Well, at long last was able to get to Brennan's for the 'kitchen table' experience. Although there were a few surprises – wine was actually *not* included in the $75/person cost, and a cocktail party was going on right next to us for the first five minutes, making it slightly too loud to think – the entire experience was right on with my high expectations.
NOTE – as it turns out, there is actually a very similar dinner to the one we reserved called the wine dinner – it is hosted by the Sommelier, but isn't what we booked. Better luck booking next time! This explains our confusion, I think, as we thought this is what we booked, when we actually booked the kitchen table.
Our host, Roland, with the words 'head cook' stenciled onto his apron, greeted us and introduced the majority of the kitchen staff from afar. He received his primary culinary training on the job, and formally at HCC. For each of our seven courses a few different items were brought to the table. The first course included the ubiquitous Brennan's turtle soup (which actually does contain turtle meat from a farm in Louisiana), splashed with a little sherry, and a tomato gazpacho topped with jumbo lump crab meat. I had both, as Jaime didn't like her turtle soup. The tomato soup was really good – the essence of fresh tomatoes, like eating fresh tomato sauce. It was clearly made with fresh tomatoes (turns out they get them from the Montgomery county hydroponic farm I've heard about from other places). The turtle soup, was, well, turtle soup. Deep and beefy, kind of like eating a sauce/stew combination. I was the only one that truly enjoyed this course, so the tomato gazpacho is the clear winner.
Second course was salad. Mine was thin cooked potato slices with onion in a crawfish remoulade over equally thin slices of smoked salmon which had been soaked in crab boil. The overall impression was kind of fru-fru potato salad. Not a truly amazing blend of flavors overall. Jaime and Amanda had the best tasting dish – A mix of crawfish tails in a spicy mayonnaise over a thick slice of battered and deep fried green tomato. The spicy tails and sweetness of the cooked tomato balanced nicely. Lennox, having made his preference against seafood known early on, received a thickly sliced heirloom tomato under a nest of thin onion slices, drizzled with 25 year balsamic and one of the premium olive oils Dai Hunyh discussed in one of her earlier articles in the Chronicle that costs something like $25/oz. Additionally, he had a slice of a blue goats cheese, which tasted something like a mix of brie and stilton. The fried green tomato and crawfish mayonnaise salad takes the game.
Third course was a charcuterie plate. Served were a thin slice of veal and dried cherry sausage with a dollop of hot cajun mustard (like all of Brennan's condiments, made in house), a piece of the smoked venison sausage, and some thinly sliced twice-smoked ham. Accompanying the meats were two small homemade bread-and-butter pickle slices, a thin coating of mayhaw jelly, and a beef-based brown sauce. The veal and cherry sausage was too strong tasting for most everyone but me. The big hit, however, was the tasso ham. Cold smoked for something like 2 or 3 days, the ham was insanely dry at first bite. However, a simple smear of the jelly changed the taste into something magnificent – smoky, sweet, hammy goodness. We all discovered this at about the same time, and agreed it was clearly the best item on the plate.
Fourth course was the seafood main, but the real highlight wasn't even from the water. Jaime and Amanda received a vertical presentation of mushroom tagine, jumbo lump crab and onions interspersed with layers of soft corn muffin, topped with a venison reduction. I had some of this, and it was not impressive. The sauce was too simple, and was overwhelmed with the gooiness of the ingredients – the corn muffin was moist and tender, almost like a fritatta, and the mushrooms were as well, but their strong meaty/sweet flavors overwhelmed the simplicity of the lump crab, and the sauce just couldn't tie those flavors back together. Brendan and I had slices of seared Ahi tuna over a bed of pineapple-onion salsa and beurre blanc. Stupendous. I noted to Brendan that rare Ahi is the butter of the ocean – it just melts in your mouth. The pineapple salsa was a little tart, and I thought the buttery smoothness of Hawaiian pineapple (vs. the varieties we get here, mainly from Mexico and with a higher acid content) would have complimented this dish very well. However, as good as our dish tasted, the highlight was Lennox's plate. He was served a pan roasted duck breast in a peach demi-glace over a slice of foie gras. Now, none of us had ever had foie gras before, and so were anxious to try it. The peach demi was the single best fruited sauce I have ever tasted – simple, thin, and absolutely complimentary to the sweetness of duck fat. However, a small piece of foie gras has changed my culinary perspective. It's simply the best food I have ever tasted. Writing more would be ineffective. Nothing can ever top that flavor of salty, sweet, meaty goodness. Yum.
Fifth course was the protein main. The highlight was a double thick lamb chop in a pan sauce. Amanda and I had a venison chop with a corn pudding, but the meat turned out pretty dry. The lamb chops were simply fantastic, and the hit of the course.
In between fifth and sixth courses Roland gave us a tour of the walk-in and the rear of the kitchen. Brennan's gets all of their oysters from San Leon, and currently had about 20 lbs of fresh Texas peaches in the cooler. All of their dairy is from Schepps in Houston – it was nice to walk in and see nothing with the words 'Sysco' on the side. All local ingredients, cooked from fresh to the plate. I mentioned to Brendan how nice it was to actually see the simple, real ingredients like we have at the house go through the magic of becoming entrees.
Sixth course was a cheese course. Provided was a cow's milk farmstead aged gouda-like cheese, a goat's blue (much mellower then the brie-ish one described previously), and an ewe's blue. Complimenting was a small piece (about a tbsp) of fresh honeycomb from a Galveston apiary. The honeycomb was the hit – as the taste of the beeswax and honey was simply fantastic – like a honey jelly. I was really unable to eat much of the cheese, as I was filling up fast (my total course count at this point was about 9, since I ate two of Jaime's as well).
Seventh and final course was dessert, and what a finish. I believe they brought every dessert on the menu to the table. We had a bread pudding-ish souffle, a flourless chocolate souffle/creme, three slices of different varieties of cheesecake, a peanut butter cup with peanut butter ice cream, a slice of pecan pie, creme brulee, a stupendous creamy brownie, peach upside down cake, and perhaps other dishes I am forgetting, topped off with, of course, bananas Foster and their famous buttery pralines. I was barely able to take single bites of many of the dishes (but I of course was able to down a praline).
Wine was quite good as well. Since we were prepared to try new and different wines with each course, finding out the wine was not included was kind of a shock, so we started with a couple bottles of a Maipo Cab. At that point, Brendan and I thought it might be wise to give the wine steward a budget and have him help us pick some out – so, we settled on about $240 and set him to pick 3 additional varietals for us to try. The first was a Sangiovese Rose. The 'wine guy', whose name is Chris Shepherd, introduced each bottle for us. Chris explained that a Rose is made by juicing the grapes like for a white, but leaving the skins on for a short amount of time. In this way, the wine is left with the simple flavor of a white but with a slightly pink color and just a hint of the tannic flavors from the grape skins. He also mentioned if the Rose were in kegs, he would go through one easily. We all liked his casual approach.
The second wine was a Marques de Caceres from Spain, a simple but complex flavored 1996 vintage. Brendan and I were in love with this bottle, as notes of cinnamon, cloves, plums and cherry flavors dominated the palate, and the mouthfeel was remarkably thin to carry so much flavor. After a few glasses, I identified the unique flavor we couldn't quite put out fingers on – sage! The buttery/spiciness of sage brought all of these flavors together.
The final bottle was a Syrah, which brought us down well form the complex Marques. It had much of the same spiciness without a lot of tannic heaviness, and went very well with the cheese plate and as a preparatory for dessert.
Although cost was much higher then we expected ($800 for the five of us), it was a great experience, one I would definitely repeat. This dining experience exemplified how our group has taken on a focus of casual yet refined experiences – fine dining without the pretense. We gladly pass plates, ask (perhaps stupid) questions, and talk up the staff about silly things like the similarity between caviar and Jack in the Box tacos. It's simply fun to remove the pretenses and have a good time spending what to us, at least, is pretty serious cash and being appreciated for it.