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Such was the cacophony of revelry at Brennan’s on Friday night that one might have forgotten that we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. That would have been the case had it not been for the guests arriving in masks, the masked waiters and the unusual table spacing.
There were at least three celebrations on view as we made our way to our table flanked by the wonderfully secure oversized wingback chairs. (The cocoon-like seating feeling assuringly safe.) Balloons danced above tables. Several guests departed wearing Brennan’s signature birthday chef’s hats. One or two tables could even be considered boisterous. It was, after all, Friday night.
Alex Brennan-Martin, Brennan’s owner and our longtime friend with matching LSU loyalties, and his wife, Robin, were our hosts. We were catching up over this long overdue dinner.
Brennan-Martin is one of the most interesting and entertaining raconteurs that I know and while we sampled two amazing dishes from the hands of recently anointed executive chef Joey Chavez, the restaurateur provided us with a brief lesson on oysters. Not shocking as everyone at the table was a huge fan of the tantalizing mollusks. And that is where Murder Point Oysters comes in.
“While everyone is hunkering down during the COVID thing, Robin and I are out hunting down oysters,” Brennan-Martin laughs. (Murder Point is located in Bayou La Batre, Alabama.)
In fact, he adds, that one of his first eating memories is that of his dad putting him on the bar at Manale’s (Pascal’s Manale in Brennan-Martin’s native New Orleans) and eating oysters. Brennan’s has Murder Points’ hand-raised petite oysters on the menu, not to be fried but to be savored in their husky, slightly briny glory served straight from the half shell. We tasted. We loved.
Conversation, of course, turned to the business of restaurants during the pandemic. Like other Houston restaurants, Brennan’s is feeling the gut punch of curtailed seating and customer fears of the virus. But as we observed the small groups celebrating weddings and birthdays, Brennan-Martin, who says that 30 percent of his business is parties, commented, “These are celebrations of life and that gives me a lot of hope.”
Brennan’s New Chef
One of the things that initiated this visit was the new chef, brought in after executive chef Joe Cervantez departed for San Leon, Texas, to open Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House.
We said a brief hello to Chavez as he presented two of his improvised appetizers — a delish crab roll, a riff on the lobster roll, and a sublime scallop dish served on a scallop shell.
Chavez comes with creds worthy of the top toque in an important kitchen. Though the California native arrived in Texas on a football scholarship at Lamar University and started in the restaurant world at Pappadeaux’s, he deftly moved up and up in the food chain. His work record includes the legendary Caribou Club in Aspen, Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant in the St. Regis in Beaver Creek, a year of training at Thomas Keller‘s three Michelin Star-rated The French Laundry, and most recently as executive chef at The Bygone, a fine dining restaurant atop the Four Seasons in Baltimore, where he was critically acclaimed and received numerous awards.
In Houston, Chavez has been acclimating himself to the Brennan’s brand of Texas Creole cooking alongside 37-year veteran Creole chef Jose Arevalo and sous chefs James Reedy and Lexy Garcia.
Chavez’ touch is already on display at Brennan’s with his five-course tasting menu, which includes a hamachi crudo with Texas peach and truffled aji amarillo vinaigrette, whole roasted dover sole with smoked oyster meuniere, and barbecue lamb served with smoked tomato tart. The chef tasting is available for takeout for $80 and is offered with wine pairings to dine-in guests, either in the dining room or one of Brennan’s private venues.