only a hint of spice to perk it up; luckily, the waiter had deposited a bottle of Tabasco on the table along with the bowl.
Unfortunately, the entrées didn't live up to the promise of the gumbo. My dining companion's fish was utterly soaked in butter to the point of being unrecognizable as "fresh" or "fish," while the oysters that accompanied it were, like the turtle soup, unpalatably gritty (although the jasmine rice beneath it was fragrant and lovely, a welcome change from standard white rice). As for my entrée of soft-shell crab with tomatoes and cucumber, it was inedible.
Inedible. That's not a word I use to describe food very often. I'm an avowed omnivore with the stomach of a billy goat. But I couldn't eat more than five bites of the soft-shell crab, which tasted as if it had sat in the corner of some dark, dank refrigerator for two days before being fried up. The crab was mushy inside the batter, while the batter itself seemed to be the culprit behind the awful, humid taste, tinged with multiple layers of unidentified "food." You know the taste. Refrigerator taste. It's horrifying.
Thankfully, the ruby-red tomatoes beneath the crab were ripe, thick and juicy. I ate them with abandon and tried to forget the crab. It helped when the Bananas Foster were flambéed, tableside, and delivered to my eager mouth. I will never tire of watching the Brennan's waiters send flames shooting into the air as they gently lean the tip of the rum-laden pan into the bright-blue fire below. The Bananas Foster were a success on both visits: gently seasoned with cinnamon and sugar, doused liberally with high-quality rum and served alongside a scoop of vanilla ice cream that brought vivid childhood memories to mind with each bite.
On my second visit, the food wasn't the only thing to improve dramatically. The service, which had been distracted at best and curt at worst on the first visit, was now friendly and professional. We sat in the same butter-colored dining room on the main floor as before, but the sunshine streaming through the tall windows seemed to have changed the entire demeanor of the place, waitstaff included.
My peach and blue cheese salad seemed to reflect the sunny atmosphere, with bright wedges of Texas peaches lazing on a bed of summery greens in a bright balsamic vinaigrette. The sharp, creamy blue cheese seemed to sing out against the salad, accentuated with occasional bites of the sweetly spicy Tabasco praline on the side.
Pecan-crusted hake, too, was buoyant and lively despite the fulsome application of butter. "We're known for butter," our waiter laughed when he heard me mention the sheer amount of it to my dining companion. The thick crust of sweet pecan and the pert haricots verts beneath the hake were exactly what the dish needed to save it from being too fatty, too rich.
But my dining companion's dish — a simple yet succulent bowl of shrimp and grits — was the crowning glory of our meal. Brennan's simply has the best shrimp and grits in town, no questions asked. It's even better than the head-on shrimp and grits at Alex Brennan-Martin's Bistro Alex on the far west side, and it far surpasses any other establishments in town. The stone-ground grits were thick and knotty, yet somehow still creamy at the same time. Morsels of corn studded the rustic mound of grits, adding a pleasant sugary snap to the salty coarseness. And, unlike the fish, they weren't overly buttery. It was a triumph of a meal, all crowned by plump, pink shrimp and shreds of sweet, earthy parsnip.
Bread pudding and a 25-cent gin martini for dessert capped off the lunch as a total success. Unlike most tough, overly thick bread puddings served in Houston restaurants, Brennan's dishes up the real thing: moist and sumptuous, gloppy in all its eggy, milky, sugary glory.
And those martinis? May be the best-kept secret in town.
With a delicate, lunch-size martini glass full of gin in hand, it was easy to forget the sins of dinner a few nights prior. But will stalwart patrons be as forgiving of the old lady? With new chef Danny Trace in the kitchen and a long, glorious road behind it, Brennan's has even more to live up to after reopening. Inconsistency is forgivable in a younger restaurant. At Brennan's, we've all come to expect more.