Chef Chat, Part 3: Jeff Axline of Brooklyn Athletic Club and a Taste of Americana

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This is the third part of a three-part Chef Chat series. If you missed the previous posts, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, we chatted with Jeff Axline of the new Brooklyn Athletic Club (BAC) on Richmond. We learned about his experiences, how he's made a name for himself with macaroni and cheese, his definition of "Americana"-type food, and what he thinks of the Austin food scene in comparison with Houston's. Today we try his food. And before you read further, I must warn you: It's gonna make you hungry.

Axline runs specials every night at his restaurant, but we focused mainly on the core, signature dishes on the regular BAC menu. We started with some sweet potato gnocchi, sautéed in a creamy sauce with caramelized mushrooms and apples, and topped with fried onions. The whole concept of BAC is tied closely to this social aspect of gaming. This is not to say that you couldn't visit BAC by yourself -- there's a fantastic counter for you to do that should you wish -- but to a large extent, the meals are meant to be shared. The first dish, the gnocchi, was created to be shared, and I could easily see a group of us digging into this dish at once, each going for a chunk of mildly sweet gnocchi.

The second thing that came out sort of stole the show for me. During our chat, Axline had mentioned how popular it was, but I had no idea what I was in for until I took a bite of the Reuben. The marbled rye, toasted directly on the grill, had that beautiful crispness of butter-grilled bread. The thick, juicy, literally oozing layers of corned beef, an explosion of pleasure-inducing flavor, the thousand island dressing and sauerkraut cutting through the richness so that I could barely suppress a moan after I took my first bite. I hate proclaiming things as "the best," but that's the first thing that popped into my mind: This is the best Reuben I've ever tasted. I munched excitedly on a few bites before moving on to the next dish he served me, his famous macaroni and cheese.

Crusty cheese drippings adhered lovingly to the sides of the cherry red Le Creuset mini cocotte. Golden brown herbed bread crumb crust topped what I knew would be a to-die-for macaroni and cheese, and it did not disappoint. Inside, the rich, viscous combination of American and Redneck Cheddar covered the thickly coated macaroni, slivers of braised short rib, and roasted mushrooms and peppers. This time, I did not hesitate: "I think this is the best macaroni and cheese I've ever had," I said in wonderment.

Still, we were not finished. "I'm trying to make the bacon look sexy for you," Axline joked as he plated The Clubhouse Burger, and sexy it was. I was loathe to put down my reuben, but the sight of the burger had me quickly abandoning one for the other. The juicy Hereford Beef patty was seasoned to perfection, set against lettuce, tomato and onions and the house-made green tomato/jalapeño jam. I'm a sucker for slightly sweet things -- I like my burgers with caramelized onions on them for that slight sweetness -- so the jam really took things up a notch for me. With the Slow Dough challah bun, Neuske's bacon and a local farm fried egg, this was definitely a "wow" of a burger. I wanted to stop, but there was more coming.

The "Porkobuco" was next, a large Niman Ranch pork shank cooked in the same way as osso bucco. The large, really beautiful shank was fall-off-the-bone tender, the red wine gravy hearty and richly seasoned, the accompanying roasted brussel sprouts, mushrooms and potato bacon hash complementing the dish well. I was at my limit by the time I tasted this, so there was no room for more than a couple of bites, but that's the beauty of a dish like this: It tastes better the next day, and I was happy to box it up and take it home with me.

For our grand finale, Axline brought out the already legendary S'mores bread pudding, fluffy and almost soufflé-like in consistency because he'd blended marshmallows into it. Topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it was a little hot and cold at the same time and the textures were divine -- I could easily see why this was a customer favorite.

So what exactly is "Americana"-style food? In Axline's hands, it's taking food that's familiar, food you know already, and elevating it in such a way that it's better than you remembered. And the proof, as they say, is in the S'mores bread pudding.

Brooklyn Athletic Club 601 Richmond Tel: 713-527-4440 www.thebrooklynathleticclub.com

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