Fifty years ago, on March 5, 1967, Brennan’s of Houston opened its doors to the public for the first time. In celebration of this major milestone, the restaurant hosted a special “1967 Celebration Dinner” last night, complete with throwback dishes from the inaugural menu, and, for one night only, the menu prices from back in the day.
In spite of the pouring rain, the mood was decidedly celebratory as guests stepped foot inside. With the most expensive dish on the menu, a filet mignon Stanley, ringing in at a mere $6.25 — putting the grand total for a three-course menu at just around $10 or less — it was hard not to feel as if you were a part of something special.
“Just getting through the first night was disaster,” Alex Brennan-Martin, Brennan’s proprietor and son of the legendary Ella Brennan, recalls. “We hope it goes better this time,” he said jokingly, adding, “We’ve had a bit more experience since then.”
To create the throwback menu, executive chef Danny Trace and his team referred to the original Brennan’s cookbook, first published in 1961, to re-create dishes. “The recipes were a lot simpler then,” says Trace. “Creole seasoning hadn’t even been invented yet,” he added.
Indeed, while there were some familiar dishes, like the turtle soup, which is still made from the original recipe, the throwback plates tended to be more bland and less intense on the palate than what we’ve come to associate with the modern Creole and Cajun cuisine that you find at Brennan’s today. There was also a predominance of ingredients such as butter and cream.
The 1967 version of Brennan’s escargots de bourguignonne, for instance, which nowadays is usually done with clarified garlic herbed butter, came with a creamy butter sauce instead, described by my media colleague and table companion as “a lovely cream sauce just barely glossing the top of the snails and their little escargot hollows.”
My entrée of crabmeat Lausanne, which reminded me a lot of crab fried rice, was also very simple. “It’s literally fresh jumbo lump crab, sautéed in butter, with some parsley, white wine, over a Jasmine rice with toasted almond slivers,” says executive sous chef Martin Weaver.
One of the more unusual dishes of the night, purportedly the signature dish at the time, was the filet mignon Stanley. It came with the following description on the menu: “A fiery tang of fresh horseradish and the smooth sweetness of sautéed bananas vie for control of your taste buds.”
What was notable about this dish was the unusual combination of ingredients. While the horseradish and filet were more reminiscent of a prime rib, the addition of the sautéed bananas gave the dish an unexpectedly Latin and/or Cuban twist.
During the dinner, a jazz quartet circulated through the room, stopping by our table at one point and romancing us with a version of Harry Connick Jr.’s “It Had to Be You.”
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As always at Brennan’s, part of the fine dining service experience is getting a mini-culinary show at the table-side. Our orders of crepes Fitzgerald — crepes filled with cream cheese, sour cream and crushed strawberries and flamed in kirsch and strawberry liqueur — and bananas Foster ensured that we did not leave disappointed.
Though the 1967 Celebration was for one night only, Brennan’s promises “a yearlong lineup of festivities to commemorate the past 50 years, and toast to the next 50.” Expect throwback dishes to appear on daily special menus, special dinners and more in the coming months.