Brasserie 19's arrival to the River Oaks Shopping Center is accompanied by a wealth of expectations.
Will it subvert the clubby precedent established by the space's former occupant, Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen? Could the new brasserie balance Gulf Coast flavors with traditional French fare? Would owners Charles Clark and Grant Cooper's chosen chef — Chicago-import and Pappas wine room dinners extraordinaire Michael Gaspard — successfully endear himself both to the stalwart River Oaks crowd and "it" spot seeking yupsters?
For its smart décor and spot-on New Orleans country club aura, Brasserie succeeds. Comparisons to the French Quarter landmark Galatoire's are inevitable, but what could have been a watered-down version of that beloved site presents a refreshing dining room, replete with white marble block tables and striking hanging light fixtures that are at once tinged with Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Atomic Age aesthetics.
Yet 19's menu of Gulf-inspired brasserie classics is at times underwhelming. Last Saturday night, large tureens of bouchot mussels were seen whisked repeatedly between the kitchen and tables. The cavernous container overshadowed the shells as they sat in a shallow puddle of local Belgian ale, andouille, mustard and tarragon. Perhaps attributable to the lack of broth, the chewy mussels required an unusual effort to coax away from their black shells, while still retaining traces of sand.
Forget the mussels tradition of such restaurants as Broken Spoke and Café Rabelais, in which that wine-infused, buttery broth is soaked up with chunks of rustic French bread. At Brasserie 19, receiving that promised baguette required asking three times.
However, the hors d'ouevres course redeemed itself with Texas sweet onion soup, served with a forkful of tender short rib and marrow toast. Gaspard has eschewed the tried-and-true sepia broth and gobs of melted Gruyère in favor of a velvety, opaque concoction that magically dissolves on the tongue. Despite its thick texture, the onion soup isn't heavy.
For a main course, I tasted the Texas rabbit, remembering the success of the dish during the glory days of Catalan. Accompanied by a dreamy sunchoke purée, the rabbit was served two ways: a slow-roasted loin and confit leg, bundled in thick, crispy skin. Both pieces impressed with their perfectly rendered meat, all surrounded by a divine drizzle of jus.
The second plat principal was a Gulf Coast bouillabaisse, served in a murky saffron and tomato-fennel consommé. As with the rabbit, the pieces of cod, shrimp and snapper were cooked to perfection (and a mussel encore was better received). An avalanche of fresh carrots, leek cores, lima beans and green peas made for a seafood stew that enthusiastically embraces the season. Still, the saffron flavor tasted diluted, and the dish simply lacked a quality of inventiveness.
The most artistic presentation arrived in the restaurant's rendition of chocolate cake — a stout cylindrical form with fudgey interior, served in a bed of liquid chocolate. A generous dollop of frothy hazelnut "ice cream" decked the cake, although the topping resembled whipped cream, as evidenced by its inability to melt. A hazelnut dipped in stretched peanut butter-infused brown sugar forming a sweet spindle, completes the most aesthetically successful dish.
The final course, a Houston Dairymaids selection of cheeses, impressed particularly with its Lone Star Beer-bathed gouda. The wait staff still has some kinks to work out. At times, my table was swarmed with up to five employees disrobing dishes so rapidly, that I was once left bare of any utensil. Cutting into that cheese plate required a 10-minute wait to acquire a knife.
For all its reliance on brasserie menu mainstays, Clark and Cooper went out on a limb with the wine list, which exists solely on an iPad distributed to each table upon arrival. At first gimmicky, the device offers a treasure trove of otherwise inaccessible information about each label. Diners (or drinkers) can assess bottles by region, variety, vintage, name and bottle size. Alternatively, the finger can roam a world map, which can further be narrowed in by national provinces.
Perhaps Clark and Cooper should be applauded for straying from the more experimental fare that once defined Catalan. Indulgences linger in the corner of the menu, such as a three-digit raw seafood platter, and the Brasserie 19 steak and frites was particularly popular when I visited — evidence of the owners and chef's close attention to the potentially obstinate River Oaks set.
Whether the restaurant's fare dallies between subtle and uninspired, classic and austere, will be determined as the menu and clientele evolve. But it's important to keep in mind that we're not dining in the 19th arrondissement.
This is the 77019, and new cuisine can only go so far before it hits a brick, ivied wall.