Few restaurants arrived in Fort Worth with the tidal wave of hype and expectations that Brownstone did. Opened in 2010, it was one of the first restaurants in the West 7th development, and at the kitchen's helm was chef Casey Thompson, a two-time Top Chef cheftestant. Moreover, Brownstone wasn't a chain or an offshoot of a Dallas restaurant, which at the time made it all the more important.
Seems so long ago that anyone would describe Brownstone as important.
The restaurant soon gained a reputation for stunning beet hummus, but also for shaky service and hit-and-miss entrees with unjustifiably steep prices, and it's been rough sailing ever since. Not many were surprised when Thompson, a consulting chef who designed the menu but didn't work at the restaurant on a daily basis, severed her ties with Brownstone after only a year. People speculated that the restaurant would soon close.
But Brownstone hasn't given up. Thompson's sous-chef Christian Lehrmann has taken charge of the kitchen, spending the past several months rolling out new menus: a less-expensive dinner menu; a $10 lunch menu; and a late-night menu for the weekend "Beats and Eats," in which DJs spin records while diners lounge and nibble on $5 plates.
Gone are many of the cheffy Southern favorites, like the terrific little chicken potpies. In their place are American staples such as burgers, sandwiches, sliders and tacos, along with a few holdovers from Thompson's days, such as the beet hummus. Efforts to source locally have been discontinued, Lehrmann says, due to the new lower price points.
During several recent visits, Brownstone's food and service were still frustratingly inconsistent.
Although there are still a half-dozen dishes priced at more than $20, such as sea scallops ($24) and a 12-ounce New York strip ($28), the dinner menu is now dominated by dishes in the $15 range. We tried one of the new dishes, fried chicken and grits ($16), and found much to enjoy. A large chicken breast had been lightly fried and served atop a bed of pepper jack grits. Pleasingly sweet, the batter was crisp and not too thick, and the chicken was fork-tender. Although portions of the grits were clumpy, they had a good flavor, the pepper jack providing a welcome bit of heat. An accompanying arugula salad was bright and clean, as was a small serving of sauteed yellow squash and zucchini.
Our server recommended the West 7th Street tacos ($11), served three to an order with shrimp, steak and pork fillings. The white corn tortillas, from long-running Rudy's Tortillas in Dallas, were not well prepared, resulting in a toughness that not even a fork could hack through -- too bad, since the fillings were mostly good. The three large grilled shrimp were plump and nicely charred. The skirt steak was well-seasoned, much like beef fajita meat. Of the three, the pork was our least favorite: it was mushy and had an odd, tangy flavor. Each taco came topped with shredded cabbage. A side of green salsa was timidly mild.
The street tacos came with Brownstone's rendition of elote, or Mexican street corn. But it was a small ramekin of creamed corn dusted with paprika. If it included mayonnaise or hot sauce, as elote typically does, they were not detected.
Another problematic dish was the new bacon meatloaf ($10) served during lunch. Swathed with tomato paste, it had a firm texture and didn't crumble, but there was no sight or taste of bacon. Garlic mashed potatoes beneath the meatloaf had no hint of garlic. They were smooth and bland, reminiscent of instant. Just about the only flavor the dish had to offer was from the tomato paste, messily slathered on the meatloaf, potatoes and the plate, like graffiti from an artist in a hurry.
We did have a good burger, also at lunch. We ordered the classic ($8) medium and received it medium-well, with only faint touches of pink. Still, the 8-ounce Angus patty had some juice and flavor and char marks, and the onion strings we added for $1.50 gave it a crunch and extra bite of saltiness. Iceberg lettuce and twirls of red onion were crunchy, and tomato slices were fresh. The best part was the toasted and buttered sweet bun, which came from Empire Baking Co. in Dallas. Accompanying waffle fries were soggy.
Strangely, desserts are no longer made in-house. Instead, they are brought in from Fort Worth's Black Rooster Bakery. That's good news for fans of Black Rooster, but it seems lazy. You go to Brownstone expecting house-made desserts.
You should also expect good service, but on our visits, it was unpredictable. We had a great server. And we had one who said "I don't know" a lot. We were greeted warmly when we walked in. And we had a 20-minute wait turn into a 40-minute headache, after which a manager offered no apology and asked, "Are you ready for your table now?" -- as if we were the ones holding things up.
So at this point, the fewer expectations you have for Brownstone, the more enjoyable your experience may be.