A Preview of Bernadine's Restaurant Coming to Houston

Last week, attendees got a look at what chef Graham Laborde has planned for forthcoming restaurant Bernadine's at a Kipper Club pop-up dinner. It was the second preview dinner, since the one held back in January sold out. It proved to be a fresh take on Gulf Coast cuisine that embraces its lowbrow roots.

Treadsack group has been talking about Richard Knight's forthcoming Hunky Dory and P.J. Stoop's Foreign Correspondents for about two years now and they're finally getting close to realizing those dreams. Bernadine's, however, turned out to be the unexpected baby -- the result of the right person for the right concept being around at the right time.

Laborde is from Lafayette and has experience working in New Orleans restaurants like Commander's Palace, Stella and Boucherie. Later, he moved to Houston and helped chef Jonathan Jones open the tragically short-lived Concepción. His Gulf Coast background proved a perfect fit for a concept that Treadsack group owners Chris Cusack and Benjy Mason were already kicking around.

"When we met and started talking, it just felt like a natural evolution," says Laborde. "It also happened to be something that fell right in my wheelhouse. I was comfortable both with the cuisine and scope of the project." Bernadine's is named for his grandmother, the first person to inspire his culinary interest.

Laborde has a different lens on Southern cuisine that goes far beyond oyster platters, gumbo and catfish. A fine example: Rather than making gumbo or standard étouffée, he made a roux and stuffed crawfish heads with a simple mix of crawfish tails and the "Cajun Holy Trinity": onions, green bell pepper and celery. He laid four of the stuffed crawfish heads atop the roux in each bowl.

By far, one of the most entertaining moments of the evening was watching diners extract the contents and then hang the little heads off the sides of their bowls. It was a strangely decorative, un-self-conscious celebration of food. In another fun dish, sweet green peas rolled merrily alongside Vermillion Snapper and sprigs of asparagus.

A trio of starters epitomized the finest in unpretentious Southern snacks: deep-fried pimento cheese balls that were crunchy on the outside and wonderfully warm and silky on the interior; cracklins; and meaty crab claw "fingers."

Where does Laborde get his food perspective, exactly? From the rural areas that border I-10 East, among other things. He says that at Bernadine's, "you're just as likely to find a New Orleans-style dish as something from Lejeune's Smokehouse in Eunice or Durand's grocery store in Mansura."

Bernadine's is currently expected to open in mid- to late-June next door to Hunky Dory at 1819 North Shepherd.

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