History's at Steak
There is a pleasant aroma inside Brenner's Steakhouse and it isn't my medium-rare New York strip: I sent the steak back. My dining companion, who ordered a medium filet mignon, sent hers back too. Both were too rare. My tablemate detects the same aroma, sort of like the inside of a cedar chest. Maybe it's the newly restored knotty pine paneling, or maybe it's the cedar shingles on the outside of the building, but the woody smell reminds me of spending the night in an old summer cabin in the mountains.
Brenner's looks the rustic part. The 14-table main dining room is softly illuminated by antique lighting fixtures. The woodwork is installed with the kind of craftsmanship you don't see much anymore. One wall is made of flagstone with a built-in fireplace and the opposite one is a floor-to-ceiling window looking out over an enormous garden.
Our steaks make a reappearance. This time they are done to perfection. I never fault a steakhouse for erring on the rare side. It's disastrous to overcook a steak; either the diner has to compromise or the restaurant has to throw the expensive meat away and start over. It's easy, on the other hand, to take a steak back to the kitchen and cook it a little more.
The steaks at Brenner's are wet-aged, USDA Prime (see "Aging with Grace and Science," August 30, 2001). They are served on an oval plate in a puddle of au jus. It's a smart idea. The meat juice soaks in as you cut each bite, so there's never a chance for the meat to be dry. My companion's filet mignon is softer than butter, it's barely solid enough to chew. By comparison, she finds my New York Strip tough. In my two visits to Brenner's, I have also tried the ribeye and filet, but I like the New York strip the best. It's chewier, although you enjoy the flavor more. If you prefer meat that melts in your mouth, get the filet.
We try the German potatoes as a side dish. They are stained dark brown by the heavily caramelized onions and cooked until very soft. The house salad is not much more than lettuce and tomato. I get a laugh from the dressing. I went for something described as French garlic. It tastes like old-fashioned French dressings of yesteryear. Remember the kind your mom made with ketchup?
On the previous visit, I sampled a Gulf red snapper filet served simply with huge pieces of lump crabmeat over top and a wine butter sauce on the bottom. Incredibly fresh and moist, it was among the best snapper I have ever eaten.
The wine list is atrocious. I've tried ordering wine by the glass each time I've visited. With the fish, we got a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that tasted like the last glass from a bottle that had been open too long. Tonight we are sampling both the Chateau Greysac, which is sturdy but a little dull; and a Dry Creek Zinfandel, which is a so-so zin, but the only one available by the glass.
Gallo, Dry Creek, Beringer and other supermarket wines are on the short list of by-the-glass choices. Clearly, the management is trying to encourage you to order a bottle. But there aren't many interesting bottles either. The chic European couple at the table next to us is drinking a $195 bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet, one of the world's most overpriced wines.
Out the window, the sun is setting on the garden. With its stone waterfalls, wooden waterwheel and pouring overhead fountains sprouting from the rock-enclosed ponds, it looks pleasantly hokey in a Middle European sort of way. Behind the garden, there's a back wall of facades built to look like several adjoining country houses. The little Potmekin village was erected to block what would otherwise be a view of the Katy Freeway. Recently, a new walkway was installed around the garden perimeter so the restaurant's patrons can take a stroll. Some magnificent flowering plants have been added too.
The improvements are part of Brenner's complete renovation by its new owner, Landry's Restaurants, Inc. The company's CEO, Tilman Fertitta, reportedly put $1 million into sprucing up the interior, expanding the garden and adding an outdoor gazebo for parties. Fertitta evidently has fond memories of the place. According to the story printed on the back of the menu, the Fertitta family used to gather at Brenner's for special occasions when the young Tilman was growing up.
Brenner's was well-loved by several generations of Houstonians, and there were a lot of moans and groans when it closed its doors last year. But Mrs. Brenner was ready to retire. Lorene Brenner and her husband Herman opened the first Brenner's Café (not far from here) in 1936. Lorene, a German immigrant, met Herman while they were employed at The Old Vienna restaurant downtown. During the Depression years, Brenner's Café served sandwiches, fried chicken and even a steak now and then.
The original restaurant was torn down to build Katy Road. When the Brenners relocated to the current location, Lorene decided to build the kind of elaborate gardens she remembered from her childhood in Germany. They also changed the format; Brenner's Café became Brenner's Steakhouse. From the beginning the restaurant served only USDA Prime beef. The charming little cottage with the excellent steaks and the peaceful garden became a favorite of Houston's new western suburban set who were building houses along Memorial Drive in the 1950s and 1960s.
Herman Brenner died in 1976, and Mrs. Brenner operated the restaurant alone for many years. When Brenner's closed, Fertitta bought the place. His intention was never to change the format, but to recreate the original Brenner's. He even brought Lorene Brenner back as a consultant. As part of the transition, she taught Landry's staff how to prepare some of the restaurant's best known dishes, including her famous German potatoes and her apple strudel.
In a city that routinely bulldozes its landmarks, Brenner's revitalization is nothing short of amazing. It's one of the most reverential restorations of an old restaurant I've ever seen.
So here I am, singing the praises of Tilman Fertitta again (see "Forgiving Fertitta," June 26). Meanwhile, further down the Texas coast, another Houstonian is engaged in a last-ditch effort to stop him. The city of Corpus Christi and Landry's are negotiating a plan that would build a Kemah-like complex on that city's waterfront. The attractions would include 50,000 square feet of rides as well as an Aquarium restaurant, a Rain Forest Café, a Landry's Seafood restaurant and a Joe's Crab Shack.
Houston's Sissy Farenthold, a former state legislator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate with long-standing family ties to Corpus Christi, spoke at a town hall meeting there to object to the size of the amusement park and the rest of Landry's plans. Farenthold is a founder of the Organization for the Preservation of an Unblemished Shoreline (OPUS) which opposes the project.
"People here are adamantly opposed to this deal," Farenthold tells me on the phone. "I don't see how anybody representing the public interest could have let this go through. To me, it is the ultimate in privatization, everything for private interests and nothing for the public."
I oppose Landry's plans in Corpus Christi too, just in case anybody cares. I explain to Farenthold why I am writing this review in praise of Tilman Fertitta at the same time she and people in Corpus Christi are fighting him. Farenthold says she understands my dilemma and confesses that she is a regular reader of this column.
"Brenner's is a Houston landmark and he deserves credit for saving it," Farenthold says. "I just wish he would show the same sort of sentiment for our shoreline."
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