When Almost Veggie and I tooled in, stylishly late of course, for brunch at River Oaks’ brand-new Brasserie 19 this past Sunday, I knew it was what that guy in Casablanca called “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Here was everything I love about French food and drink, stripped of everything I hate about French food and drink. Yes, of course, there were escargots! And since I knew the days ahead included both a radio taping with owners Charles Clark and Grant Cooper (they of Ibiza fame) and a full-scale review for Houston magazine, I figured it was high time to get some garlic butter dripping down my chin.
In spite of the location’s former tenant, TonyMandola’s Gulf Coast Kitchen, the ridiculously wonderful raw oyster platter featured not a single oyster from the Gulf Coast. In the spirit of France, however, that was just fine with us. The four varieties of oyster that did show up were all from the much colder waters off the U.S. and Canadian East Coast – which meant that their tastes and textures were more in line with oysters from France, like the famed belons of Brittany.
For whatever reason, I’m not typically a seafood salad lover. But when this one showed up in front of Almost Veggie, I couldn’t resist having a taste or three. She was particularly excited to share the bright red lobster claw meat – which reminded us of the dazzling Lobster Thermidor we had recently at Rainbow Lodge. All the seafood was sprightly and fresh, reminding me not to be such a snob when it comes to seafood salads.
And if there’s one thing I’m never a snob about, it’s a burger and fries. Yes, Brasserie 19’s incredible Steak Frites are offered on the brunch menu too (which we successfully begged them to keep serving us after the scheduled end at 3 p.m.). But your basic “steak frites fix” can also be enjoyed in this, much more American way. The fries are some of the best you’ll taste in your life, spared that horrific Parmesan and/or truffle oil stupidity, and the burger is a masterpiece. In fact, it proved my perfect carnivore appetizer for the New York strip that would take its place several nights later.
Going back to Brasserie 19 for dinner, with a side order of radio taping, meant sharing the experience with my daughter Amanda and her fiance Byron, he just arrived from New Zealand. And that meant picking up one of the ultimate French classics I’d failed to cram in at brunch. While Grant Cooper assured me every French place in France (or even in Belgium, where he spent a good part of his life) makes onion soup a bit differently, the one at Brasserie 19 is everything an American could dream of. There’s rich, flavorful beef broth, lots of caramelized onions, a slab of floating toast and a lava flow of melted cheese.
In honor of Almost Veggie, who’s been known to enjoy halibut whenever nobody gives her excellent Lobster Thermidor, I had the halibut entree – while daughter got the steak frities with an extra order of frites for the table (talk about Supersizing!) and fiance got the pan-roasted duck with Texas figs. Thanks to chef de cuisine Amanda McGraw, the fish was mild and flaky amid a festival of “melted leaks,” jumbo lump crabmeat and chive butter. I’m not sure where the notion of “melting” leeks, as opposed to cheese, came from – but suddenly the silly things are on menus all over town.
For dessert, we sampled a creme brulee, one of those classics that, at any given moment, may or may not seem too much of a cliche. Fact is, Amanda declared it possibly the best creme brulee ever. I had an even more profound blast from my past, harking back to the very first creme brulee I ever tasted, at Arnaud’s in New Orleans. I could almost turn back the clock, what, maybe 25 years, and hear super-suave maitre d’ Marlin Shipley telling me that “creme brulee is flan that’s died and gone to heaven.” And once again, if only for a moment, it was.
Finally, if you’re having dessert at Brasserie 19 – and you must – you have to get the most amazing thing they’ve got going. Billed simply (as any French dessert should be) as Apple Galette, it’s a kind of hot apple pie in a pastry satchel, the apple filling rich and thick and sweet, all underneath warm flaky pastry that gets its own topping of vanilla ice cream and salted caramel. After several glasses of Burgundy, I didn’t feel like having more wine with dessert. Next time, though, I have a date with something promisingly called Trie Exceptionelle. Like Charles Clark and Grant Cooper in the spirit of Texas, I’m thinking this Sauternes will make some very big promises – and then seriously over-deliver.