A perfectly poached 63-degree egg -- one of only two things that Chef Amanda McGraw cooks sous-vide at Brasserie 19, the other being a giant pork chop -- is spilling its saffron-colored yolk across the crispy top of a parmesan custard inside a shallow, white ramekin. Off to one side, a couple of spoonfuls of caviar rest gently.
The yolk is slowly beginning to reach the tiny, gunmetal-colored pile of roe. But before it can do so, I scoop all three components up with my spoon -- viscous yolk, creamy custard, salty eggs -- and spread it across a piece of warm, soft baguette. The flavors are sudden and sharp, all bright brininess from the caviar and a softly salty lift of creamy parmesan custard underneath. Only the egg yolk serves to temper the two contrastingly salty flavors, soaking them up and rendering them elegant, refined and fascinating.
It's such a fun study in texture, temperature and taste, made all the more so by its unexpectedness here at the country clubbish Brasserie 19. The moneyed River Oaks restaurant normally specializes in steak frites, raw oysters and trout almondine -- traditional Brasserie food served to patrons with old-school appetites -- but McGraw is intent on shaking things up with her off-menu specials.
It's this blend of traditional dishes along with more adventurous platings of rainbow runner crudo or pickled shrimp with smoked crème fraîche that makes Brasserie 19 such an intriguing place to eat right now.
You get the sense that, if left to her own devices, McGraw would transform the entire menu in this way. But then it wouldn't be a brasserie. Instead, McGraw continues to make sure the brasserie basics are cooked perfectly so that she's allowed the leeway to experiment with more of these "fun" dishes.
Pickled shrimp with smoked crème fraîche are among those fun little treats available right now. The shrimp is fresh from the Gulf, pickled very lightly and served atop a shaved fennel salad with earthy pops of celery -- all of which would be good in and of itself. But McGraw takes it a step further by smoking crème fraîche in a hotel pan with wood chips, a process which imparts a woodsy aroma and wonderfully charred flavor to the normally sour, tangy cream. That signature tang is still there, of course; it's just softened a smidge with that irresistible allure of campfires or well-seasoned barbecue smokers.
Like the shrimp, the soft pink rainbow runner she uses in a fanciful crudo is straight from the Gulf and barely requires a cure. Instead, mandolined slices of even brighter pink watermelon are draped across the fish, then crowned with equally summery components: punches of micro cilantro and the citrusy pop of yuzu. A sprinkling of crushed hazelnuts on top gives the dish all of the subtle crunch and saltiness it needs.
But even with these new specials, McGraw manages to stay true to the brasserie format: good seafood and good French food are still held tightly in focus. It's this sort of dedication that's kept her at Brasserie 19 as chef de cuisine through three different chefs since it opened a little over a year ago. And it's her talent which finally led to owners Charles Clark and Grant Cooper allowing her to take over the kitchen as head chef in June. Along with Coppa chef Brandi Key (who, coincidentally, happens to be McGraw's long-term girlfriend), she is one of two female executive chefs in Clark and Cooper's restaurant empire here in Houston.
Fans of traditional foie gras will find something even more exciting in McGraw's treatment of the lobes: She's poaching them in brandy right now, then serving the tender, dense liver with an apricot puree and a sort of grown-up Jell-O made with Lillet Blanc, which is a blend of white wine and citrus liqueur. Both serve to cut the fattiness of the foie gras without sacrificing any of the rich flavor.
Even veal sweetbreads -- which can be terrifically tender but otherwise bland on their own -- are given an interesting spin on McGraw's new specials menu, coated in an herb batter and fried up before being served on a bed of horseradish cream between jagged leaves of peppery mizuna and crispy, dehydrated apple slices.
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SHOW ME HOW
It's hard to believe sometimes that McGraw only graduated from the Art Institute three short years ago, nor that it wasn't long ago that she was a cheesemonger with the Houston Dairymaids. Running the kitchen like a professional at Brasserie 19, she seems made for the role -- one which she's taken on with graceful aplomb. The surprisingly deft way in which she's done so only makes it all the more satisfying, and all the more exciting to watch her trajectory in the future.