Given a fairly wide iconoclastic streak in our makeup, we passed on the tourist tradition of breakfast at Brennan's on a recent visit to New Orleans, where post-Katrina recovery has been at least a partial success. Instead, on a quiet Sunday night, we dined in the big pink house on Royal Street, and we departed in an extremely grim mood. The meal was next door to disaster, and with a tab a little more than $100 for two, without alcohol, we felt as if our pockets had been picked.
It was shocking, given the preeminent position among New Orleans restaurants taken in recent years by the Brennans, led by Dickie. At the same time, as in many other cities, New Orleans seems to have ended the era of the dress code. We ate at four rather upscale restaurants and saw few ties, fewer jackets. But the Brennan's dining rooms look much the same as visitors over the last half-century might remember. Black ties on waiters, white cloths on tables, grown-up voices in use by all. The menus are almost the size of a tabloid newspaper, and provide several minutes' reading before decision-making can commence. We stayed mostly with first-course choices, thinking we could try more things and perhaps eat more lightly, not that the latter is apt to happen to any food lover in The City That Care Forgot.
Oysters, of course, headed our choices. We prefer oysters from cooler waters than the Gulf of Mexico, but Gulf oysters are preferable to no oysters at all. Brennan's version of Rockefellers uses parsley and green onion instead of spinach as the green ingredient. (Antoine's, where they originated, insists it doesn't use spinach either.) There's probably fennel, for its licorice-like flavor, but very lightly used. A half-dozen large oysters were, all in all, very good.
On the other hand, there were the oysters casino. Joe is a fan of clams casino, usually topped with bread crumbs, maybe parsley and green or red pepper, always some butter, and – very important, this – crisp bacon, all popped under the broiler. Brennan's version brought another half-dozen of those large oyster shells, containing a dozen or so itty-bitty oysters. Some bacon on top and then, slopped over all, what seemed to be a basic tomato-based cocktail sauce, overpowering everything beneath it. Period.
At the risk of being indelicate, this casino just crapped out.
But besides second-rate taste and third-rate presentation, there remained the question of where all the oysters came from. Certainly not from those large shells. It looked to us as if Brennan's was substituting smaller, less expensive, less flavorful oysters for fresh, just-opened ones, and adding more so that we perhaps we might think these were Siamese Twins separated at birth. (It reminded us of a years-old story: A St. Louisan called Joe one day to report that he worked near a fancy seafood restaurant, walked by it almost every day, but never saw oyster shells in the trash.)
We asked our server about something called oyster soup Brennan. “It's a soup with oysters.” A pause. “But they're chopped up really fine,” A very brief pause. "Real fine.” We gently asked what else was in it. He lost the deer-in-the-headlights look when a young woman began to refill our water glasses. She, he assured us, could tell us more about it. And she did, pointing out that it had potatoes and it was thick, not heavily creamy and seasoned with thyme. It was properly, steamingly, hot. It was far too heavy on the thyme, though, overwhelming the oyster flavor.
On the salad side, the Brennan salad is essentially a fairly good Caesar, the dressing good but not what one thinks from the menu which promised “tangy Creole dressing.” Fresh croutons, obviously made in-house, helped. To our delight, spinach salad did not have a sweet dressing, but a proper vinaigrette, heavy on the garlic, the spinach bolstered by good bacon, mushrooms and red onion.
Our only true entree was buster crabs Bearnaise. Buster cabs are small soft shells, and these were indeed little guys, perhaps four inches long. Each was sauteed in butter and perched on an oval slice of grilled French bread. Bearnaise, essentially a Hollandaise sauce with tarragon and shallots, can make sofa pillows taste good, and this was a fine, classic rendition.
As dessert decisions loomed, we noted that the bread pudding is designated "St. Joan d'Arc." And how, pray tell, did Joan of Arc make her bread pudding? Another pause from the waiter, and one of us blurted, “Don't tell us it's burned.” Turned out to be the usual, with bread, raisins, a custard sauce, and we ordered it. After the waiter left, the other one said, “I was about to ask if it was served on a stake, like shish ke-bab.” It was light and tender, and we admit that the custard sauce displayed a light additional flavor that we couldn't identify, but which was quite pleasant. Still, it remained, essentially, the usual bread pudding.
Dinner at Brennan's might have been an acceptable meal with an average entree of, say, $23. But with entrees between $35 and $43, even though there is a prix-fixe menu available, it becomes totally unacceptable, and someone in management should be blushing the color of the outside walls.
417 Royal St., New Orleans
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair