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Catch of the Day

Joyce's Oyster Resort proves to be a pearl of a place

There are some women who, widowed at the age of 60, would simply sink into retirement. And then there's Joyce Gilbreath. After years of being a stay-at-home wife, she decided the best way to deal with being suddenly alone was to try something new. So early last year, when she learned a friend was seeking a loan to purchase a Niko-Niko's at Winrock and San Felipe, she put up the money and went into the restaurant business. Then, when she discovered that she and her friend had unreconcilable philosophies about running the place, she bought her partner out and tried again.

What she tried again with was Joyce's Oyster Resort, and call it beginner's luck, or second time lucky, but Gilbreath has struck culinary gold. In part, that was because she was smart enough to bring in some meaningful help: Chuck Bulnes, who had recently sold his interest in Berryhill's Hot Tamales and was ready for another adventure, and Dan Nix, who not only managed the original Joe's Crab Shack in the late eighties, but also cooked for Jim Goode as well as for the Landry empire. Bulnes, who worked the counter at Berryhill's, brought expertise to the front end, while Nix landed the starring role in the kitchen.

"Starring" is the right word here: Nix has created a menu filled with outstanding Louisiana-accented seafood. And in most circumstances I would begin by extolling that food. However, in the case of Joyce's, the atmosphere deserves just as many accolades as the cuisine. On all three of my visits, I noticed total strangers being treated like extended family. That's primarily because of Gilbreath, who is more than just a general overseer. She exudes a genuine concern from the moment you walk in. Then there's the wait staff, which seems to have absorbed completely the owner's benevolent attitude. When the food is ready, whoever is closest to the kitchen delivers it with a smile and two words of caution -- "hot plate," a warning you're well advised to heed. In any seafood restaurant, one can expect nautical decor consisting of aquatic specimens on the walls along with thick ropes, fishing nets, shells and the like, a blue color scheme and lots of brass and varnished wood. Joyce's does not disappoint in this department, and even adds a crocodile's head on the counter for good bayou measure.

While at times it's nice to enjoy seafood in all its simplicity, Chef Nix throws caution to the wind and goes for bold, spicy flavors. Take, for example, the fried jalapenos. When I noticed this appetizer advertised on the chalkboard above the counter, I ignored it, believing they were the heavily battered, stuffed- with-processed-cheese kind found in most places. It wasn't until our server said everyone was raving about them that I gave them a chance. I'm glad I did. As the waiter put it, "We take fresh jalapenos, remove the seeds and fill them with shrimp and crabmeat and real cheese, then lightly coat and fry them." Just so. The peppers were as they should be -- hot -- the stuffing was delectable and the batter exactly as he had described it. They were the best I had ever eaten.

A similarly enchanting appetizer was the compechana, a Mexican-style shrimp cocktail. I had visions of rubbery shrimp and commercial cocktail sauce found at so many other places, but was pleasantly surprised to find a fountain glass filled with extra-large shrimp mixed with a wonderful relish of fresh tomatoes, cilantro, onions and jalapenos. As a lagniappe, avocado slices and crab claws covered the rim of the glass. Another way to sample Nix's creativity is with the baked oyster platter, which is a combination of three different kinds of oyster preparations: the standard oysters Rockefeller with a creamy spinach topping; the oysters Dan, in which Nix combines freshly grated Parmesan cheese with garlic, olive oil and crabmeat; and the voodoo oysters, with fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil. Like everything else served at Joyce's, the portions were generous. And while the oysters were not inexpensive, running about a buck apiece, I definitely felt I was getting my money's worth.

The crab cakes, too, are an example of a lot of seafood for the cents. They're not the medallion-size cakes you normally find, but instead are the size of a generous hamburger bun. Appearing almost like small omelets, these pan-fried cakes combine a goodly amount of crab with red bell peppers, green onions and fresh corn for a rainbow of colors. They're served with a bright-green roasted fresh poblano pepper sauce for an added kick.

Three soups are available. One is a crab bisque, in which an abundant amount of fleshy crabmeat is mixed with a dark brown roux to give it an earthy flavor. This earthy flavor is duplicated in the gumbo, which is so laden with crab, shrimp and oysters that there's hardly enough room for any liquid. Fortunately, the rice is served on the side. On one occasion, the gumbo was somewhat bitter, suggesting that the roux was a little overdone. The oyster stew had a much thinner consistency than the other soups and also had a buttery film on the top. Nice and spicy, this creamy soup was made with the holy trinity of onions, celery and bell peppers mixed with, of course, minced oysters. I know there were oysters in there because I found a small piece of shell in one spoonful -- a small price to pay for such a tasty dish.

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