The dining room at Brasserie 19 on a Saturday night might be the loudest spot in the city that offers a veal porterhouse on its menu. But it's a beguiling sort of loudness, a raucously mirthful atmosphere that signals Brasserie's status as Houston's new playground for the rich and nouveau riche alike.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Local chvre ravioli: $13
Grilled octopus: $14
Tuna sandwich: $13
Croque madame: $15
Steak frites: $38
Pan-roasted duck: $28
Pork shoulder: $24
On one of those recent weekend nights, my dining companions and I sat captivated on Brasserie's breezy patio, mesmerized by the parade of wealth that swished past us: an older gentleman in a purple suede suit with an extremely young woman on his arm; another man — this one enjoying a birthday dinner — being presented with a 1960s-era Playboy in its original packaging, then tearing it open like a schoolboy; a fleet of cars with exotic names like Bugatti and Maserati and Bentley. As the evening wore on into the night, the birthday boy grabbed pieces of bread from the table and held them to his head like a bull, making a show of snorting and thrusting his head forward, the cones of bread leading the way.
"That guy is making bread horns," said one of my dining companions with a wry laugh. Indeed, Brasserie 19 is the kind of place where you can make bread horns if you want to. The restaurant has an almost hyper-indulgent policy toward its diners, rare in a time when service suffers so regularly elsewhere — at upscale restaurants and otherwise.
During one recent dinner, I couldn't decide between the young roasted hen or the pan-roasted duck with figs. I'm glad I asked for a recommendation from the kitchen, who quickly encouraged me to order the duck, because it turns out that the young roasted hen part is misleading if you — like me — were expecting a plump little poussin with golden skin on your plate.
It turns out that the kitchen actually had stopped serving whole roasted hen, replacing it with a chicken breast, as too many diners were complaining of having to cut the meat off the bone. The blushing, medium-rare duck I ordered instead was entirely excellent, although I had to wonder at just how far Grant Cooper and Charles Clark are willing to let that hyper-indulgence extend. Will it eventually infect every item on their solid, well-constructed menu? I hope not.
Yet I can't count the number of stories I've heard of diners here sending back a beautiful piece of foie gras because it was too fatty, or because the foods on their plate were touching. I've witnessed it firsthand, too, when a man returned his expertly cooked red snapper for being "too rare." My friend and I sighed in disbelief as we watched it go.
"That fish was perfect," she despaired. And so is all of Brasserie 19's cooking, almost flawlessly so. I have yet to have a bad meal here. I have yet to even have a meal that I would consider just okay. Perhaps because of the impossibly high standards that the restaurant's clientele places upon the kitchen — or maybe in spite of them — the food at Brasserie 19 is among the best and most skillfully executed in the city right now.
And that's no small feat, considering the restaurant's tumultuous beginnings. It cycled through two chefs in quick succession, one of whom barely lasted two weeks, before leaving the kitchen captainless for a significant period of time. It was up to young sous chef Amanda McGraw to keep things running in the absence of an executive chef, and she did so admirably until Mark Schmidt came along a month ago, hired away from his executive chef position at Rainbow Lodge.
When I saw McGraw a couple of weeks ago, I asked her how the transition had been so far. She seemed genuinely relieved to have Schmidt at the helm, remarking of her new boss: "He hasn't come in and changed anything up yet. He's just observing." A smart move on behalf of Schmidt, and one that I hope marks the beginning of a fruitful partnership here.
As its name would imply, Brasserie 19 focuses on traditional brasserie fare, things like steak frites, cassoulet, oysters and glorious pints of beer. If these rustic, often heavy dishes seem antithetical to the masses of trim, well-dressed socialites that populate the place, well...someone forgot to tell them.
It's for the best, really: The substantial food (in substantial portions, too) attracts all kinds, and its price points — while on the hefty side — are egalitarian enough to make Houston restaurateurs Grant Cooper and Charles Clark's latest restaurant a smashing success all the way around, joining the ranks of their fellow restaurants Ibiza, the late Catalan and the brash new Coppa.
The service is equally egalitarian here. And while you instantly know your place in Houston's grand social firmament based upon where you're seated (the tables closest to the front window are prime real estate — forget about sitting there — while the bar is the domain of pretty singles on the prowl), the treatment you receive while dining at Brasserie 19 never reveals otherwise. I've heard complaints that the restaurant is too heavily staffed at lunch, which I tend to agree with: The waitstaff clumps in herds near the front hostess station/bridge of the ship during lunch service, texting and chattering above you while you eat. But at dinner, that surfeit of waitstaff functions to make it seem as though you are the only table in the restaurant, or at least the only one that matters.
Whether you go for lunch or dinner, however, Brasserie 19 impresses at every service. At lunch, the decibel level in the restaurant dims considerably, while light floods the sunny space. It looks every bit the modern brasserie at these times, sunlight glinting off polished brass details on the bar and peeking through the white wicker chairs.
You can see the palm trees lining West Gray from the massive plate-glass window that dominates the front of the restaurant, and appreciate the art deco lines of the River Oaks Shopping Center, as cool and crisp as the brasserie itself. At the table next to us, a Frenchman was dining alone and languidly reading a newspaper. "You don't even feel like you're in Houston," sighed my dining companion, who seemed to be dreaming of her beloved brasseries back in France.
That same sense of vacationing for a meal was palpable at Tony Mandola's, the cozy and well-respected restaurant that occupied this space for 22 years until decamping to nearby Waugh Drive to open a free-standing restaurant earlier this year. Losing the New Orleanian restaurant was seen as a blow for the old shopping center, and Brasserie 19 was met with eager excitement when it opened in May of this year. Would it stand up to Tony Mandola's? So far, the answer seems to be a strong yes.
During lunch, we all but inhaled a platter of delicate, briny East Coast oysters, washed down with a hoppy Modus Hoperandi IPA. Brasserie 19 has a beer menu to match its wine list blow for blow, with Belgian classics like Saison Dupont and Blanche de Bruxelles holding court among craft brews like North Coast PranQster and the mighty Arrogant Bastard Ale.
My friend's croque madame was a crusty beast of a sandwich, covered in melting Gruyère and a rich Béchamel sauce that nearly made the fried egg on top obsolete. I appreciated that her frites were truly frites, skin-on and fried twice, served — without asking! — with a tangy mayonnaise.
The polar opposite of her meal, my plate featured a simple tuna sandwich whose unfussy construction belied the effort and skill that had gone into poaching the tuna in olive oil until impossibly moist and in need of no additional mayonnaise or mustard. On the side was a quinoa salad — a pleasant surprise, given it wasn't listed on the menu — that balanced the nutty seeds with peppery bites of arugula and a bright citrus vinaigrette.
We lingered far too long over our lunch, finally tearing ourselves away after two hours. It was difficult to leave that day, not only because the food had been so good, but the atmosphere itself is almost too inviting. I've experienced that feeling every time I've dined at Brasserie 19 — especially on the patio. It may not be prime real estate for the elite, but it's a front-row show for me with an added one-two bonus: It's never noisy out there, and although reservations are required to get a seat inside at night, you can usually find an open table on the patio if you can't resist the urge to drop by and see what specials Schmidt and McGraw have cooked up for the night.
On that wild Saturday night, our waiter couldn't have been more charming despite the fact that the brasserie must have done 400 covers in one service. My friends and I took forever to make up our minds, and he never once rushed us, but instead stood patiently and guided us through the restaurant's immense wine list with aplomb. Any questions he couldn't answer were quickly remedied by a consultation with the bar manager (whom I appreciate the restaurant doesn't mistakenly call a "sommelier"), making for one of the most pleasant nights of service I've experienced in a long time.
The cocktails — while pricey — were well-constructed, solid drinks: a pair of French 75s that glittered in champagne flutes and a rosy gin drink with Chambord that was surprisingly easy on the sugar. Our first wine selection was depleted, but our waiter was quick to suggest two Evening Land alternatives — both well within our initial price range and smartly chosen based on our initial request of an American Pinot Noir from the Northwest.
A special that evening — gleaned from the restaurant's smartly maintained Twitter account — of a foie gras terrine was well-received by my table. We polished it off as quickly as we did an appetizer of charred baby octopus with soft fingerling potatoes and a bright, invigorating salsa verde. Not everything here is dogmatically French, which I appreciate — especially when used in clever combinations like this. We were only slightly disappointed in the local chèvre ravioli, albeit not because it wasn't tasty; it was simply far too small to split the one raviolo between three people, and didn't live up to its $13 price tag.
Later in the evening, after I'd ordered my entrée — the Saturday special of milk-braised pork shoulder with corn pudding — the general manager came over to apologize profusely: The kitchen had run out of pork chops, he explained, while cupping a massive portion of plastic-wrapped raw meat in one hand.
"We can't count," he half-laughed. "But I'd love to offer you this veal porterhouse instead."
The three of us stared, slack-jawed and silent, from our table. This was a $50 piece of meat, "on sale" for only $24. We couldn't believe our dumb luck.
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"We wouldn't charge you for it, of course," the manager continued, mistaking our awed silence for indecisiveness. "It would be the same price as the pork chop."
Fifteen short minutes later, that luscious porterhouse was on my plate and quickly devoured by our table, as fine a tribute to baby cow as any I'd eaten. My only complaint: I'd left the temperature of the meat to the kitchen, which cooked it to a medium-well. It's not their fault, though; after receiving so many returned dishes of medium-rare snapper or steak, wouldn't you cook the veal through, too?
But if these scant few flaws are the only ones I can find with Brasserie 19, I'd say the River Oaks Shopping Center has found the staple restaurant it needed to replace Tony Mandola's, one that will likely become a classic itself in time.