Part two of the article on Brennan’s of Houston – The Ultimate Two-Top: Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s of Houston
Like its famed sister restaurant Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, Brennan’s of Houston commands a corner with appeal and authority. Brennan’s brick façade may be more understated than the blue building and striped awnings of its counterpart but it is no less appealing to view.
And Brennan’s of Houston’s sister restaurant is literally run by the sister of Alex Brennan-Martin who, after growing up at Commander’s Palace, has been commanding Brennan’s of Houston for decades.
“I talk to my sister all the time. We zoom frequently,” said Brennan-Martin of his sister Ti Adelaide Martin who is five hours away by car in New Orleans.
Both restaurants have similarities that go beyond the traditional snapping turtle soup with sherry on the menu. Each holds the mantle of the prestigious “go-to” restaurant in its respective city and yet each is true to the creed professed by Alex and Ti Adelaide’s late mother Ella Brennan Martin: “I don’t want a restaurant where a jazz band can’t come marching through.”
That is literally what was happening when I was shown to my table at noon during Brennan’s Sunday Creole Jazz Brunch.
When the trio of musicians, who’d been making their way table to table, reached my seat and asked me for a request, I was tempted to ask for “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” but the music, balloon decorations, and Southern menu items rendered that question irrelevant.
Louisiana crawfish and eggs migas with andouille sausage; oysters; boudin-stuffed quail; collard greens; and tableside-fired bananas foster were among the Crescent City-style items along with Bayou City Lone Star State twists such as a crawfish enchilada with salsa, jalapeno and Mezcal crema; and Texas shrimp and grits.
Brennan-Martin, like his sister at Commander’s Palace, learned much more business strategy and philosophy from his mother than just the “unpretentious jazz band mentality.”
“Even if you’re on the right track you’ll get run over if you just sit there,” said Brennan-Martin as we talked in his fresh flower-filled, stately-but-comfortable restaurant with sumptuous furniture, muted colors and plenty of natural sunlight. Brennan grew up working every job at Commander’s Palace – front of the house and back. “My family told me they needed temporary help in Houston for three months and here I am 35 years later.”
Some of Brennan-Martin’s staff members have worked at Brennan’s just as long – some longer. And while they, and the customers are clearly loyal, Ella’s influence is still heeded by her son Brennan-Martin.
“When I moved to Houston mom came to town and wrote down on a napkin who our 10 competitors were. She told me I needed to understand them and what they are doing. The napkin is gone and so are most of those restaurants. Only one is left – a restaurant that has continued to evolve and improve. That’s our mission – keep our traditions but we always push forth.”
Jim Perry, who played for the NCAA Champion University of Houston Cougar basketball team, never misses a return to Brennan’s when he is back in town. “Brennan’s is a great place to eat,” said Perry. The late President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush also frequented Brennan’s.
“President Bush liked chili-fried oysters over a roasted corn sauce. We haven’t had it on the menu for years but when he was coming in we knew to prepare it. The last time he was with us he had it,” said Brennan who, in telling that story, illustrated the challenge of being consistent traditionally and yet fresh and innovative.
“A saying has come up in our family that we watch the restaurants for Houstonians or New Orleanians…and it starts to feel that way. But one of the great things in life is to become a tradition. We are now seeing the grandchildren of people who used to come bringing their grandchildren. It’s a blessing and at the same time it has its challenges,” said Brennan-Martin who has literally weathered his share of setbacks and renewals at Brennan’s.
“We’ve been through floods, famine, hurricanes, you name it. In 2008 we had a hurricane hit Houston and the roof burned off. We had to strip the place down to the bare bricks…two months after Commander’s Palace had just reopened after Hurricane Katrina,” Brennan-Martin recalled.
“People asked me why I didn’t just take the insurance money and move on? But it’s a labor of love – and my definition of a labor of love is that what you’re doing stops making sense…but you don’t have the sense to stop.”
Brennan-Martin, an active community leader, serves on the executive board of the Houston Visitors and Convention Bureau. Like his sister he’s become an author. In his book The Simple Truth About Your Business, he advises business owners to ask long term customers and employees the question: “Why do you continue to do business with us?”
“It can be uncomfortable asking that question and the answers will give you pause from time to time,” Brennan-Martin told me. “In the answers we’d often hear about the night they were engaged at the restaurant or closed a big deal.
The word I kept hearing was ‘memories.’ Certainly the food and the service are important but we came to understand it’s the emotion behind the experience we are building and creating so we manage toward that. It’s a simple premise.”
But not as simple as it seems.
“Houston is a city that is obsessed with new. How do we overcome that? Part of the answer is that we don’t. It’s hard to convince people you’re a brand new business. You often, in our business, read about the ‘best new restaurant’ or ‘best new chef.’
But if you’re going to a doctor, a mechanic, or an attorney, you’re not looking for the new person. You’re not looking for the new doctor or mechanic. You want the person with the most experience,” Brennan-Martin advised.
He Went To Paris
Brennan-Martin’s experience was certainly not limited to Commander’s Palace.
As a young man he left New Orleans to train in the culinary arts and hospitality at a prestigious school in Paris (Paris, France, not Paris, Texas). He loved it so much he overstayed his visa to work in the South of France at Roger Verge’s Moulin de Mougins: the restaurant that formed the likes of superstar chefs Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud.
“Verge was in the United States to open at the restaurant at Epcot Center. He went to New Orleans and happened to taste the gumbo at Commander’s Palace.
He came back and wanted me to make it for his family meal…and it ended up on the menu. That was the experience of a lifetime,” admitted Brennan-Martin, who repatriated to work in New York for Four Seasons and then Maxwell’s Plum before his family summoned him and dispatched him to Houston.
A Texas Tasting
My waiter Francisco guided me through my menu choices with an expertise he learned through Brennan’s engaging training program.
“I have to know what I am selling so I get to taste everything. They also give the wait staff a cooking lesson with the chef and that raised my game. We also take allergies very seriously so we need to know what is in every dish,” Francisco told me.
Then he dispensed some life advice. “Life is short, so treat yourself well.”
I took his advice and went ahead and indulged in the bananas foster.