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When early reports on a restaurant sound like a train wreck, I tend to wait for the debris to be cleared. And Houston’s Brasserie 19—a project of two veteran restaurateurs, Charles Clark and Grant Cooper, of Ibiza and Catalan—had clearly jumped the tracks. In the first few weeks, the Brasserie’s chef left; the noise level at peak times was by all accounts earsplitting; and the service frequently resembled a Marx Brothers comedy. Inevitably, the food received its fair share of abuse, but in among the griping and sniping, I kept seeing adjectives like “delicious,” “delightful,” and “amazing.” So against my better judgment, I made reservations. Surprise, surprise. Brasserie 19 is one of the best new restaurants to open in Texas this year.
The presence of both owners at dinner—prowling the premises, expediting the food, and bragging to customers about the brand-new, $14,000 acoustical ceiling—was a good sign. But what won me over was the first thing I put in my mouth: Texas sweet onion soup. Totally unlike the cheesy, brothy French version, this was a glorious purée of our official state vegetable, seductively laced with a trove of shredded beef short rib. But, hey, it’s hard to mess up onions. What would chef Amanda McGraw do with something harder, like pasta? A friend and I split the green pea ravioli, at which point I began to sound like the commentators I had read. It was delectable, tender and plumped with a purée of peas that was as fresh as a summer morning. Next we graduated to a real challenge: grilled octopus. Not to be redundant, but this was, yes, amazing, with every tiny tentacle delicately caramelized and tossed in an herbal, Italian-influenced salsa verde; the accompanying garlic dip reminded me of aioli minus the oil.
Next, we went with steak tartare (pictured), a testament to the difference that precise hand-cutting can make. Even when swished around with a raw quail egg, the finely chopped meat retained its crisp, clean edges. But the starter that was a complete revelation was the smoked-brandade beignets. I have to confess, I was afraid that any dish involving dried salt cod could go horribly awry. But those fears evaporated upon the arrival of featherweight puffs of potato whipped with a subtle purée of lightly smoked fish. If you imagine the spark that a smidge of anchovy gives to Caesar dressing, you’ll get the idea.
By the time we got around to ordering entrées, we were converts. Best of a fine lot was the juicy yet crisp-skinned roasted young hen, with Castelvetrano olives, teeny grilled tomatoes oozing fresh juices, and a honey-thyme jus. Even so, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the crab-topped Alaskan halibut, which flaked into lovely, snowy shards at the touch of a fork. Nor the juicy Texas rabbit loin duo—roasted loin and confit of leg—with a nutty, sweet mash of sunchokes that gave the sometimes-musky tuber a good name.
If Brasserie 19 had gone another couple of weeks without massive intervention by the owners, it might not have recovered. But lucky for us all, it did. Now I can’t wait to eat my way through the rest of the menu. Bar. 1962 W. Gray (713-524-1919). Open Mon–Thur 11–10, Fri & Sat 11–11, Sun 10–9. Reservations recommended. $$–$$$ +