With a Grain of Salt
See Dr. Pepper-friend quail in the making in our slideshow.
I don't really know where to begin with BRC Gastropub, the latest restaurant collaboration between Lance Fegen and Shepard Ross — who also created Glass Wall in the Heights — with chef Jeff Axline at the helm.
I really want to like this place with its expansive menu of American craft beers, its emphasis on serving local products like Pola cheese and My Dee Dee's pies, and its tongue-in-cheek playfulness, evident everywhere you look, from the name (BRC stands for "Big Red Cock") to the joyous jumble of colors and textures inside that look like a diorama created from several random issues of Southern Living. And sometimes I do like it.
Other times, however, the food simply falls flat. I find myself frustrated and confused with what should be, by all rights, every bit as consistently wonderful as its comrade-in-arms across the street, Branch Water Tavern. But consistency is where BRC struggles, and it's a damn shame.
I don't believe it's for a lack of trying, however, which gives me hope that BRC might yet improve. The restaurant has clearly listened to patrons' concerns in the six months that it's been open. An initial complaint with the restaurant when it first started up was that the front door and hostess stand were confusingly located. BRC has cleared that issue up, with the front door now clearly marked and the hostess stand in a more sensible location. But they've also changed other things that didn't need to be altered, like abandoning the gorgeous, leather-bound booklets that held the cleverly written beer list in favor of paper inserts in the same cheap plastic folders that hold the regular menu.
And that's not the only thing that's changed. The first time I dined at BRC, back in May, I loved nearly everything my dining companion and I ordered: the Dr Pepper-fried quail, the blue cheese potato salad served with it, the Maryland crabcake sliders, smoked cheddar-studded buttermilk biscuits served with bacon jam that reminded me of the pig candy my mother always made when I was a kid.
In particular, the Dr Pepper-fried quail and the potato salad blew me away. The fowl was fresh and sweet, the dark meat just barely infused with the plummy soda and lightly fried to perfection. The tangy potato salad underneath it left me wondering why more places don't serve this concoction: Soft potatoes, sharply sour blue cheese, crunchy celery and bites of cucumber all blurred together into a dish that makes the argument between mustard-based potato salad and mayo-based potato salad entirely irrelevant.
Only the frozen Snicker beignets and the much-touted macaroni and cheese disappointed. And since that visit, the mac and cheese has significantly improved, to the point that we gave BRC an award for Best Mac and Cheese in our most recent Best of Houston® issue (as well as a richly deserved award for Best Beer Selection). But the rest of the food seems to have gone downhill.
On my second visit to BRC this past week, my dining companion and I found ourselves battling one another for the saltshaker on the table. She, a well-known pastry chef, despaired aloud, her voice strained with frustration: "I never salt anything, Katharine. Do you understand that? I never salt things. This is ridiculous."
And it was starting to verge on ridiculous, almost comical. In a city where so many restaurants usually serve their dishes criminally oversalted, BRC has swung to the opposite side of the salt spectrum; nearly everything was undersalted. Even my companion's salad. Yes, salad.
That salad, The Leghorn, sounded promising on the menu: roasted chicken with mixed greens, a nine-minute egg, smoked bacon, Blue Heron Farm cheese and an apple cider-mustard dressing. The roasted chicken had no seasoning, however, and tasted as bland as a defrosted chicken breast. The dressing had no hint of either cider or mustard. "I can't taste anything," my companion groused as she shoved a forkful of greens at me. And, to add insult to injury, the egg was not to her specifications, either. "Randy Rucker does a nine-minute egg at Bootsie's that really is a nine-minute egg," she grumbled. "It's still slightly runny, just barely verging on cooked all the way through. This is not a nine-minute egg."
My dish was better, but it's difficult to truly screw up mussels. The hand-cut fries, on the other hand, were soggy and required hefty amounts of salt. And while the mussels themselves were disconcertingly puny, the fennel-thickened broth was silken, cloudy ambrosia. It was expertly seasoned and was the one thing that didn't require any salting. Our cheerful, on-point waitress had been quick to recommend bringing out a couple of pieces of Slow Dough Bread Co.'s buttery sourdough to sop it up with. (Beware, though: Those two pieces of bread cost an extra $2, which the waitress failed to mention during her upsell.) Dabbing those thick, crusty pieces of bread into the rich broth was one of the better dining experiences I've had lately. So why can't BRC replicate this with all of its dishes?
Our appetizers that day at lunch had been rather sad: boudin balls with no boudin in them, fried far too long, until the exterior shell was so tough it required a knife to penetrate it. The folks running BRC need to visit Samburger in Denver Harbor and get churched on what real boudin balls should look and taste like. (Hint: Not petrified hushpuppies.) And the daily mac and cheese had lovely, caramelized ribbons of onion and poblano pepper running through it, but no hint of salt.
So it was with trepidation that we ordered and split a dessert: "Rice Crispy" ice cream sandwiches. My pastry chef girlfriend was particularly wary of what would arrive. We each picked one up when the trio of little sandwiches landed in front of us and bit in. They were fantastic. Just a simple combination of thin "Rice Crispy" treats filled with chocolate ice cream that was just sweet enough. She smiled for the first time throughout the meal as she licked the chocolate and caramel sauces off her fingers. "I would eat this all day," she grinned. "I truly would."
By this time, I was shocked to discover that we had stayed well past 2 p.m. — BRC closes between lunch and dinner — but our waitress never hurried us or otherwise chased us off. I was slightly embarrassed as I finished off my sweetly spiced Dogfish Head Punkin Ale and left an extra amount on the tip line before dashing out.
On my third visit, my dining companion and I shied away from any of the heavy, fried appetizers — my last visit had left me with a stomach so full and heavy I couldn't eat again until breakfast, a full ten hours later, despite mostly consuming mussels, bread and only a few forkfuls of mac and cheese — and ordered the pickle jar, described as "Jeff [Axline]'s jar of house cured half-sour garlic, dill pickles and asparagus." A friend had told me it was the best appetizer on the menu.
The pickle jar came out cold and half-filled with a few pickles and stems of asparagus. I immediately got the very disconcerting feeling that this jar had been eaten on by a previous table and then stuck back into the fridge. I'm sure that's not the case, but I couldn't entirely shake the sense of eating after someone as I stuck my fork into the clamp-lid jar to spear a pickle. BRC might want to look into a different way of serving the vegetables, as they were quite good, if a little on the undersalted side (surprise!).
Our waiter seemed nervous and flustered as he waited on us. Was it his first night? I couldn't tell, but was slightly annoyed by the fact that water was never brought to our table despite repeated requests and by how flustered he was when my dining companion asked for a crisp, not terribly heavy seasonal beer from BRC's list. He scrambled for some suggestions before I finally ordered a Real Ale Oktoberfest for her and a dark Breckenridge Autumn Ale for myself. What's the point of having such a great beer list if your waitstaff aren't familiar with it?
The meal went slowly downhill from there. My friend's roasted chicken answered part of the question as to why the chicken in The Leghorn salad was so bland on my second visit. Yes, the chicken is roasted with butter between the skin and the flesh — as it well should be — but, once again, there was no salt evident on the chicken nor any of the roasted vegetables that accompanied it. Is the kitchen afraid of salt? Did they run out of it? Do we, as a city, need to pool our pocket change and buy Jeff Axline a pallet of Morton's kosher salt? If so, I will certainly be the first to throw in a donation, because the food could be so much better if only it were properly seasoned.
The second key to improving the food here would be to use less fat. Less butter, less peanut oil, less lard, less of all of that. If I thought my last meal left me with a full stomach, it was nothing compared to the incredibly greasy and terribly overpriced State Fair Griddled Cheese (fries cost extra, too) with pulled short-rib that was so rich I couldn't come close to finishing even half of it. Discarding the fatty meat, I dipped the sourdough bread and cheese into my fire-roasted tomato soup (which I had to salt liberally first) and salvaged most of the meal. Somewhere along the line during the construction of this sandwich — the heavily buttered bread, the thick slices of cheese, the fatty meat — someone needed to be stopped and told to use a lighter hand. It was a heart attack on a plate, and not in the fun sense.
Thankfully, dessert saved the day once again. A slice of pumpkin pie from My Dee Dee's Pies came with a pert scoop of vanilla ice cream (although I didn't appreciate being served the pie à la mode with no warning that the ice cream cost an extra $1.50 on top of the $5.50 for the pie itself). It had a melt-in-your-mouth crust and was neither too heavy nor too sweet, just pure and blissful Americana.
That's where BRC's strength lies: classic American food with a slight twist, made with local products and served with a cheeky smile. Now if only they can bring the dishes themselves up to par — all of them at once, not one at a time — and pass the salt.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.