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Dinner at the New Brennan's

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The best restaurants -- like the best old friends -- change over time and are always there when you need them. When Brennan's was destroyed by fire in 2008, it was as if we lost a confidant, a warm soul that had been a part of our Houston family since 1967. But now, reopening after 17 months of hard closure, Brennan's is a feel-good story of the year for Houston diners. Much like the city of New Orleans itself, the revered restaurant has proven its resilience.

While the façade may have changed a bit, there's at least one thing that hasn't: Above all else, dining at Brennan's is still an event. Sure, the new staff is more lenient with the dress code, the place has had a face lift, and the menu has seen some changes -- but walking through the front door provides the unmistakable excitement and elegance that comes from an "evening out." Inside, the yellow-backed chairs and banks of windows give the main dining room a light-filled, airy ambiance, underscoring the restaurant's rebirth. Exposed brick walls and rich fabrics add a modern sophistication, yet the space fully maintains its steadfast traditionalism.

Along with a fresh face comes an updated menu. A few of the old standbys -- like turtle soup and Bananas Foster -- remain classically unchanged, but much of the menu is updated thanks to new Executive Chef Danny Trace, who joins Brennan's from a sister restaurant, The Commander's Palace in Destin, Florida. Trace has added more of a Texas flair to the conventionally Creole menu, also adding some of his newly acquired "Floribbean" touches.

Our large group ordered a diverse array, giving us a well-rounded glimpse in the menu, which was filled with wins and losses. The first indication of greatness was the gumbo, a textbook roux served over rice and studded with plump oysters and stout shrimp. Brennan's version is nothing less than outstanding, easily the best in town, possibly the best I've ever tasted. The blue crab and leek bread pudding had a fabulous texture and a rich, creamy taste that allowed the delicious crab to shine; however, this dish was served beautifully warm to one diner, yet undeniably cold to another. The Chef's Playground, a colossal appetizer of gastronomic gems, quickly became a table favorite -- not surprising considering that it's filled with cider-cured foie gras, lamb sausage and duck confit, among other charms.

Of the dinner plates, the Shrimp Chippewa - a handful of massive tail-on Gulf shrimp served over a bed of creamy grits -- arrived to much fireworks and fanfare. The richness of the Parmesan-basted grits was complemented nicely by the brine of the shrimp. But the Louisiana Boucherie, gorgeous slices of chicory coffee-rubbed pork tenderloin propped up against a crepe-like package of boudin, was dry and lukewarm. The honey-lacquered quail -- stuffed with foie gras, Brussels sprouts and quail egg -- was another immediate hit, equally as beautiful as it was delicious.

The desserts deflated our spirits a bit. Strawberry shortcake, chocolate cake... Even the Bananas Foster didn't live up to its reputation, wallowing in undercooked lacklustery. But no matter -- We grabbed a signature praline from the silver tray as we walked out into the night. A pleasant ending to a pleasing reunion.

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