"Yankee pot roast" is exactly what you might expect from a place calling itself a "fine diner." The tender beef roast is topped with buttery, crunchy bread crumbs and surrounded by fluffy Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Nothing is overseasoned or overspiced. It's classic and safe but incredibly satisfying. It's just upscale enough to merit the designation "fine," but still straightforward in a fast-casual sort of way. This, unlike previous menu iterations that included frog legs and expensive, rare steak, feels like diner food.
So, too, does a pan-roasted swordfish on a bed of corn salsa. It's like spa food in its simplicity, and even after downing the entire fillet of fish and accoutrements, I felt light. Full and nourished, but not overly so. I wasn't excited by the dish, but I left the restaurant feeling healthy and, again, satisfied.
It was quality food, sure, but somehow not what I expected from Bradley Ogden, two-time James Beard award-winner and legend in the California food scene, and his son Bryan Ogden, his second in command. Bradley Ogden rose to culinary fame in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he served as executive chef at the Campton Place Hotel. Once that took off, he opened a slew of other restaurants, including The Lark Creek Inn, which he refers to as his signature restaurant thanks to its use of seasonal local ingredients in upscale but classic preparations. This is the Ogden style of cuisine, so where was it at Bradley's Fine Diner?
Many of the "signature dishes" — the things Ogden advertised when BFD debuted, the things that are still featured prominently on the website — are no longer on the menu. I was disappointed to find there were no "shake and bake" frog legs with sunchoke and no oak-grilled, center cut Texas Wagyu beef. Caviar and quail eggs on brioche toast is noticeably missing as well, and a spring pea soup carefully plated table-side has disappeared along with Houston's cool spring nights.
This is perhaps a reflection of the season, as Ogden is known for making use of nature's bounty if and when it's available. But I wonder if BFD and Ogden's other concepts — Funky Chicken, a fried-chicken joint, and the soon-to-come Ogden Pour Society, an upscale pub — are pandering to a Houston crowd, presumably unaccustomed to California-style dining. Surely this isn't the best Ogden has to offer...right?
It was a strange moment when the first bite of steak met my mouth. The large strip cooked to a perfect medium rare with a lovely dark sear on the outside and a pink, juicy interior didn't taste like steak. It tasted like lighter fluid, like the gasoline from the grill. Even trimming the edges — which was a shame because the fat was nicely rendered and the meat well-seasoned — couldn't eliminate the chemical flavor that now infused the meat.
My fellow diner and I moved on to the side of asparagus, a recommendation from the server, and found it, too, had a distinct grilled flavor with a strong essence of lighter fluid. The steak was aided by a smear of shallot-zinfandel butter, but even dipping the asparagus spears in garlic hummus couldn't mask the acrid flavor of petroleum. We told the server we wouldn't be taking the asparagus in a doggy bag, but she wrapped it up anyway, insisting she couldn't let it go to waste. We didn't have the heart to tell her it already had.
The menu describes both the NY strip steak and the asparagus as "wood grilled," so the caustic gas taste of the food is surprising. Generally, when lighter fluid is used, it's with charcoal briquettes, not wood, which ignites much more easily with crumpled newspaper or kindling. Wood usually imparts a smoky flavor unique to the type of wood used, but this, unfortunately, was lacking.
Even when I returned for lunch and ordered the pan-seared swordfish, intent on staying away from the grill, I detected a slight taste of lighter fluid. My friend insisted I was imagining it, that I was expecting an unpleasant flavor and so it manifested. I insisted it was probably burned into my taste buds.
Between that, the overzealous service, the unique atmosphere and the delicious desserts, I'll say this for the place — Bradley's Fine Diner certainly makes an impression, for better or worse.
On the better end of the spectrum, sweets. For a fellow not necessarily known for his desserts, Ogden produces some delicious dishes to end the meal. Seasonal sorbets are made in-house, and the current offerings — lemon, nectarine and strawberry — are more smooth than icy and are served with a ginger crumble for some crunchy texture. Pastries and breads are made in-house too, and the strawberry shortcake is a near perfect example of the chef's baking skills. From the flaky, buttery biscuit to the simple, fresh whipped cream and large slices of bright red, juicy strawberries, the traditional dish still manages to wow.
Though the signature dessert (there are a lot of "signature" items) is butterscotch pudding, nearly every table around me on each visit finished the meal with a dark chocolate banana cake. The moist cake is filled with banana cream and surrounded by a crunchy chocolate crumble, caramel ice cream, drizzles of caramel and small slices of banana. I only wished the banana had been sprinkled with sugar and zapped with a blowtorch, rather than served raw. That would have put the decadent dessert over the top.
For all the stunning sorbets and gooey cakes, though, I can't help being disappointed by the regular lunch and dinner offerings. I wonder if he's toned down the place for a Texas audience, rather than amp up the California-style cuisine that made him famous. Even the oak-grilled chuck burger, something BFD advertises as a famous dish, something that should be even more perfect in Texas than among the health-conscious Bay Area crowd, even that damn burger is lackluster. It's no better or worse than any of the hundreds other of uninspiring burgers around town. And I had a vague sense that it, too, tasted a little like lighter fluid.
When I first heard the name for the place and saw the logo — capital BFD flanked by stars — I could only think one thing: Big Fucking Deal.
The chef and owner, Bradley Ogden, is a prolific restaurateur with two James Beard awards to his name, but even so, I was surprised by the gutsy name choice. Bryan Ogden confirmed that the duo was aware of the implications of the acronym, but they weren't intentional, at least not initially.
"It wasn't originally supposed to stand for anything, but it took on that," he says. "We did notice it and thought it would make a statement."
Big deal or not, Bradley's Fine Diner has suffered something of an identity crisis since it opened, toning down fancier, more creative dishes in favor of things like fish and chips and steak and potatoes. It started as upscale dining with a Southern slant, but found itself a little more upscale than the environment and neighborhood, so it's evolved to blend in. It's gotten comfy and, in doing so, complacent.
Perhaps after years of striving to be the best and the newest and the most innovative, that's what Ogden is trying to do. He's getting comfy. First he opened a fried-chicken joint here in Houston, a surprise to those who knew him as the seasonal, local California chef. Now he's focused on BFD, easing it away from challenging dishes into comfort-food territory. He's even added a weekly "blue plate special" to the menu in an effort to further highlight the diner quality. This week it's meat loaf.
I wish it were the seared tuna on the menu during opening week, though. Or the "eggs and toast" featuring sustainable American caviar and runny fried quail eggs. Or pan-seared black cod with delightfully curly fiddlehead ferns. Or bone marrow, sweet, sweet bone marrow smeared on house-made toast.
Usually, I want restaurants to evolve as time moves on, but with Bradley's Fine Diner, I kind of wish we could go back to the start.