It’s a new day for this New Orleans Institution
One of Ralph Brennan’s favorite boyhood places to play was the wine cellar at Brennan’s Restaurant, where his aunts Ella and Adelaide Brennan would let him loose while they worked the dinner service. It is fittingly full circle, then, that half a century later, Ralph oversees the French Quarter’s most regal—not to mention spirited—adult play group: breakfast at Brennan’s, a tradition that his uncle, Owen Brennan, established in the 1950s.
A cocktail is not required when you breakfast at Brennan’s, but it is strongly recommended by the list of “eye-openers” at the top of the menu, by the obvious intention with which each drink is crafted, and by lead bartender Lu Brow. “This sounds crazy to anybody who doesn’t live in New Orleans, but a cocktail is a great way to start the day,” says Brow. “If we had as many brandy milk punch houses as coffeehouses, we’d all get along better in the morning.”
A New Orleans brunch mainstay, milk punch, comes two ways at Brennan’s. The first is an expected version of brandy, cream, and vanilla poured over ice. The second, “Caribbean” rendition, involves rum, bourbon, cream, and vanilla shaken to achieve an impossible, eggnog-like froth and served up in a coupe. If Brennan’s signature coral-colored front dining room wasn’t so sun-warmed and welcoming, and if there wasn’t promise of grapefruit brûlée and fried rabbit, a single Caribbean milk punch might convince you back into bed. Instead, one must power onward and face the morning’s most difficult decision thus far: when a bow-tied server asks, “Will you be moving on to the wine list?”
While playtime and formal dinners at Brennan’s comprise some of Ralph Brennan’s earliest memories, he built his own restaurant empire as an adult while two of his cousins operated the eponymous family legacy on Royal Street. Ralph’s other restaurants include Ralph’s on the Park, Red Fish Grill, Café B, Café NOMA, Heritage Grill, and Napoleon House. In 2013, Ralph purchased Brennan’s with business partner Terry White. Following an extensive renovation and with a completely new staff in place, the restaurant reopened roughly a year and a half later, its tone reset.
Knocking down walls to let in natural light brightened the restaurant’s ambiance while maintaining its core structure, and hiring Executive Chef Slade Rushing to update Brennan’s kitchen did the equivalent for its food. A Mississippi native, Rushing earned acclaim at restaurants in New York and New Orleans for modernist dishes like Oysters Rockefeller Deconstructed. At the same time, he can throw down a dark-roux seafood gumbo as if he had spent his life on the docks. Rushing was a natural fit for a historic restaurant looking for a reboot. “I’m always walking a tightrope here, respecting tradition while pushing forward,” the chef says. “Brennan’s is a story that’s already been written. I’m just writing my chapter.”
Rushing’s chapter at Brennan’s includes adding dimension to a traditional New Orleans turtle soup with house-preserved lemon, and making grillades with overnight-braised pork shoulder instead of the more customary veal. Subtler changes to the age-old dish Eggs Sardou made it the showstopper during a recent breakfast. How to improve upon the Sardou’s four time-tested ingredients—creamed spinach, artichoke bottoms, poached eggs, and Choron sauce (béarnaise plus tomato)? Answer: choose the largest, freshest artichokes possible, bread their bottoms in panko crumbs, and then deep-fry them with a Southerner’s greaseless touch. Rushing’s kitchen staff processes at least six cases of artichokes every day.
Teetotalers might be in the minority at Brennan’s, even at 8 am, but breakfast’s greatest comfort is available to all—cast-iron-dark coffee and chicory, served with a mini pitcher of hot milk. I enjoyed my café au lait at the end of a two-hour-long morning meal with Bananas Foster (a Brennan’s invention) flamed tableside for dessert and an overwhelming sense of bonhomie. Only one desire remained unfulfilled: someone else to finish out the workday.