Brasserie Max and Julie
The fruits de mer Max at Brasserie Max and Julie came on three platters that a team of waiters arranged into a tiered tower in the middle of our table. A lobster head anchored in shaved ice protruded festively from the top platter like the nose cone of a rocket. Cold lobster meat, crab claws and boiled shrimp were arranged in a circle around the red head.
The middle platter was covered with shaved ice and topped with cold cooked mussels and tiny raw clams. And the bottom platter held two dozen raw oysters.
I don't eat raw Gulf oysters in September. But water temperatures are already hitting the sixties in colder Northern waters. After all, September has an "R" in it. So we asked where the oysters were from.
"Connecticut," we were told. Just to be absolutely certain, we asked the waiter to provide proof. He returned from the kitchen with a Sysco invoice for Connecticut oysters that we studied intently. Not that we aren't trusting sorts. But a liver is a terrible thing to waste.
There were six of us at the table, and we ripped into the raw seafood like a pack of hungry barracudas. The oysters weren't plump and sweet, but they were briny and cold and it was a pleasure to be eating raw oysters again. The tiny little neck clams were delectable and slightly chewy. I dipped them in the vinegary mignonette sauce.
The shrimp were so popular, I didn't even get to taste one. I would guess the crab claws were Pacific Mexican crab rather than the sweeter Gulf blue crab. A homemade mayonnaise accompanied the shrimp and crab beautifully. One or two of the mussels were slightly off, and the lobster meat was a tad mushy, but all in all, it was a magnificent fruits de mer presentation.
In the Brittany region of France, there is a window sticker displayed by some restaurants advertising "l'authentique plateau de fruits de mer frais Bretons." It turns out there is an organization that certifies restaurants that do it properly. (So French!) To qualify, a restaurant must serve at least six different sorts of cold shellfish and crustaceans accompanied by rye bread, homemade mayonnaise and salted butter. Except for the rye bread, Brasserie Max and Julie could put the sticker in their window. But I'm not sure I would want them to, because their crusty white bread is fabulous.
Brasserie Max and Julie is owned by the Café Rabelais gang, and it has the same sort of short, reasonably priced list of French wines. We drank a bottle of crisp, citrus-scented Domaine Le Fruitiere Muscadet that went brilliantly with our cold seafood.
As we got down to the last few clams and crab claws, a frequent dining companion who was seated to my left pointed out that my plate held far more empty shells than anyone else's. Okay, so I guess I was the hungriest barracuda. I felt a little guilty, so when she wasn't looking, I dumped some of my empty shells onto her plate to even things out.
My favorite entrée of the evening was raie Grenobloise, flaky skate wing with salty capers and crunchy croutons in a simple lemon butter sauce served over rice. Every time I order skate, I am stunned by how good it is, and this simple preparation let the seafood shine.
I also sampled the salade landaise, a hearty salad of frisée with sautéed chicken livers and a poached egg. It's one of my favorite French salads when it's made with moist pink chicken livers, but the chicken livers at Brasserie Max and Julie were rubbery and overcooked.
And then there was the andouillette frites et sauce moutarde, the famous tripe sausage of Lyons. One of my tablemates compared the aroma to dirty socks, but it was much more offensive than that.
I don't criticize andouillette lightly. Many years ago, when I first started reviewing for the Austin Chronicle, I made disparaging remarks about an andouillette. I was pursued by two chefs who insisted I try their andouillette so that I would see the error of my ways. After eating a lot more andouillette than I ever wanted, I had to admit, if you clean the tripe well and cook it until it's very soft, tripe sausage can be good. But I am not what you'd call a fan of the stuff.
When I visited Brasserie Max and Julie, I brought a Frenchman named Bernard Brunon along. Bernard was raised in Roanne in the very hasp of the andouillette belt. It was Bernard who I called when I found the awesome sweetbreads tacos at the Tacambaro taco truck behind Canino's. And it was Bernard who compared Tacambaro's tripitas to the flavor of a good French andouillette. [See "Taco Truck Disappears, Reappears," Houstoned, August 23.]
Bernard is a lifelong fan of andouillette, and he hated Max and Julie's version — too funky and too chewy. He said we'd be better off eating the tripitas at Tacambaro. He wasn't overly impressed by the pale french fries that were served on the side in a paper cone either. "They just aren't all that crispy," he said.
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.
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.
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