Salmon sliders at Bradley's Fine Diner
After growing up around his famous father Bradley Ogden’s restaurants in California, and taking on the chef role himself in Santa Barbara, Berkeley, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, L.A. and Miami, Bryan Ogden has ascertained that the last thing his new home base of Houston wants or needs from him and his dad is white-tablecloth fine dining; all the family wants to create is a BFD.
The name, of course—officially translated as Bradley’s Fine Diner—is an off-color play on words. Yet settling into the second of three Houston places pere et fils are opening here, and gazing at comfort-food fantasies like smoked salmon sliders and free-range chicken with spoon bread, you just might be tempted to agree with the other translation as well.
“This is the kind of restaurant you can cruise in, in shorts, and have a beer and a burger, or a Tuesday night dinner with family and friends, or stop by for happy hour,” offers Bryan, 39, whose mentors, besides his pop, include Alice Waters and Charlie Trotter. “Within 14 hours of opening, we were printing a kids menu. But it’s also about carefully thought-out dishes that use the finest ingredients, a wine list filled with favorites and surprises, and terrific hospitality.” Bryan says his family’s Houston adventure began when he visited a series of very different restaurants here with a contact in the wine industry. All the restaurants were packed; all the parking lots full. Throwing a toque—or three—into the ring was a no-brainer.
BFD is the most “serious” of the new Ogden outposts, which debuted some months back, along with Funky Chicken, in a new commercial section between the Heights and Montrose. Initially a fried-chicken joint with culinary aspirations—against all odds, even the nakesake item was gluten-free—Funky has eased into a quick grab-and-go the neighborhood loves. The other concept—removed geographically, to suddenly hot Memorial City—is a gastropub called Pour Society, serving a hundred craft beers.
To their credit, here at BFD, the Ogdens have expressed their mission before the first glass of wine or dish of food shows up, crafting a square, mostly open space that’s urban and industrial above our heads, but rustic brick, wood and wrought iron around the perimeter. There’s the upside-down skeleton of an apple tree hung with lanterns as a chandelier, perfectly capturing this collision of city and country. And along the wall by the kitchen, the word FINE is spelled out in light bulbs, the unexpected echo of an old-fashioned movie marquee.
At the center of the unique space, Bryan is visiting with a table of new best friends—regulars—as his wine guy chats up a bottle of something wonderful. It didn’t take the Ogdens long to understand that, in Houston, we love our wines to be interesting, of course; but raised on trips to Spec’s, we also demand value. As for the food— mostly American but European-influenced—it seems ever-familiar yet ever-surprising, without disappointing or confusing us with too many “twists.” In other words, things that come out of the kitchen here make sense.
As menus go, this one is short—in stature, that is, not interest. There are nine appetizers and 10 entrees, all quick-printed on a single page. My early appetizer favorites include the popcorn rock shrimp, traditionally batter-fried but untraditionally outfitted with watermelon and chile-lime aioli. On this night, there’s also a spring onion soup, creamy from being pureed without any cream, poured at your table over crispy pulled pork, English peas and almonds. The nuts-for-texture fetish continues with the rhubarb-glazed pork belly, served over grits with charred scallions and pecans.
The aforementioned burger is also highlighted on the menu—not shoved onto some bar list or stashed away secretly in case a regular asks for it. No, it’s a burger with fries that’s as satisfying, in its own way, as the Yankee pot roast over garlic mashed potatoes with gravy, or even as the Blackhill Ranch pork loin with pulled-pork hush puppies, green beans and white bean vinaigrette. The beer-battered fish and chips with housemade tartar sauce is also great.
No matter how full you feel by this point, you need to order at least one or two desserts. I seriously get behind Bradley’s butterscotch pudding with a brown sugar rosemary cookie and vanilla bean whipped cream—something that reminds us of what Mama used to make, mostly by being a dozen times better—and the dark chocolate banana cake. Chocolate and bananas are a pleasantly underground pairing from another era; this combo comes with hazelnuts, malt ice cream and a unifying flourish of golden caramel.
These dishes aren’t just wonderful additions to a menu. They are great additions to the city’s culinary scene by one of the nation’s top food families, and they have made Houston a bit sweeter. And this makes good sense, as Bryan Ogden is a Houstonian now, with every intention of helping make Houston an even tastier place to live.
BRADLEY'S FINE DINER
191 Height Blvd.
Appetizers $9-$17, entrees $15-$54, desserts $8-$14
Lunch 11:30AM-2:30PM Mon.-Sat., dinner 5:30-10PM every day, brunch 10:30AM-3:30PM Sun.
The Ogdens give Houston what it wants for lunch and dinner, plus some. American classics and other comfort foods abound—in an über-comfortable environment where even shorts are allowed—with a wine list that blends discovery with affordability.
In keeping with its modern bent, BFD offers 11 specialty cocktails, in addition to classics the bartenders are happy to make. The Oil Money has sparking rosé with bitter syrup and lemon zest; the Dark Side is made with both bourbon and rye.
This menu is rich in whimsical spins on classics, the best being “Pigs in the Blanket” with johnnycake batter, pork belly and maple—and the “Toad in the Hole Benedict” with smoked salmon, asparagus and lemon-thyme.