"It's like someone created a tiny, unpretentious country club and smacked it down in the middle of Houston. And there's a nice restaurant attached."
This is how I found myself attempting to explain Brooklyn Athletic Club to my mother the day after I'd dined at the new restaurant on Richmond for the first time. She seemed unconvinced of the concept: a host of bocce ball, petanque and badminton courts ringing a small central restaurant and outdoor bar.
I stick by the description I used with my mother, although she remained skeptical of what interest anyone would have eating pork osso bucco next to a putting green. (We are not a fancy folk.) And despite an incongruity at its surface, the idea of Brooklyn Athletic Club --solid, semi-upscale tavern fare and a breezy country club vibe -- works very well so far.
The last time I saw chef Jeff Axline, he was turning out Texana-inspired dishes at BRC Gastropub -- the cheeky restaurant/craft beer hotspot from restaurateurs Shepard Ross and Lance Fegen. Prior to that, Axline had been in the kitchen at Glass Wall -- another Ross/Fegen venture. Axline split from BRC in late 2010, and Ross eventually did too. Fegen is busy opening up concepts such as Surfing Cowboys and a second location of Liberty Kitchen, while Ross has teamed up once again with Axline -- and it's as natural a pairing as the seemingly contradictory juxtaposition of Brooklyn and Houston.
"It's like we're getting the band back together," Ross told the Houston Chronicle's Greg Morago. Hailing originally from New York, the name Brooklyn Athletic Club is an homage to the social club in which Ross's grandparents were active members. Axline is a Texas boy, and the two men seem to have met in the middle when it comes to meshing their backgrounds.
Although the restaurant is still in its soft opening, I found it packed when I went on a weekday evening, with some patrons warming up by the big, open kitchen inside and still others cozied up to fire pits outside. I'm told that you can order S'Mores to toast over the flames.
Meanwhile, a few brave souls had started a bocce ball game in the "BACyard" -- Brooklyn Athletic Club's nickname for the courts that take up a full piece of property in the rear -- and although service wasn't yet running at the outdoor bar area, waiters good-naturedly brought the team drinks anyway.
Inside, my date and I tore excitedly into Axline's menu. Despite having a few clunkers at BRC, I'd always liked Axline's ideas and most of his executions. He must have fine tuned things after his stint away in Austin, because all of the dishes we ordered that night exceeded my expectations for a soft opening.
Lightly pan-seared gnocchi made from sweet potatoes were plump and almost caramel-sweet against an earthy backdrop of sage cream sauce and roasted mushrooms. A playful dish of "porkobucco" featured a shank so tender it fell from the bone with a whisper, the soft pork in contrast with a hash of nicely firm potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts and what I could have sworn were chestnuts.
A dish of Chef Jeff's macaroni and cheese was as exuberantly over-the-top as his much-vaunted mac 'n' cheese skillets were at BRC, but it worked well: warmly spiced short rib (nutmeg? cinnamon? I couldn't quite tell) was mixed into a jumbo ramekin with roasted red peppers, onions and heaps of creamy, cheesy elbow macaroni. And the simple, egg-topped burger was so juicy on its own -- cooked to a blissful medium rare -- that we discarded the condiments that came on the side entirely.
That burger was $11, a very fair price considering the amount of burger you get (along with some twiggy fries dusted in salt and black pepper). But the rest of the menu items can get pricey fast: My porkobucco was $25, but there was enough on the plate to feed two Vikings. Maybe three. Splitting entrees here would be advised if you're faint of stomach or wallet.
On the other hand, Brooklyn Athletic Club's beer and wine prices are spot-on and cheerfully inexpensive, and I can quickly see it developing into the sort of place that's a huge draw on the weekends for this reason among others.
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One of those other reasons: Brooklyn Athletic Club has solved the issue that faced Zimm's Little Deck before it. Zimm's had only one bocce ball court -- a rectangular slab that was the focal point of every diner on the patio as well as inside the nearly glass-walled restaurant. Everyone could see you flailing your wooden balls around or being that one persnickety person who insists on measuring the proximity of the balls. And with only one court, you didn't want to be a ball hog.
With Brooklyn Athletic Club, those excuses are long gone. The courts that stretch behind the restaurant offer a respite from the traffic on Richmond and curious eyes in the restaurant while allowing you to flail about in style -- and with a cheap pint of Brooklyn Brewing lager in hand.