On a drizzly Thursday night, the warmly glowing interior of Brasserie 19 beckoned the crowds inside its crisp white interior and onto its broad patio. The restaurant's neighbors in River Oaks are already so fond of the new place that they were intentionally occupying that patio despite the hair-frizzing, suit-wrinkling rain outside.
Inside, my dining companion and I feasted on chilled pea soup, escargot gratin, Slow Dough bread and an expertly cooked piece of Gulf snapper with a lightly crispy skin and a bright array of vegetables resting both above and beneath it. We took in the society page faces and the loud chatter, the a la minute technologies like a spirits list on an iPad, and the Art Deco black and white clock that shines through the plate glass windows from the twin River Oaks Shopping Center across West Gray. The place seemed effortless, timeless and yet very of the moment.
True to its name -- "19" being chosen in reference to the ZIP code -- Brasserie 19 is the new living room of River Oaks. There were between 350 and 400 covers on the first night alone. But I don't think owners Charles Clark and Grant Cooper would have had it any other way.
The place is designed to be welcoming, yet imparts a serious, slightly fussy vibe inside its brass-outfitted dining room. It's a vibe that says, "Important things are being discussed at this bar. Charity events are being planned at these tables." It permeates the room, despite the warm feel of the place and the fact that its food is otherwise approachable, aside from somewhat high prices.
Those high prices translate to the wine list, too, where I was chagrined to see only six wines available by the glass. The pressure is on here to purchase an entire bottle, which I don't think is necessarily true to the spirit of a brasserie. Luckily, and naturally, there was a surfeit of excellent cocktails and beers to choose from as well.
And only three weeks into being open, the kitchen already seems to have its act together despite some reported early jitters and despite the fact that it's still doing 200 to 250 covers a night. And it has a strong sense of purpose, which is just as important: To make straightforward brasserie-style fare, and to make it good.
In that respect, Brasserie 19 is succeeding in its first few weeks. Despite the upper-crusty allure of the place, I don't think it would be quite as packed every single night if it weren't. My English pea soup ($9) was an ideal defense against the muggy, humid weather that evening, crisp and earth-sweet and tasting of spring in spite of everything outside. It only needed a few finishing jigs of pepper; I was disappointed to not be offered cracked black pepper, but it was the only minor issue of the entire evening.
My red snapper ($27) was as close to perfect as I could have asked for, with that crispy skin that -- blessedly -- had been salted just the right amount. It tasted like red snapper chicharrones...chicharrones without the fatty guilt. I loved the whole baby carrots served beneath the fish and the peppery arugula on top, and I relished taking small swipes through the light pesto served on the side with every other bite of fish. It all worked to keep the fish summery and sprightly despite its substantial size.
I was glad I'd gone with the snapper instead of the comparatively heavier veal blanquette, the special of the day, but was simply glad to see the Brasserie doing daily specials. Cassoulet on Sundays, roasted leg of lamb on Fridays...these hearty daily specials speak to a true brasserie format, even if -- as my dining companion pointed out -- there aren't any sausage dishes to be found on the menu.
Regardless, I was also glad to see a very accommodating waitstaff and kitchen, who happily honored my companion's request for a hamburger ($14) even though it wasn't on the dinner menu. This, too, is true brasserie style: The full menu should be served all day, after all. And I was very happy he'd ordered it, as it immediately took a spot in my list of "burgers to try again," with a hugely beefy flavor and tons of juice soaking the bun.
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A strawberry shortcake ($9) that was neither too dense nor too affectedly light ended the meal on a high note, and just in time, too; it was becoming deafeningly loud inside. Even with a special sound-absorbing floor, the Brasserie will inevitably reach uncomfortable decibel levels each night if it continues packing them in the way it has so far.
But there's always that front patio. And there's no threat of rain any time soon in the forecast...