Bernadine’s Focuses on Gulf Coast Seafood, Achieving Some Stunning Successes

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Like many Houston restaurants that have opened lately, Bernadine’s has a raw seafood program. It’s not about East Coast oysters or fish flown in from other countries, though. The focus at Bernadine’s is on the very best that can be had from the Gulf Coast. There’s a selection of fine raw oysters that changes daily. Cedar Key oysters from Pelican Reef — all that was left by 1 p.m. during Sunday brunch — were sparklingly fresh and pleasantly medium-size.

The red snapper ceviche, though, was beyond pleasant — it was stunning. The bowl was lined with slices of green tomato so thin the plate could be seen right through them. On top, thick slices of red snapper were interwoven with wedges of sunset-red blood orange, charred triangles of pineapple and peachy-pink hunks of pickled turnips. With the push-and-pull between the fish, fresh fruit and tart lime juice, and green tomato flavors, the ceviche was a study in perfectly balanced flavors and colors.

Of the three restaurants that Treadsack Group has worked on over the past few years, Bernadine’s was the last to be conceived and the last to open — and it was a surprise from the get-go. The Gulf Coast-focused restaurant, named after chef Graham Laborde’s grandmother, wasn’t even announced until December 2014, long after the other two, Hunky Dory and Foreign Correspondents.

Originally, Foreign Correspondents was to reside next to Hunky Dory in the two-restaurant concept at 1801 North Shepherd. It was surprising to hear that, instead, it was going into a strip center at 4721 North Main and Bernadine’s would be Hunky Dory’s next-door neighbor.
Bernadine’s seemed like the dark horse. It was a good bet that chef Richard Knight’s fan base from his former British restaurant, Feast, would embrace Hunky Dory, and chef P.J. Stoops was known thanks to his work as a fishmonger who supplied many popular Houston restaurants. His promise that Foreign Correspondents would introduce Houstonians to northern Thai food yet incorporate local ingredients was tantalizing.

Despite a solid résumé that includes Commander’s Palace and Stella in New Orleans, Laborde wasn’t really known by Houston diners. His only Bayou City stint prior to working with Treadsack had been as Jonathan Jones’s sous chef at Concepción, and that restaurant didn’t last long thanks mainly to its out-of-the-way location.

So far, it looks like Treadsack’s bet is paying off. Friday and Saturday nights at Bernadine’s are very busy and reservations are highly recommended.

When it’s very busy, Bernadine’s isn’t always a well-oiled operation. Service was slow on a Friday night. We ordered cocktails and snapper ceviche immediately, but then sat with only the drink list and raw bar menu for 20 minutes. When the server came back, we asked for the dinner menu, and he said, “You don’t want to order anything from the raw bar menu?” He seemed a little disappointed that the answer was no. Didn’t the $18 ceviche count?

Most of the time, though, Bernadine’s is rather excellent. There’s an honest, open spirit here that seems driven by Laborde’s own personality. A case in point: Normally, Bernadine’s serves one of Houston’s better gumbos. It’s a piquant, Creole-style type that relies more on the quality of the stock than on swarthy, dark roux. It is rich with smoked duck stock, duck meat and oysters, and peppered with hearty slices of andouille.

One night, though, it seemed like a poor man’s soup. The broth was watery. The slices of andouille were thin and miserly, and the flavor had been boiled away. When the server asked us how it was, we gave an honest answer. Laborde went to the kitchen, tasted the gumbo himself and pulled it from the menu for the rest of the evening. He chose not to sell something that might reduce a patron’s regard for the overall quality of the food at Bernadine’s. That is the difference between choosing the long view and making a short-term money grab. By the next visit, the gumbo was back to normal.

Things happen. It is the chef’s response to problems that makes the difference between a good restaurant and a bad one.

Comfort dishes abound and are often full of creamy, crispy goodness. At brunch, black pepper biscuits served Rockefeller-style are nearly hidden under a wealth of creamy beurre blanc heavily laden with lumps of whole lump crab meat. Dotted along the sides of the glorious mess are perfect cornmeal-fried oysters, as if just waiting to catch the runoff. As if that weren’t enough, two sunny-side-up eggs perch on top, cascading their golden glory once the yolks are breached.
At dinner, the cochon de lait au presse, or pressed suckling pig, strikes the same comforting note. While the young pork is already quite tender, Laborde increases the fat content by adding a bit of pork belly. The result is like a pork version of duck confit. The meat sits atop a variation on classic Southern greens and black-eyed peas, but in this case, it’s a “dirty” farro (seasoned similarly to dirty rice) and more tender Swiss chard. Alone, the farro seemed a little overburdened with hot sauce, but when it’s eaten with the pork, the combination of vinegary heat complements and cuts through the richness.

The tab at Bernadine’s can certainly climb quickly, but that’s mainly because the menu is an adult playland of irresistible temptations. Not including alcoholic beverages, the cost for two people at brunch was $112.87 before cocktails, tax and tip, and it’s the same as the cost for dinner. The experience, though, is both homey and sumptuous.

Our dining companion for brunch was a self-declared picky eater who said he did not like pears. However, the meal had been so successful that he agreed to give the gianduja marquise a whirl anyway. It’s a layered dessert of hazelnut-infused milk chocolate cream (think Nutella), vanilla pastry cream and chopped pears macerated in bourbon, topped with caramel-coated bits of popcorn and benne seeds (a more flavorful kind of heirloom sesame seed ubiquitous in the Old South).

It was probably the bourbon part that convinced him to try it — but it all turned out to be a winning combination. The caramel corn lent perky crunch to every creamy bite, and the boozy pears donated a fruity lilt that kept the creamy layers from ever being too heavy.

Bernadine’s is the home of one of Houston’s best brunch cocktails — the Breakfast Club, a mix of rye whiskey, elderflower liqueur, real vanilla and a very strong New Orleans-style coffee liqueur made by craft distillery St. George in the San Francisco Bay area. Served over ice in a tall glass, it’s both refreshing and the most decadent, boozy coffee ever.

Some of the other cocktails could stand a little tweaking. The Oyster Shell martini, which incorporates a bit of oyster brine, sounds like a good alternative to a dirty martini but just didn’t make an impact. It needed to be boozier and saltier, and we couldn’t get our server to explain the specifics of “ocean water tincture.” It was hard to eradicate the mental picture of someone filling up dropper bottles in Galveston Bay.

During brunch, the house mix for the Bernadine’s Bloody Mary leaned a little far to the sweet side. It has potential, though, and sported a peppy garnish with a sizable marinated shrimp, pickled radish and red onion.

Visually, Bernadine’s has an identity that distinguishes it from Hunky Dory next door. Both are light and airy. However, Hunky Dory’s pale green walls and beadboard are reminiscent of a 1970s cottage, whereas Bernadine’s is accented in country gold and nautical blue, a nod to its focus on Gulf Coast seafood. There are plenty of natural wood elements, too, including a wooden latticework ceiling.

Even though it’s only a few months old, Bernadine’s already has a very strong brunch game, and dinner has just a few minor issues that likely can be put to bed with shored-up processes and maybe a few additional staff members. Diners should consider their budget before walking in, for from appetizers to desserts, the menu is full of delightful temptations. The Treadsack group took on a monumental task in opening three restaurants back-to-back, but the gambit is paying off. All three — Hunky Dory, Foreign Correspondents and now Bernadine’s — have earned good reviews and are well on their way to earning enduring places in the hearts of diners in The Heights.

1801-B North Shepherd, 713-864-2565. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Gumbo $16
Red snapper ceviche $18
Half dozen Cedar Keys oysters $18
Black pepper biscuits Rockefeller $25
Cochon de lait au presse $32
Gianduja marquise $12
Bernadine’s Bloody Mary $10
Oyster shell martini $12
Breakfast Club cocktail $12

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