Turtle soup and gospel music are the co-stars in my fondest memory of Brennan's. It was a gorgeous sunny Sunday afternoon. We sat outside on a brick patio surrounded by so many palms and ferns that we felt like we were sitting in a French Quarter courtyard. I had a bowl of that dark brown and mysterious-looking turtle soup for starters and some big meaty crab cakes for an entrée. There was a lot of sparkling wine in tall flute glasses, as I recall. And if we were a trifle inebriated, the decadence was dispelled by the sudden appearance of a gospel trio. We sang along a little and felt like we had said our prayers. Then we drank some more champagne and ate the bread pudding soufflé.
I was sitting in the dark listening to a battery-powered radio and the howling storm outside when I heard that Brennan's was burning. The restaurant caught fire at around 4 a.m. on the morning of September 13, at the height of Hurricane Ike's fury. The eyewitness reports I heard on the radio speculated that a transformer exploded nearby, setting the roof of the historic building ablaze, but the fire department has not yet ruled on the cause of the fire. Two employees and one of their children who were trapped inside were rushed to the hospital after being rescued.
Alex Brennan-Martin, who has run the Houston restaurant for more than 20 years, established The New Orleans Hospitality Workers Disaster Relief Fund after Hurricane Katrina. The charity raised over $1 million to help struggling New Orleans restaurant professionals. It is sadly ironic that Brennan's of Houston ended up a hurricane victim itself.
The restaurant had recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. It was no coincidence that Brennan's looked and felt like New Orleans. It was owned by the branch of the Brennan family that also owns Commander's Palace and Café Adelaide in the Crescent City. The original structure dates from 1930, when it was built as the headquarters of the Junior League of Houston. Architect John F. Staub's redesign was an adaptation of French Quarter architecture to the Houston site. It was a wonderful example of adaptive reuse of a historical building. And its loss is a tragedy for Houston on many levels.
Brennan's was the restaurant where my family and lots of other Houston families celebrated big events. My daughters Katie and Julia had their first glass of bubbly at Brennan's on New Year's Eve. A few years later, we toasted a newborn into the family at a brunch reception held there after a baptism ceremony at a nearby church. I always recommended Brennan's to readers who were looking for a fine restaurant where a family could celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas. And Brennan's never disappointed.
For the Houston culinary scene, Brennan's was more than a great place to eat or to celebrate special occasions. Brennan's chefs, especially Carl Walker and Randy Evans, were at the forefront of the local food movement and tirelessly promoted the products of local farmers, fishermen and ranchers. The Texas Creole style that Brennan's pioneered was an adaptation of the Commander's Palace style of cookery to Texas ingredients and sensibilities.
Crawfish enchiladas were an original creation at Brennan's of Houston. So were the eggs hussard made with fried green tomatoes and Texas quail eggs. Texas quail were always available in one form or another, too. The menu proudly pointed out that the lump crabmeat used in the restaurant's stellar crab cakes came from Seadrift, Texas. Evans's recipes for Texas peach jam and local fig preserves appeared in the restaurant's recent cookbook, The Kitchen Table, along with preserves made with local satsumas and prickly pear fruit.
Brennan's was also one of the city's top training grounds for chefs. I asked a veteran of Brennan's kitchen to explain what it was like to work there. Brian McManus, the music editor of the Philadelphia Weekly, used to write about food and music for the Houston Press. He also worked as a musician and a chef in Houston. His first kitchen job was at Brennan's.
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"It was special. I'll miss it dearly," wrote McManus. "Cooking well for a restaurant as big and with a reputation as grand as Brennan's was HARD WORK, and, when we did it well, it was the most rewarding job a guy could want," McManus wrote. And he was in awe of the famous chefs who had come through Brennan's kitchen — like Mark Cox, Carl Walker, Mark Holley, Randy Evans and many others.
McManus also explained what Brennan's reputation as a special-occasion restaurant meant to the kitchen staff. "You just knew the expectation in the dining room every night was astronomical," he wrote. "Bad meals were not an option. My old sous chef, Mark Holley, used to get us up for a hard night's work at the beginning of every night by telling us who would be coming through the door — 'Teenagers on a first date. Guy wants to impress the girl. Couples on the 15th wedding anniversary. Man puts on his best suit. Woman puts on her finest dress. Every person walking through that door tonight is going to be celebrating something. Let's give them memories,' he used to say."
And that they did. Thanks to the staff at Brennan's, a lot of those memories will live on long after the building is gone.
As we went to press, Beth Flintoft of Brennan's P.R. firm in Chicago told me that Alex Martin-Brennan is still waiting for a determination from the fire department as to whether the building is a total loss or if some part of the structure can be salvaged. But whether they rebuild or start over from scratch, the Brennan's family hopes to someday open another Brennan's in Houston.