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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Monday, May 17, 2010

New Orleans Dining: Breakfast at Brennan's

Like dinner at Antoine’s, breakfast at Brennan’s is the stuff of New Orleans legends – the Crescent City equivalent of lunch at New York’s Four Seasons or a stone crab claw feast at Joe’s in Miami.
If you collect visits to “name” restaurants, particularly those that are venerable to the point of myth, no one is going to talk you out of going to Brennan’s, where you’ll most likely get a perfectly adequate breakfast for an extortionate price.
As of this writing (May of 2010), the prix fixe for a three-course breakfast at Brennan’s, consisting of appetizer, entrée and dessert is $36. Price, of course, is relative. While someone living in Manhattan’s East Sixties may not raise an eyebrow at the idea of thirty-six bucks for breakfast, such a price will certainly raise the blood pressure of most Middle Americans, and the truth is, you’d have to examine the room service menus of a number of New Orleans’ swankiest hotels to find a price anywhere near that rarefied range.
Since my main home is in a small Southern city, I’ll admit to gulping once when I first saw the prix fixe, but that gulp was quickly followed by a shrug. What the hell, it’s Brennan’s in New Orleans, it’s special, it’s iconic, I haven’t been here in years. Mollified by my easy rationale, I dove into the menu, and that was when the storm clouds started to brew on my furling brow.
Brennan’s is renowned for having some of the best turtle soup in America – right up there with Mandina’s and K-Paul’s, not to mention several other restaurants within the Brennan family’s New Orleans empire. In fact, the soup is invariably my appetizer when I order it for $6.50 a cup a la carte at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse in the French Quarter. And here it was on the Brennan’s breakfast menu if I wanted to add another eight bucks to the prix fixe. What? A $6.50 a la Carte cup of soup for an additional $8 on a $36 prix fixe menu? For breakfast?
Holding my soup decision in abeyance, I studied the entrée list. The vast majority of the choices were variations on Eggs Benedict, substituting such items as creamed spinach, speckled trout, salmon, a beef hash and the like. One that sounded particularly good and local was Eggs Nouvelle Orléans, where the Benedict’s traditional Canadian bacon was replaced by buttery lump crabmeat. There it was, right on the menu, just before the small type advising me of the $12 additional surcharge. Suddenly, the speckled trout substitution sans surcharge seemed a lot easier to swallow.
It came as no surprise to see another surcharge; this one five bucks, for a dessert of Bananas Foster, the restaurant’s signature culinary creation. In truth, Bananas Foster is a remarkably simple dish – a lengthwise sliced banana sautéed in a chafing dish with brown sugar, butter and banana liqueur. Once cooked, a coupe of shots of rum is poured into the pan, flambéed for a dash of showmanship and the entire concoction is served over and around vanilla ice cream. While the fireball’s flash and audible “whoomph” no doubt garnered a lot more “oohs” and “aahs” over fifty years ago when the dish was created, it nevertheless adds a celebratory finishing touch to a breakfast that pays homage to the notion of self-indulgence. But what’s five bucks in the greater scheme of things? Going to Brennan’s and not ordering their Bananas Foster is like going to Radio City Music Hall and walking out before the Rockettes goes into their high kick finish.
Not wanting to belabor the point about money, it is tempting at this point to start commenting on the food, which is still quite good. Unfortunately, money is the point of breakfast at Brennan’s. Let’s review the math.
The prix fixe breakfast is listed for $36, but an upgrade to the restaurant’s renowned turtle soup is an additional eight dollars, substituting locally caught Louisiana lump crabmeat for Canadian bacon adds another twelve bucks, and the celebrated Bananas Fosters is another picture of Abe Lincoln. Add it all up and the $36 breakfast has grown by sixty-nine percent into a $61 fine print fleecing.
While The Levelheaded One and I were negotiating our way through the menus, a table of four was seated next to us. It took them under two minutes to look at their menus and leave. Because I live in mortal fear of being perceived as an inveterate cheapskate, all I could do was watch them with wistful envy.
The Levelheaded One settled on a $36 prix fixe, consisting of Oyster Soup Brennan, Shrimp Benedict and Louisiana Chocolate Pecan Pie. Her soup was both rich and briny the way a soup with fresh oysters should be, fried shrimp replacing poached eggs in an otherwise classic Benedict provided a novel Crescent City twist on the old culinary warhorse, and her pie made up with flavor for what it may have lacked in inspiration.
For five dollars more, I ordered Creole Onion Soup, Eggs St. Charles and Bananas Foster. The only real differences I saw between traditional French onion soup and the Brennan’s offering were that the soup was slightly thicker and had a bit of a yellowish hue, which I am guessing was due more to the addition of turmeric than saffron. The egg entrée had fried trout instead of Canadian bacon under the poached eggs and Hollandaise. While there was certainly nothing wrong with the dish, it sounded more interesting than it actually turned out. The Bananas Foster were, in a word, superb, despite their final presentation being incongruously banal considering the flashy showmanship that goes into their preparation.
In addition to our breakfasts, The Levelheaded One and I indulged in what Brennan’s refers to as “eye openers,” in this case one Bloody Mary each. We passed on the website’s helpful advise that “It's traditional to have wine with breakfast at Brennan's -- we recommend: Pouilly Fuisse, Louis Jadot,” since we had already found our check for $105.91 before tip to be eye opening enough.
After passing on a table in the first parlor, which had all the nondescript charm of the breakfast room at a roadside hotel, we were seated in a glassed-in room that ran alongside the restaurant’s patio. It was pleasant enough, but like the fiery preparation of dessert, its wow factor seemed more suitable to times gone by. By today’s standards, it was fairly ordinary.
Our young waiter, who looked like a kid going to his first prom in a rental tuxedo, was personable when he wasn’t trying to be a comedian and trying when he did. Granted, Hurricane Katrina caused the retirement, relocation or worse of many of the old, patrician waiters that had long been an integral part of the grand old New Orleans restaurants, of which Brennan’s is certainly still one -- at least by reputation. Just the same, there was something both unctuous and off-putting about a young pup trying to act like he possessed the wisdom of a polished professional thirty years his senior. This was enhanced when he rather too loudly griped to a colleague about the four-dollar tip left by a businesswoman who dined simply, quickly and alone.
One of the most endearing aspects of New Orleans when compared to most American cities is its open and obvious affection for its culinary traditions. Places with long, storied histories like Antoine’s (since 1840), Galatoire’s (1906), Mandina’s (1932) and Tujague’s (1856) are not only patronized by local residents, they are revered. While Brennan’s (opened in 1946) is a relative newcomer to this circle of venerability, it is also the flagship for a family of the city’s better restaurants. If the restaurant expects a bright future, it needs to do more than to try to live off its past.
That said, Brennan’s remains a viable experience for the well-heeled traveler looking not so much for a legendary breakfast as a legendary name to drop – and who is willing to drop more money than it’s worth for the privilege.

Brennan’s, 417 Royal Street (between Conti and St. Louis Streets)
Open Monday – Friday 9 am - 1pm, Dinner from 6pm - 9pm,
Saturday and Sunday 9am - 2pm, Dinner 6pm - 9pm
All major credit cards honored, and reservations are required.
Telephone: (504) 572-9711, Website: www.brennansneworleans.com

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