"She’s really a pistol," says Danny Trace of his mentor, Ella Brennan. "She’s 90 years old and sharp as a tack."
Actually, the New Orleans-based James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement winner is still a sprightly 89 for one more week. To celebrate her 90th birthday, which falls on Nov. 27, guests at Brennan's of Houston will be able to taste executive chef Trace's inspiration. From Nov. 21 through Nov. 28 (excluding Thanksgiving), Trace and his staff will serve up the haute-Creole fare that Brennan's co-founder Ella helped pioneer.
To create the menu, the chef dug into the history of the culinary empire that Ella helped to steer, beginning with the 1946 debut of her brother's eponymous Owen Brennan's French & Creole Restaurant. In the 1970s, the Brennan family bought historic New Orleans restaurant Commander's Palace. There, Ella worked with chefs including Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse before turning her attention to Trace, a young pastry chef in the mid-1990s. "Danny has magic in his hands," Ella has said.
Diners can taste Trace's three-course prix-fixe "magic" with one of five appetizers, including sherried snapping turtle soup or the famous Commander's Salad, which combines Romaine hearts with pressed egg, bacon and creamy black pepper dressing. Entrées include "stuff that you don't see that much of anymore," as Trace puts it, such as potato-crusted Lyonnaise gulf fish and filet mignon Stanley, a grilled tenderloin served with horseradish cream, red wine reduction and caramelized banana.
In keeping with the themes of history and bananas, including Bananas Foster was a must. After all, it was under Ella's watch that the tableside flambé was conceived at Brennan's in 1951.
Trace says that Ella no longer travels, so she won't make it to Houston to taste his tribute. "You really have to meet her to understand. You have to speak with Miss Ella and hug her," he says, trying to describe what quirks of character made her the culinary star she is. Failing that, Houstonians now have the chance to take a bite of her long-reaching influence.