Reborn Brennan’s Mixes Old and New with Audacity

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Like everybody else of any age born in New Orleans, I’ve been going to Brennan’s – or at least knowing about the iconic French Quarter restaurant – forever. It was, for me and my family, a special-occasion kind of place, not the sort of fried seafood hangout we went to at the lakefront every Friday night because that’s what Catholics did in those days. A self-proclaimed French restaurant started by an Irishman, Brennan’s was a place for celebration. That meant I was sad a couple years back when the doors shut, presumably forever, the result of warfare among the three brothers who’d been running the business that their father started, and their now-grown children. And it meant I was elated last fall when Brennan’s reopened after a multi-million dollar renovation carried out by the brothers’ wildly successful cousin, Ralph Brennan, and business partner Terry White.

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That’s not to say I have no pleasant memories of time spent with Owen Jr. (invariably known as Pip), Jimmy and Ted Brennan. Quite the contrary. Owen always seemed burly and brusque to me, until he started talking about his city – then I knew why he headed up many of the best tourism promotions boards. After he invited me to sit with the family at the annual Bacchus Carnival ball, I liked him better still. And there was Jimmy, the restaurant’s wine guy, and the years of predictable jokes about putting an Irishman in charge of the alcohol. Best of all, for me, there was Ted. The bespectacled brother invited me every few months to come have lunch, usually to chat without any fathomable agenda. I heard in detail about his battles to lose weight after replacing cigarettes with Haagen-Dazs, as well as about his surrender to tourists who kept complaining the turtle soup wasn’t “Cajun enough.” Perhaps for the first (and hopefully last) time in human history, New Orleans sherry-kissed Creole-not-Cajun turtle soup became hot and spicy.

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Despite the charismatic presence of Ralph Brennan and the talent of executive chef Slade Rushing, I expected this born-again Brennan’s to be a cleaned-up version of everything it used to be – a new, improved time capsule, as it were. Yet since the old Brennan’s, for a thousand reasons right and wrong, hadn’t kept up with the times, the new partners decided it was time to play catch-up. By all accounts, the legendary Breakfast at Brennan’s (which runs through lunchtime) does feature egg dishes and other traditionals, but dinner is an ambitiously updated version of itself. In addition to the buttery-lush BBQ lobster pictured at the very top, appetizers include a nice roasted oyster dish with smoked chile butter and Manchego cheese in the crust. And entrees, in addition to the weird but beloved filet of beef Stanley – steak with bananas? – jump off the page with this bacon-roasted venison loin. The oh-so-tender, medium-rare medallions show up with tangy cabbage choucroute, chestnut butter and a reduction of red wine and bacon.

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When it’s dessert time at Brennan’s, you have every reason to look around for someone willing to set some bananas on fire. Bananas Foster was invented here, and while most at least semi-fancy New Orleans restaurants take a stab at the dish, Brennan’s is again one of the best. Still, whenever my heart takes me down Memory Lane, it’s strawberries more than bananas I want. Crepes Fitzgerald was also invented here, and quite an invention it is. Delicate crepes folded around sweetened cream cheese get covered in a sauce of macerated strawberries (preferably from the town of Pontchatoula near New Orleans) and flambeed in kirschwasser cherry liqueur. This dessert isn’t even on the menu yet but the dining room staff is more than capable to turning it out at your request. There are so many things to remember here – too many, maybe. Yet I have a suspicion the memories being made now will end of trumping so many of the ones that came before.

 

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