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Game Changer

by John DeMers | Photo: Debora Smail | Houston magazine | April 1, 2013

Brooklyn Athletic Club—purveyor of reconsidered American-esque comfort food, à la meatballs served not with spaghetti but with silky, wide-ribbon pappardelle—is the only Houston restaurant I know that you enter via an obstacle course of lawn sports. That means your appetizer might be croquet, badminton, pétanque, bocce, pingpong or darts, or maybe impromptu blackjack with the owner. Then again, Shepard Ross and his executive chef, Jeff Axline, like to be different.

The two have been conspiring to do unique food off and on over the years, since working at Houston’s Four Seasons a decade ago, seeing their fortunes rise and fall with the likes of DeVille, Zula, Trevisio, Glass Wall and BRC. With the opening of Brooklyn in the former Zimm’s Little Deck in Montrose, these collaborators appear to have mastered the art of producing serious food and drink while having a damn good time.

“This is a country club where everybody is a member,” laughs Ross, explaining the concept, noting that he grew up on Long Island and regularly visited such places with his father. “You can serve people anything they want, but they come back if they’re entertained.”

Entertainment, diversion and fun are essential concepts to Ross and Axline. And, as though to prove it, they have expanded far beyond the mere 42 seats inside the Clubhouse—and that number includes the nine or 10 places at the bar, properly known as the Chef’s Counter—to the far larger Backyard.

Part grass, part gravel and part dirt, the grounds are chockablock with games and the markings for games, all part of the flourish of outdoor amusement that should keep Brooklyn humming through its first springtime in business. For now, the outside is served by the same kitchen that Axline handles for the inside, but any day now there should be a Brooklyn food truck flipping burgers and other casual foods for the alfresco set.

With a major assist from Alan Krathaus of Core Design and local designer/cookbook author Erin Hicks, the Clubhouse is intimate, quirky and comfortable, the kind of space that never stops serving up surprises. In addition to a color scheme of three shades of gray, there’s a counter of white Carrara marble atop a frame covered in dark brown cowhide, subway signs liberated from the lines running to Brooklyn, “Navy chairs” of the sort found on ships and submarines, twin-mounted menu boards listing neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Houston, and even some vintage tip trays from the New York World’s Fair that opened in 1964. (As Ross was born nearby during that extravaganza, he has pursued its kitschy leftovers with a passion on eBay.)

The music is an eclectic mix controlled from Ross’ mobile phone—Beastie Boys, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart and Nina Simone, including a healthy smattering of less-familiar B sides. As the evening progresses, the music notches upward in volume and the lights edge lower.

The food here fits Axline like a glove. In a small open kitchen that sometimes clouds with smoke or shimmers with fire, the white-jacketed chef and his black-clad-and-capped crew turn out dishes that owe a debt to the Deep South and to soul food. “This is my food,” Axline says, looking around. “We like to have fun with it, though. We wanted to build a place we’d want to hang out if, God forbid, we ever had a day off.”

Appetizers on the menu (augmented by specials on the Big Board) include the intriguing sweet potato gnocchi. The dumplings are formed by man rather than machine, then outfitted with caramelized mushrooms and apple wedges and presented beneath a blanket of sage and parsley cream and a tangle of crispy batter-fried leeks.

Two other starters have delighted me so far. One is the almost too lush baked mac and cheese fortified by braised short ribs—just the meat, thankfully, not the bone—with American and artisanal, local Redneck cheddar cheeses; the other is pork rillette. I can’t say I ever embraced my inner rillette until now. But spreading the thick, smooth pork concentrate over thin, hyper-crispy slices of Slow Dough baguette—and trying all possible combinations of the provided embellishments of chopped onion and parsley, apple-rosemary compote and spicy mustard—I think I finally understand.

Among the entrées, two favorites have emerged: the Texas-sized meatballs, and the irreverently named Porkobuco, a braised shank as in osso buco, except it’s pork instead of veal. It comes with roasted Brussels sprouts and mushrooms, and a killer potato-bacon hash.

The food here isn’t all meat, though the numerous appearances of Nueske’s bacon from Wisconsin on the menu might make you wonder. There’s a wonderful entrée of Prince Edward Island mussels and fries, the former in a sauce of butter and the Conroe-based Southern Star brewery’s Blonde Bombshell ale—and, yes, a bit of Nueske’s. And there’s a pan-roasted Texas striped bass, with cubed sweet potatoes and kale spiked with olives and chorizo—a slam dunk on a plate. And this is an utterly appropriate metaphor for a dish at this sports-savvy Brooklyn Athletic Club, where a good time and great food are anything but a game.

Brooklyn Athletic Club
601 Richmond Ave.

Lunch 11am-2pm Tuesday-Sunday, with additional brunch items on weekends; dinner 5-10pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11pm Friday-Saturday and 5-9pm Sunday

Lunch $10-$24, dinnertime appetizers $7-$15, entrees $11-$25, desserts $6-$8

Why Go
An indoor-outdoor restaurant with a “country club” assortment of games and a bacon-happy menu of sophisticated dude food

Complimentary valet, plus street parking nearby

A mix of American classics, from the mint julep made with New York’s small-batch Hudson’s bourbon to a pair of drinks cleverly dubbed the Upper Manhattan and the Lower Manhattan. Don’t dare miss the Brooklyn Irish Milk Shake.

Don’t-Miss Desserts
The chocolate cake is excellent, as is the s’mores bread pudding, which comes à la mode. (The place actually sells s’mores “kits” for fireside home cooking.)