Restaurants / Openings

The Chef of Houston’s Hottest New Restaurant Combines Small Town Gusto With European Techniques

Why Eunice is Built for H-Town

BY // 10.14.18
photography Kirsten Gilliam

An ambitious Louisiana chef is bringing The Big Easy to The Bayou City with a modern Cajun-Creole brasserie. All it takes is some fresh Gulf fish crudos, oysters, ceviches and New Orleans-style Gumbo, and chef Drake Leonards is good to geaux.

Eunice, just opened and already buzzing at 3737 Buffalo Speedway in Greenway Plaza, is BRG Hospitality’s first Houston restaurant. The Cajun-meets-Creole eatery with a distinctive European influence is named for Leonards’ South Louisiana hometown.

The town of Eunice is tucked in the heart of Acadiana, the midpoint between Houston and New Orleans.

It’s where Leonards got his start, before the training in New Orleans, in New York, in France, in Germany. It goes back to before he learned the European cooking style, back when he was a dishwasher at 15. First came the flavors. Then came the technique.

“I was very fortunate to grow up in a small town in the middle of Cajun country, only 7,500 people,” Leonards tells PaperCity. “What I learned there was just about the importance of food. It’s a common thing we all had. Everybody is a really great cook.

“You’d go over to a friend’s house and the tables were just really full of food. There was always something cold to drink and something warm to eatMy love for food, and entertaining, and everything that goes along with it began there.”

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Look no further than Eunice’s Crispy Bandera Quail to see that in action.

“You pick it up with your hands and kind of get into it,” Leonards says. “That’s what this restaurant’s about — sharing food, sharing a meal with people that you care about. And be able to do that with some of these family-style dishes.”

Fried chicken is a Southern staple. Everyone’s got their favorite little spot. But Eunice brings a Lone Star spin.

“For me, quail is a very Texas thing that resonates with people,” Leonards notes. Eunice takes quail from Bandera farm, soaks them in buttermilk, seasons them with a dash of Tobasco sauce and chicken fries them.

The next step is simple, straightforward and quintessential. Leonards takes some of the local Texas honey he picked up from the market and seasons it with a little espelette pepper and drizzles that warm spiced honey on the hot battered quail right when it comes out of the oven.

Timing is everything. But there’s also something to be said for location, location, location.

Houston’s Restaurant Lure

Leonards was drawn to Houston’s explosion of restaurants and its cuisine crafted by all different cultures. He knew there’d be demand for a Creole-Cajun restaurant, and he believed Houston would be ready for his twist on it.

“For us, it’s about cooking food influenced by the way we grew up,” he says. “Houstonians are probably as well versed as anyone in Cajun and Creole food.

“There’s that connection between the Bayou City and the Crescent City, and I-10 in between. When you think about Houston, that’s six million or maybe seven million people that makes this place up. New Orleans, that’s a couple hundred thousand.

“But the diversity here in Houston now is what put New Orleans on the map two, three hundred years ago.”

The chef is bridging the two Southern cities as much as he’s linking up Cajun and Creole. To the outsider, the two may be verging on the synonymous — all Louisiana cuisine, right? Not so fast. There’s crawfish aplenty, but there’s a lot of nuance, too.

“For so long, Cajun and Creole were really separate,” Leonards says. “Now as we’ve moved into where people from the small Cajun prairie have moved into Baton Rouge and into New Orleans and Houston, and some of the New Orleans Creole-style gumbo has moved into Cajun country, it’s all become one, in a sense.”

Creole has that French, that Spanish influence. “The Creole food of New Orleans is kind of the finger version. The refined sauces with probably a little bit of a wine in some of the food,” Leonards says.

When Leonards thinks of Cajun cuisine, he dreams of one-pot stews, really that hearty country cooking where everything is local and rich in flavor and history. Crawfish etouffees and crawfish boils where the crawfish are formed right there in the rice fields.

“I grew up with kind of a farming background. My dad was in agriculture, a second or third generation farmer, and so we had that rice and that crawfish,” Leonards says.

There’s that emphasis on family in this new Houston restaurant.

“Just this morning, one of the guys that works for us from Vermilion Parish, just about an hour south of Eunice, his dad’s a shrimper and he’s been shrimping for 25 or 30 years,” Leonards says. He shrimps from Vermillion Bay all the way to Port Arthur.

So Leonards and his staff drove down to Port Arthur.

eunice gulf tuna
Eunice is all about fresh-caught seafood.

“We literally bought shrimp right off the dock. That was amazing to be surrounded by staff, and around people that have such common interests and that love food as much as we do,” Leonards says. “It’s just awesome to buy something that was caught by someone we know that we now have a connection to.”

That’s one thing that sets Eunice apart from the home-style cooking he grew up with. There’s access to the best seafood, the best produce, the best poultry.

“We didn’t always have those opportunities. You had to work with what you had,” Leonards says.

Eunice’s European Twist

The other delicious distinction: the cooking techniques Leonards learned in Europe. He lived in both France and Germany and spent most of his time cooking right along the French-German border.

“I got to see that side of it — the charcuterie and the sausage-making,” the chef says. “And Andouille is so important to what we’re doing. I got to see some of the smokehouse things that we do in the food I grew up with.

“I got to see the rustic French style of really hearty roasted meats and braised meats and cook with game that we have a natural tendency to do in those same things in Louisiana and now Houston.”

Leonards applies all of those techniques at Eunice. There, he goes through the process of making all the stocks the way he learned in a traditional French kitchen.

“We make the demi-glace and we roast the bones,” Leonards notes. “We do everything associated with the European style of cooking and take that and build flavors with some of the best chicken we can get, the best produce we can get to hopefully make something just as soul satisfying.”

Laissez le bon temps rouler.

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