God Bless Americana: Brooklyn Athletic Club's Sinful Blend of Comfort Food and Class
To behind the scenes at Brooklyn Athletic Club to see them prepare a dish and get a look at the space in our slideshow: Club Fed: Behind the Scenes at Brooklyn Athletic Club.
The porkobuco arrived juicy and steaming, earthy notes of mushrooms and bacon wafting across the room in its wake. It's an entire pork shank cooked in the style of osso buco, first browned, then braised, until the meat is falling off the bone. It's served over a hash of firm potato medallions, mushrooms, asparagus and thick chunks of perhaps the most divine applewood-smoked bacon I've ever encountered.
The pork on the bone was so tender I found myself completely forgoing my knife. And then I found myself with two forks, the salad fork and the dinner fork, one in each hand, stabbing at the amalgamation of supple pork and smoky hash in an effort to get it more quickly into my mouth.
I remained a two-fisted eater throughout my meal at Brooklyn Athletic Club that day. Who cared that outside, games of bocce were going on? Who cared about the more dignified clientele at nearby tables? I was there for the food.
We'd had no idea what to wear to the place on a Friday night. The menu sounded upscale, but how do you play bocce in heels? The wine and beer lists are extensive and include some pricey offerings, and the cocktails are stylish takes on classic combinations. But then there's the food truck parked in the courtyard. And the picnic tables. And the name: Brooklyn Athletic Club. Would spandex be more appropriate than silk?
As it turns out, it doesn't matter what you wear; Brooklyn Athletic Club accommodates itself to all its guests.
Temperatures have warmed considerably since the restaurant opened in January — when the weather was perfect for cuddling up by a fire with a glass of wine and one of chef Jeff Axline's hearty offerings.
And though the notion of eating a pork shank in the hot sun may not be as enticing as it was in the winter, the food is still sinfully good.
The restaurant sits on a corner lot on Richmond Avenue in Montrose, somewhat removed from the sounds of traffic and the bustle of the city. In the fenced-in courtyard, diners can play a round of bocce on one of three courts or duke it out in a game of beanbag toss. There's a backyard bar for those who simply wish to kick back with a beer, and though it's now too hot to sit by a fire, the patio's fire pits become veritable s'mores factories on chilly spring evenings. Add a few tents, and diners might never have to leave.
Restaurateur Shepard Ross had been germinating the idea for BAC for some time, and when the space that was once home to Zimm's Little Deck opened up, he telephoned Axline in Austin, and together they got the (bocce) ball rolling.
Brooklyn Athletic Club is the third partnering for this dynamic duo, who previously worked together at Glass Wall and BRC Gastropub, where Axline created a Texana menu to complement Ross's cozy craft beer haven. Both eventually split from BRC, but now they've reunited to form an edible homage to both Brooklyn and Houston.
Ross developed the concept for the restaurant, based on a club his grandparents frequented in Brooklyn, and Axline created the menu, which he describes as "Americana." Ross wanted a Reuben and a meatball sub, while Axline wanted his famous mac and cheese and a slew of specials that could change with the season. It's an odd mix of gourmet and comfort food, white linen napkins and sweaty outdoor sports.
As it should be in any good restaurant, though, it's really the food that ties together the concept and the execution. Those who seek out that picnic-and-croquet vibe can order burgers and beer, while those hoping for an upscale, country club-esque experience will be pleased with the lengthy wine selection and perfectly cooked meat.
The menu is simple and short: one oversized page of appetizers, salads and entrées and a few specials offered every evening. The lunch menu differs from the dinner menu in that it includes fewer plated meat and fish dishes and more sandwiches, but most appetizers are featured on both menus.
Each appetizer could be a meal in itself for someone with a normal appetite, but who are we kidding? This is Brooklyn in Texas, baby! We put ribs in our mac and cheese! We don't serve cups of corn chowder — we bring you a bowl and invite you to swim in it!
Everything on the menu seems made for sharing, but you might not want to. Even after consuming the better part of a pork shank the previous evening (and the rest for breakfast), I had difficulty sharing my sweet potato gnocchi with my mother at lunch.
The gnocchi appetizer features plump, irregularly shaped dumplings with the sweetness and texture of yam pudding that very literally melts in your mouth. The plate incorporates apples for more sweetness and acidity and mushrooms that give the sage cream sauce an earthy depth. Again, I found myself holding two forks, one with a lump of gnocchi on it, the other skewering an apple slice. Had I possessed a third hand, I would have dipped my fingers wantonly into the cream sauce, manners be damned.
Is this what Axline perfected in between cooking up buttery biscuits at BRC Gastropub and returning to the Houston food scene? During his absence for the past few years, Axline worked for the Lakeway Resort on Lake Travis. The hotel business was all fine and dandy, but when he began to discuss with Ross the offer to open Brooklyn Athletic Club, the opportunity seemed too good.
So here he is, stopping by tables to chat with patrons in between creating masterpieces like pork rillettes, the likes of which I haven't had since I dined in a troglodyte cave in France more than a decade ago. The French restaurant brought a few small ramekins half-filled with the buttery paste of pork cooked to tender perfection in its own fat. Brooklyn Athletic Club will bring you a four-ounce Mason jar packed full of enough rillettes to feed a small army; you might well forget about spreading it on toast and just attack the meaty goodness head-on with a spoon.
Between the rillettes; the gnocchi; and the beautifully balanced butter lettuce salad with hunks of avocado, Texas grapefruit and queso fresco, my fellow diners and I found ourselves nearly unable to order a lunch entrée. Nearly.
Above the din of lunchtime conversation (it can get fairly loud in the small interior dining room), we decided on the FBLT, a twist on the classic BLT that includes fried green tomatoes, deviled-egg mayo and that incredible Nueske's bacon. It was everything a BLT should be, but it seemed lackluster after the masterpieces that were the porkobuco, the gnocchi, the rillettes and even the butter lettuce salad.
Dessert was also something of a disappointment. The s'mores bread pudding was overly sweet, the four-layer chocolate cake was dry and not rich enough, and the cheesecake lacked the tartness of a real New York cheesecake (my mother, a real New Yorker, confirmed this).
It says a lot about the rest of the food and the dining experience, though, that no one in my party held the desserts against Brooklyn Athletic Club. We each took several bites, proclaimed we'd had better, then started excitedly talking about how we'd eat the rest of the porkobuco for breakfast the next day and what we'd like to order for lunch in a mere 15 hours. And then we talked about coming back for dinner and what we'd try next time.
Next time we won't worry about what to wear or whether we should sit outside and play bocce or sit inside and sip wine. We won't worry about whether those things are mutually exclusive.
We will bask in the hip, Brooklyn-inspired restaurant dropped down in the middle of Houston and all its seemingly discordant idiosyncrasies. And we'll fast for the 12 hours before we get there, because the food is just that gratifying.
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