Sometimes I forget how much I like Brennan's Houston, probably because the restaurant's super-opulent cuisine isn't really my style. I prefer my dishes more pared-down, and intelligent editing of ingredients is a value I hold dear. Then I go back to Brennan's after an absence and am beguiled anew not only by how exceptionally well run the restaurant is, but by the realization that in certain rare circumstances more really can be ... more.
More is certainly more in the case of the wild Anahuac catfish dish on Brennan's current menu. I ordered it during a long, highly civilized Friday lunch a couple of weeks ago, and I was floored by the lush, intricate effects achieved by chef Danny Trace and his crew.
The catfish really did taste wild with the mineral twang I prize in certain fish, and it was beautifully fried to a thin cornmeal crackle, not a jot overcooked. The fish sat on a bed of grits suffused with the salty tang of goat cheese, so rich and delicious they made my eyes widen. There was a lot more going on: blissful hush-puppy nuggets and spears of fried okra pods; dribs and drabs of a buttery goat-cheese emulsion; and a unifying bayou of Trace's "Louisiana barbecue sauce," deep and dark and hottish and tart, with what seems to be a current of Worcestershire running through it.
Lordy, that sauce is fine. When Trace passed through the dining room, making his rounds of the tables, I told him he ought to bottle it. He says he's thought of it.
There was plenty more to like that noon, all enhanced by discreet pacing from one of the old-hand, old-school waiters. ( I love it when I get seated at their stations in the main room, rather than in the outlying precincts where the young sprats earn their spurs.) He gauged immediately that my friend and I wanted to take our time, and there was not an instant when we felt either rushed or ignored.
I loved the heirloom tomato salad that's part of the summer's crop of dishes, set off by peppery arugula, milky mozzarella and dabs of basil oil, with the cool, pale-green crunch of hearts of palm adding some low-key surprise.
I noted with pleasure the return of Texas peaches to the menu: Trace does a nifty peach salad with cane vinaigrette, but instead we sampled a mighty pork chop with peaches and a brisk, sweet-sour peach and pork reduction that worked unexpectedly well (given my aversion to sweet meat dishes). It was great stuff, particularly in concert with a sweet-corn risotto that had a regional maque-choux swagger.
Brennan's Gulf shrimp remoulade remains one of Houston's best dishes, in my estimation: the shellfish sweet and pearly, the remoulade jumpy with flecks of Tabasco mash, and the Trace touch — a bed of vegetables lightly pickled with shrimp boil — a stroke of genius.
We drank a luminous Soter pinot noir, with its characteristic notes of black fruit and white pepper, from the restaurant's always-interesting wine list. I tried my first Soter at Brennan's years ago, back when Underbelly chef Chris Shepherd was their wine guy, and sometimes I like to recapture how happy it made me. (Still does.)
The old-school desserts here make me happy, too. Peach season meant peach cobbler with a snowbank of whipped cream thrumming with tart Creole cream cheese, an inspired idea. Pecan-pie sundae layered into a highball glass and crowned with caramel corn would have been utterly swell had the narrow confines of the glass not caused the ice-cream to melt too quickly. (Given free range in a coupe-style dish, the wonderfully sticky satin of the hot pie filling might have let the ice cream survive better.)
Through it all, the subdued babble and chink of the lunchtime crowd reminded me of what a happy restaurant used to sound like, before this era of calculated roar. If chef Trace and owner Alex Brennan-Martin could bottle that precise, joyful not-quite-noise, it might make them richer than Louisiana Barbecue Sauce could.
We were the next-to-last table to depart that serene and deeply Southern room. I grabbed a praline on my way out the beveled-glass door, already promising myself not to stay away so long next time.
Brennan's Houston, 3300 Smith St., 713-522-9711. Lunch Monday—Friday 11 a.m.—2 p.m.; dinner daily 5:45 p.m.—10 p.m.; brunch Saturday 11 a.m.—2 p.m, Sunday 10 a.m.—2 p.m.