Houston restaurateur Alex Brennan-Martin (one of the Brennans) no doubt will be one happy boy when he can ditch the hard hat. In November, he debuted not one, but two new casual restaurants in the Hotel Sorella, part of a new mixed-use complex. Meanwhile, he's been working to restore the 42-year-old Brennan's of Houston, which sustained heavy damage from a fire that broke out during Hurricane Ike in September 2008. It is scheduled to reopen in early 2010.
RH: Tell us a little about your two new restaurants. They are a bit of a casual departure from Brennan's, aren't they?
Brennan-Martin: Both incorporate a few things I've had on my mind to do, but I've been waiting for the right place. The new restaurants are in a new area of Houston that hasn't had a tremendous amount of restaurant options, other than steakhouses and chain-type restaurants. Bistro Alex is the first. Bistros are nothing new for our family; Mr. B's (a New Orleans classic) goes back some time. I was very fortunate to have spent several years in France going to school and working in restaurants, and I fell in love with the bistro and café culture. To me, a bistro is first and foremost a comfortable, welcoming place. There is no pretension in a bistro. Brennan's, on the other hand, is what one of my friends describes as “a big deal restaurant.”
Bistro Alex is a more casual place, but turtle soup is still on the menu, as is a salad version of shrimp remoulade. We're also doing flatbreads, which are very popular with folks in the hotel. There are a lot of entrée salads. Also chateaubriand. It's our take on Creole cuisine with a little bit of a Texas slant.
The other new restaurant is Café Rosé. We serve pastry and fruit in the morning, salads and sandwiches in the afternoon, and charcuterie, cheese and wine in the evening. We're not doing any cooking, save for sandwiches from the panini press. We want it to be a gathering place.
RH: We hear Café Rosé has earned the Artisti del Gusto (Artists of Taste) designation from a big Italian coffee outfit. Sounds pretty fancy. What does it mean to the casual coffee drinker?
Brennan-Martin: Basically the company looks for places with a better level of finish, mostly a dedication to service. We serve coffee and drinks in porcelain cups with saucers and a real spoon to stir them, not a straw. It's a little different experience. We're hearing people say “this is so much better than a Starbucks.” Every once in awhile you want to treat yourself.
RH: Tell me a little about the fire at Brennan's and the aftermath. How exactly does a restaurant catch fire during a hurricane anyway? And what was the extent of the damage?
Brennan-Martin: No cause was ever determined; we looked at all the possibilities, from lighting strikes to an electrical surge. I was in the restaurant when it happened and spent the rest of the night outside in the hurricane with the firemen. Most people say a building burns down, while ours burned up. The roof was completely gone and the fire destroyed much of the second floor. Damage from the wind and water from the hurricane and hoses destroyed the first floor.
We've basically had to completely rebuild the restaurant. It's a wonderful old building from the 1920s. We ended up doing a new roof and interior, and all the electrical and the mechanical systems were destroyed. We're also doing some ADA work in the bathrooms and other areas. When my family took it over in the 1960s, they had to change the building to turn it into a restaurant. Now, we're trying to uncover some of the design features that were covered, to restore some of the 1920s style. I think people will certainly recognize the building and we hope we're making some improvements to it.
We've always evolved the menu, so when we reopen we'll try to take some of the old classics and reinvigorate them.
RH: Brennan's of Houston has been described as Texas Creole. How do you define that?
Brennan-Martin: When I first arrived here, after spending time in France and New York City, I found that the Brennan's here was really more or less producing carbon copies of the old New Orleans Brennan's and Commander's Palace classic dishes. So I asked, “who's supplying the creole tomatoes?” We immediately started casting about for some of the kinds of resources we had in New Orleans. If you have local farmers and fisherman supplying you, you can't help but have some sense of the terroir rub off. Also, Houston is where the South meets the Southwest, so the Hispanic influence is undeniable. Hispanics look at ingredients differently; they might make a crawfish enchilada, not a crawfish pie. It's been a happy marriage. You can't be in a city for 40 years and not have the culture rub off on you.
RH: Now that you've gotten these three off the ground, any plans for more projects?
Brennan-Martin: There is nothing to talk about at this moment, but we're always looking around. We'll probably chew on the couple of big bites we've just taken.
RH: How do you see the future for “big deal” restaurants?
Brennan-Martin: I'm not at all pessimistic. I don't think there will be a lot of big deal restaurants in many cities, but even in this day and age, despite the desire for more casual and quick, convenient light or healthy fare, folks still have anniversaries, birthdays, business deals or engagements that they want to celebrate. We're fortunate that people are not coming to us out of necessity, they're coming to celebrate. Do I think folks will come perhaps less often? Yes, that's why we opened a bistro. It's more approachable.
Also, (it's a good sign that) customers are becoming more interested in food. It's as much of an avocation or a hobby for them as it is a vocation for us.