Breakfast at Brennan's, before and after
PART 1: PAST
Breakfast at Tiffany’s may carry national cache, but here in New Orleans only one place resonates when that first meal of the day is mentioned.
Breakfast at Brennan’s has been a tradition for New Orleanians for more than half a century.
And almost that long for me.
As a child growing up in DeRidder in rural Louisiana in the 1950s and ‘60s, I didn’t experience much in the way of haute couture or fine cuisine. An occasional 50-mile trek to Lake Charles to browse the city’s one downtown department store offered the only peek into dimly imagined, faraway worlds of elegance and sophistication.
But for some reason my grandfather, a gentle, Bible-toting Baptist whose company motto was “God is our Partner,” loved New Orleans. So every few years Colonel, as we called him, would load the family into his Cadillac and head for the Big Easy. It was a long journey in miles – 235 of them across back-country roads before I-10 was complete – and a long one psychologically, too – from a town with one streetlight and no cinema to the state’s perceived epicenter of sin and culture.
Once here, the itinerary never deviated. We stayed two nights at the Monteleone Hotel, caught whatever celebrity was playing the Blue Room the first night, ate dinner at Arnaud’s the next, and had breakfast at Brennan’s in between. Those were the anchor points of every visit, and if a quick shopping stop at Krause’s or a stroll past Royal Street’s antique-studded store windows worked its way into the weekend, well, that was merely lagniappe.
Brennan’s, the original one, fueled my imagination. Its exotic salmon-colored exterior shell opened to reveal a lush secret garden and grand staircase, bustling waiters, diners in silks and brocades, and tables set with crystal that winked in the light and more heavy silver utensils than one small DeRidder girl could fathom might be needed for a single meal.
I had no idea that people could dine in restaurants that had actually invented its own menu’s famous dishes, ones I might have seen mentioned in literature or Life magazine. Or that food could be set afire tableside, fusing sugar and rum into something so much more complex than its simple parts.
I first tasted Bananas Foster there, at its point of origin. I may have eaten eggs Benedict or Sardou or Hussard; I can’t remember. I do know that I came away astonished that something so basic, like an egg, could be transformed, given the right culinary alchemy, into a thing of richness and delicate flavor and beauty.
Perhaps it was Brennan’s, in transporting the often-banal meal of breakfast into ethereal regions, that lit in me a small spark: one that whispered that a small-town girl, too, could make something more rich and complex of a heretofore simple, wholesome life.
PART 2: PRESENT
I approached the newly refurbished Brennan’s on Royal Street last week with a bit of trepidation, my head crowded with memories. Breakfast at Brennan’s has been a rite of passage for New Orleanians for decades, and I am no exception.
Like most of you, I wondered how much of the original – in both surroundings and menu – would be recognizable. And how much the recent $20 million (give or take) renovation would cater to a more demanding and cosmopolitan diner, cognizant of fusion cuisine and attuned to forward-thinking spaces in a more hectic, global and sophisticated society.
The new Brennan’s manages to bridge the worlds of both.
Ralph Brennan and Terry White have created a sumptuous restaurant that pays homage to the past while incorporating those things essential to a prosperous 21st century restaurant: modern twin kitchens, one up, one down; private spaces for parties large and small; rich textures in the décor and a menu that borrows from the past but also pushes boundaries.
Here, in no particular order, are some things you may want to know about the newly reopened Brennan’s.
It’s still pink. In fact, it’s more pink. The exterior shade is Benjamin Moore’s Tomato Cream Sauce (trimmed with a white called Mayonnaise). I lost count of the various shades of pink inside, from the mango pink of the downstairs dining room walls to chair cushions to chandelier sconce hats to striped porch awnings.
It’s not all pink. Designer Richard Keith Langham (his clientele has included everyone from Jackie O to Hilary Swank) has introduced rich aquas, golds, greens and bronzes – even a loud plaid on the wall in the small and masculine Morphy Room, named for the 19th-century chess player who died here when his father owned and lived in it.
It’s still old-line. The patina remains of the city’s FONOF (an acronym penned by a friend to designate Fine Old New Orleans Families). Sure, the former Rex Room is now the Kings Room, but this regal purple and gold upstairs dining room is adorned with pieces from the Rex archives at The Historic New Orleans Collection. It’s not all just about New Orleans royalty, however: The chairs are replicas of those used in Westminster Abbey during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation there.
It’s new, too. Brennan’s aficionados will be relieved to find the staircase, courtyard, and most dining rooms intact. But the renovation stripped the spaces to the studs and rebuilt them with newly imagined environments. The aviary-inspired Roost Bar boasts a mirror painted with birds by Alice Ludlow, faux-ostrich chairs and and birdcage lights by local Julie Neill. The Pineapple Room upstairs offers Bevelo wall sconces fashioned with that icon of welcome. A modern upstairs kitchen and reconfigured downstairs one added windows that give pot washers the best views in the French Quarter. And there’s an elevator now, too.
Don’t overlook the art. The main dining room contains Terry White’s collection of early 20th-century regional art – soft, impressionistic landscapes by artists such as William Woodward, Clarence Millet or John Drysdale. The Trellis Room is lined on three sides (the fourth opens onto the courtyard) with massive hand-painted murals of Proteus floats – found serendipitously in New York by the designer, who didn’t at first realize their significance. There are paintings on loan from the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, as well as photographs, Carnival memorabilia and other historical artifacts on loan from The Historic New Orleans Collection.
The favorites stay. Yes, you can get Eggs Benedict, Sardou or Hussarde. And a recent sampling of the Benedict demonstrated that familiar dishes done superbly can still enchant. You’ll also find such local staples as gumbo, turtle soup and bread pudding on the menu. And of course Brennan’s wouldn’t be Brennan’s without its iconic Bananas Foster (despite the many versions of this dish’s conception, Ella Brennan gives surely the definitive one here).
New favorites appear. Chef Slade Rushing is not resting on the restaurant’s laurels. He’s mixing things up with some cutting-edge combinations: an omelet filled with escargot and Saverin cheese, an egg yolk carpaccio, fried Mississippi rabbit with creamed collards. A baked apple filled with an oatmeal pecan raisin crumble and topped with a brown sugar glaze and sweetened crème fraiche will make you forget all about that banana dessert.
The bottom line 1. The new Brennan’s breakfast/lunch menu expands the former prix-fixe-only option with a la carte choices. A trio of three-course breakfasts ranges from $35 to $48, while most stand-alone entrees are in the $20 range.
The bottom line 2. Ultimately, the décor, the cuisine, the ambiance all prove that the simple things in life – whether paint or poultry -- can be reimagined elegantly with both a salute to the past and an eye to the future.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]