Chef Randy Rucker Is Back and Looking Good at Bramble

The roasted chicken was perfectly cooked.
The roasted chicken was perfectly cooked.
Photo by Troy Fields

Perfectly roasted chicken exemplifies the beauty found in simplicity, and it doesn’t get better than at Bramble. An order consisted of a hefty leg quarter and wing, and the crisp skin radiated from gold to dark mahogany. In places, the skin was translucent thanks to the patient roasting that had rendered away most of the underlying fat. The meat was moist and yet thoroughly cooked through, even near the bones. Decorating the top were coarsely ground black pepper, bright green bits of chives and whole roasted garlic cloves that gleamed in all their golden glory after their rich fat bath in the roasting pan.

The bed of cabbage that accompanied the stellar roasted chicken wasn’t quite as good. It wasn’t cooked to death and had a pleasing firm texture, but lacked seasoning. That’s a problem that crops up here from time to time, but Bramble hits much more often than it misses. It’s well worth the minor inconvenience of adding a little salt as needed.

Worthy side dishes for this study in poultry perfection are the amazing creamer peas seasoned with thick-skinned chunks of pork fat and a steaming bowl of collard greens amply dosed with pickled peppers, resulting in a substantial but pleasing heat level.

Now that Bramble is finally here, it’s hard to believe that it has been four years since Randy Rucker’s former place, Bootsie’s Heritage Cafe, closed. (A previously attempted project in the Museum District called Restaurant Connate failed to launch.) If that seems like a long time ago, get this: Rucker’s first restaurant, Laidback Manor, opened in 2005. (Does anyone else here feel old?)

Rucker’s mercurial temperament made him a polarizing figure for a time, but there are few chefs in Houston who have been responsible for engendering as much ambition and creativity in the restaurant scene. He has a history of engaging with other dynamic chefs who have gone on to open their own places and significantly influence Houston’s palates, including Justin Yu (Oxheart); Seth Siegel-Gardner (The Pass & Provisions); Lyle Bento and JD Woodward (Southern Goods); Ben Rabbani (who opened El Big Bad as executive chef along with Rucker in the role of consultant); and Chris Leung (Cloud 10 Creamery). Like attracts like.

Diners who hope to find a new incarnation of Bootsie’s should instead arrive open-minded. Bramble is its own unique entity. Under Rucker — as opposed to its other incarnation as a country cafe run by his mom, Bootsie, which was quite good in its own right — Bootsie’s was adored partly for its fun, no-holds-barred experimentation. Bramble is a more commercially viable restaurant capable of pleasing diners on a broad spectrum, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s in Tanglewood, so most of Rucker’s fans don’t face the long drive they used to have to make. Sure, no one is serving live shrimp as an appetizer here, or dehydrating an entire lemon pie to make the most remarkable lemon crisps ever on the planet, but Bramble has its own pleasures.

Rucker wasn’t on site during any of our visits, unfortunately. According to a staff member, Rucker had injured his foot and was at home recuperating. The team of chef de cuisine Robert Stockwell, sous chef Andre Garza and junior sous chef Iggy Olivera acquitted themselves just fine regardless — another important quality in restaurants. A place has to operate at a high-functioning level even if the “name” chef isn’t present. There were several bright, shining food moments, and the wait staff was congenial and relatively prompt even on a Saturday night.

Whole fish seems to be the order of choice during dinner at Bramble. One flounder after another went sailing out of the kitchen during our Saturday night visit, and all looked quite fetching. The $19 gulf fish (redfish) ordered from the lunch menu had a bubbly, crisp, seared skin on top but did seem a little on the scanty side. The fillet was about three inches wide and four inches long and — like other dishes — needed a touch of salt to bring it alive. It was on a pretty green-and-yellow bed of roughly cut hunks of baby zucchini and yellow pattypan squash.

Two quail are stacked one on top of the other in this distinctive dish.
Two quail are stacked one on top of the other in this distinctive dish.
Photo by Troy Fields

Bramble is home to one of the best presentations we’ve seen all year: two quail, one stacked carefully on top of the other amid a bed of chanterelles and a few butternut squash cubes. All were accented with deep green purslane and delicate, red-stemmed leaves of malabar spinach grown in a container at the restaurant. It was an attractively tall presentation that didn’t reach the silly heights of the ubiquitous old towers of the ‘80s. The only complaint is the quail would have been even better with a crisp skin. As it was, it fell a bit on the rubbery side.

Bafflingly, Bramble offers only five wines by the glass and there are a glaring dearth of white wines like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, grower Champagne and Grüner Veltliner that would be phenomenal companions with Rucker’s earthy food. Instead, the only by-the-glass selections available during our visits were a $12 Prosecco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon ($14 each) and a Russian River Pinot Noir for $15.

We asked why there were only five by-the-glass selections. Soon, Bramble’s wine guy dropped by the table in a short-sleeved Polo with a pair of sunglasses dangling out of the collar to say, “Well, we don’t really want to offer any more than that because we’d rather you buy a bottle. Our bottles are very competitively priced.” Not “How can I solve your problem?” Not “What did you want that you’re not seeing by the glass?”
No, instead, when I pointed out that when you start dinner with a cocktail you might not also want a whole bottle of wine as well, he replied, “See that guy over there? He’s bought three bottles so far.” “I bet he doesn’t have an hour drive home,” I replied. “You’re probably right,” he said. It seemed like a weird bit of customer-shaming, although he later came by again and offered to try to work with us next time.

The biggest advantage of being able to buy wine by the glass is the flexibility to pair it with food in the most effective way possible. Red wine would be just horrible with that glorious fish spread and would not really do any justice to the outstanding chicken or creamer peas, either. Bramble’s food is good enough to deserve having some thought put toward pairings, whether beer, wine or cocktail.

It’s been four years since chef Randy Rucker’s previous place Bootsie’s closed.
It’s been four years since chef Randy Rucker’s previous place Bootsie’s closed.
Photo by Troy Fields

Fancy plated desserts have been eschewed in favor of big, six-layer, diner-style slices of cake. These are the creations of pastry chef Beatrice Carrillo, and only dieters and diners who hate fun should skip them. The butter toffee cake was especially lovable with a thick drizzle of sauce soaking the layers and a wonderful frosting that was like a hybrid of old-fashioned vanilla icing and cream cheese. Even people who think they hate frosting need to try this one. It’s less about being fancy than it is about flavor and having a good time.

Besides, what’s better than going out and having a great meal and a good time? Isn’t that why people go to dinner in the first place? Bramble can provide that experience. Here, Bramble offers the trademark thoughtfulness about food that chef Randy Rucker is known for. It’s good to have him back.

2231 South Voss, 832-819-0322. Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Last seating at 10 p.m.

Creamer peas $6
Collard greens $6
Squash blossom beignets $9
Charcuterie board $17
Yardbird (roasted chicken) $17 and $25
Gulf fish (lunch fillet) $19
Grilled quail $28
Butter toffee cake $9
French press coffee for two $7
South side cocktail $11
Namesake (Bramble) cocktail $12

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