Meet this year’s inductees into the Fine Dining Hall of Fame. The celebrated restaurants and chefs have excelled in a segment most demanding. Learn more about the 2011 Fine Dining Hall of Fame.
Brennan’s of Houston, which was devastated in September 2008 by Hurricane Ike, has returned as a stately doyenne of Houston’s fine-dining scene.
Recovering from a 17-month closure from fire and rain damage, the Texas-Creole cuisine restaurant reopened Feb. 16, 2010 — which, fittingly, was Mardi Gras — and was greeted with open arms by Houston diners.
“The outpouring of warmth and affection really caught us off guard,” said owner Alex Brennan-Martin.
The historic two-story building that houses Brennan’s of Houston was constructed in 1926. It resembled the home of the Brennan’s on Royal Street in New Orleans, and the Brennan family saw the 21,000-square-foot building as the perfect spot to expand. They opened Brennan’s of Houston there in 1967.
“When the restaurant first opened, it was a direct copy of Brennan’s in New Orleans. It was successful for a number of years,” Brennan-Martin said. “By the time I got here in the mid-’80s, a lot of other restaurants had begun to open.”
So Brennan’s of Houston began using local ingredients in current and forward-thinking food, but also kept the New Orleans classics, Brennan-Martin said.
Teresa Byrne-Dodge, founder of Houston’s My Table magazine, said: “Brennan’s has always been a local leader in the dining scene. The kitchen, for example, was among the first in the city to make a point of seeking out area fishermen and supporting the Gulf fishing industry, even as the product was more expensive and, sometimes, less consistently available than what could be counted on from the giant distributors. That’s [all] the rage today, of course; back then it was groundbreaking.”
Brennan-Martin said Houston, which carries the nickname Bayou City, is “where the southern Louisiana culture meets the Hispanic culture. It’s an interesting melting pot.”
While turtle soup, crab cakes and bananas foster are among the signature dishes, Brennan’s of Houston does good Texas trade in roasted beef tenderloin, as well. But Brennan-Martin said the restaurant frequently puts twists on dishes, like his current favorite dessert: Creole cream-cheese ice cream with homemade cookies.
And the restaurant works to appeal to a wide variety of customers, he said.
“We will have as many pickup trucks in our parking lot on a Friday night as we will have Bentleys,” he said. “Houston is a blue-collar town. We pump things out of the ground. We ship things out of our port. We refine and manufacture things. We get up early and go to bed early. As far as fine-dining restaurants go, we’re not stuffy. Southern hospitality is our hallmark. It’s something we live and breathe.”
Chef Danny Trace added that “Brennan’s of Houston is definitely a locals’ restaurant. People here will let you know what they want.”
Brennan-Martin says the restaurant is at “the crossroads of tradition and the future.”
“With the [post-hurricane] remodel, we were able to express that very well. I wanted people to feel like they were coming back to an old family home, but one that had been ‘gussied up’ some,” he said, adding that he doesn’t get to use the phrase “gussied up” very often.
Byrne-Dodge added that “Brennan’s has become ‘family’ to thousands of Houstonians. People celebrate anniversaries, births, promotions there. I think Brennan’s sets a standard for hospitality that goes beyond professionalism; there’s real warmth there.
“Brennan’s also supports hundreds of local nonprofits and give-backs in the Houston community with their contributions and participation,” she added. “And, of course, there’s the complimentary pralines that guests are urged to tuck into their pocket upon leaving the restaurant.”
Brennan-Martin summed it up by saying: “It boils down to memories. Our goal is to create great memories for our guests. We call it the simple truth of our business.”
From the chef: In their own words
Chef Danny Trace, a Louisiana native, has been with Brennan’s of Houston for two years. Before that, he worked at several other Brennan family properties, such as the now-closed Commander’s Palace in Destin, Fla., and Café Adelaide and the Commander’s in New Orleans.
He spoke about the restaurant, his background and philosophy.
How do you define your Texas Creole cuisine?
We try to use as many local ingredients as possible. I’m definitely a big believer in local ranches. … Texas seafood is great. There are great oysters.
What are the challenges of a 400-seat restaurant?
We do a big banquet business. We’ll have multiple parties going on. ... It reminds me of Mardi Gras sometimes, with some controlled chaos going on. It’s a rush.
Where did you learn to cook?
I grew up with a bunch of hunters and fishermen. It was just a way of life. My grandfather was Cajun – from Thibodaux, [La.] All the men in my family cooked. My grandfather and uncle were cooks in the military. We’d go out and hunt, fish and then cook the stuff or smoke it in barrels or whatever. I’d cook on the back porch for family, whether it was jambalayas or gumbos or fried fish that we’d caught or frogs that we’d gigged or crabs that we’d caught or crawfish we’d caught. We were pretty self-sufficient. Cooking is a passion and a necessity.
What’s one menu item that typifies your style of cooking?
I’m from Louisiana, so a lot of it [stems] from there, even down to the gumbo. It’s cooking the way I grew up. … Everybody and their mother has a recipe, but I stick to the basics. It’s a great roux, great flavors and a lot of love in every detail.
Were there any changes when Brennan’s reopened after the storm and fire?
You couldn’t change too much, too hard, too fast. A few of the things that I’ve had some fun with — and trials and tribulations, maybe I should say — are things like the New Orleans pecan fish. At Commander’s, the pecan fish has kind of evolved. They’ll do pecan-crusted fish over a crushed-corn sauce with some champagne-poached jumbo lump crabmeat, and maybe a little petit salad on top. Here, they want the haricots verts and the old-style meunière sauce — real big, bold flavors. They want that memory that they’ve had here over the past 10 years, 15 years, 20 years.
What’s on the horizon for Brennan’s of Houston’s menu?
We constantly evolve. Right now, for dinner we’re doing duck. I love duck. We’re doing a dish called the Dirty Duck Cobbler. Dirty duck means something with liver, like dirty rice. The dirty part is the foie gras. We do a crispy seared duck breast, a duck-crackling biscuit, and then a duck confit fricassee with root vegetables. That’s in a cast-iron skillet with the biscuit and foie gras ice cream, with a little sunny-side-up quail egg. It’s a real fun dish.
READ MORE: Fine Dining Hall of Fame 2011