Like a scene from an old western, the streets of big Texas cities are littered with the bleached bones of famous restaurants from afar. Their owners thought they would open here to thunderous applause, only to discover that cracking the Texas code is harder than it seems. Remember Craft, BLT Steak, and Charlie Palmer, in Dallas? Or Bank and Katsuya, in Houston? What about Coyote Cafe, in Austin? The longest-lived, Tom Colicchio’s Craft, lasted only six years. Not all interlopers have failed; Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck is still spinning away atop Dallas’s Reunion Tower. But the list offers a cautionary tale: Texans are an ornery lot, and they want what they want. Even so, that sobering fact has not deterred yet another big-name chef from trying his luck. Bradley Ogden—winner of two James Beard Awards and the head of a San Francisco–based restaurant empire—is giving the Lone Star State a whirl, aided and abetted by his son, Bryan, also a chef. Bless their hearts, they probably think they have Texas all figured out.
Wait—I don’t mean that the way it sounds. For all I know, they have cracked the code. The restaurant they opened in Houston at the beginning of April certainly has good looks and a promising kitchen going for it. The place is named Bradley’s Fine Diner, charmingly shortened to BFD, and its home is a retail development on a busy corner in the Heights. Like so many restaurants these days, it offers an agreeable grab bag of dishes that can be lumped together under the rubric New American. But despite its name, it is definitely not a diner in the traditional sense (no diner I know of ever had a giant gilded tree root suspended from the ceiling). Rather, the California émigrés are putting the emphasis on “fine,” drawing on concepts from Ogden’s Lark Creek Restaurant Group without copying any single place. BFD is something new, as well as part of a broader incursion into the Texas marketplace. But more about that later.
Because my schedule allowed for only a brief trip to Houston, I decided to have lunch and dinner on the same day at BFD. (That got me funny looks from a couple of staff members, but to their credit they kept on smiling, like it was a normal thing for someone to show up with three people at noon and come back, using a different name, with five people a few hours later.) We definitely wanted to try the signature oak-grilled burger, which came cooked to order on a house-made bun that was basically a large Parker House roll, slathered with sweet balsamic onions. Aside from needing more salt, the meat was so good it reminded me of finely chopped steak haché. BFD’s version of fish and chips is another must. The slim fingers of buttermilk-dipped cod came in puffy batter jackets and were altogether terrific. Caramelized Maine scallops did an unusual surf-and-turf routine with delectable carnitas-like shreds of crisp-fried pig’s tail. In fact, the only flop was the grilled skirt steak, which turned out tough and stringy.
Back for dinner, I zoomed in on another Ogden signature, Bradley’s Yankee Pot Roast, a comfort-food special with roasted heirloom carrots and fresh English peas. Soothing though it was, it didn’t hold a candle to the fish we tried, a divine pan-roasted Atlantic cod. Its sidekicks were sautéed rock shrimp and slices of Spanish chorizo, two feisty foils for a mild cracked-wheat salad. I’m not sure whether we hit an off day for meaty dishes, but I found it hard to get excited about the Blackhill Ranch pork loin, despite the fact that it had all the right adjectives: lean, tender, and perfectly pink. Our last two dishes, chicken and dumplings and fettuccine with morels, marked the low and high points of the evening. I badly wanted quotation marks around the word “dumplings” on the menu, because the pasta-like packets were in fact pierogi, not the South’s familiar biscuit balls; their Dijon-touched potato-and-sour-cream filling was fine but hardly made up for the tragically overcooked chicken. All that disgruntlement disappeared, however, with the first bite of the fettuccine, the fresh-made noodles tossed with lappably good olive oil and Parmesan and swirled together with Oregon morels, crisp asparagus, and a heavenly pine-nut pesto.
Presiding over the kitchen is 36-year-old Bryan Ogden, who, like his dad, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. When I called to talk to him, I was surprised to find out that he was already living in Houston. “My first visit was in 2012,” he said. “I had friends here who had been urging me to come check it out. I kept telling them, no way, we have too much going on. They said forget all that, you need to do a restaurant here, we’re buying you a plane ticket, and we’ll see you on Tuesday. So I flew in, and I immediately fell in love with the city.”
I was curious to know if he was adapting his style for the Houston market—maybe making dishes spicier or using “Texas” ingredients. “We don’t want to do that,” he said. “We do what we do and hope that our customers like it too. Once you change your style to please somebody else, that’s a recipe for failure, because your heart’s out of it.”
My last question touched on his expansion plans—how did a Californian get so involved with Texas so fast? “Once we made the commitment here,” he said, “we wanted more than one project, and it just sort of unfolded.” They’ve already rolled out the Funky Chicken, a fast-casual prototype that they hope has national potential, and a gastropub named Ogden’s Pour Society is slated to open later this year. In other words, the Ogdens are in for the long haul.
As I hung up the phone, I thought back on previous outsiders’ efforts to take Texas by storm. A variety of failings did them in—inconsistent food, poor management, red ink—but they had one flaw in common: absentee landlords. After an initial hands-on period, few of the principals did much more than drop in occasionally to count the silverware and give the operation a once-over. But BFD and its siblings don’t feel like that. These ventures signal a deeper level of commitment. True, Bryan Ogden is not from here and he has his own culinary identity, but he has put down roots. They may still be shallow, but he’s one of us now. In cracking the Texas code, that makes all the difference.