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Backwater Bliss

If you'd been born on the island, you'd already know about Clary's

Housed in a long, low bungalow tucked away on an inlet of Offats Bayou, across the shallows of Galveston Bay from the improbable pyramids of Moody Gardens, Clary's seafood restaurant has remained a well-kept secret for the better part of 22 years. There's no Gulf Freeway billboard to lure spring breakers or sandy, sunburned families, and its only neon sign is in the shape of a small seagull over the front door. Inside, the long entrance hallway is lined floor to ceiling with hundreds of photographs of wedding receptions, birthday parties and golden anniversary celebrations: a testament to the ability of two generations of islanders to keep a good thing to themselves.

"No, no, I don't try to keep the tourists away," insists the affable owner, Clary Milburn. "I get folks here from all over the country. But it's true I never did advertise much, so they pretty much find us by word of mouth." The word quietly shared by Clary's faithful regulars is that he offers fresh seafood, simply prepared, in an Old South setting, and Milburn is content to keep it that way.

The closest Clary's ever came to outright fame was during the filming of The Evening Star, the sappy sequel to the Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment. Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine were shown dining at Clary's, although it takes a sharp eye to recognize the distinctive blue-gray paint of the window frames or the brief glimpse of bay view with a tottery line of pilings and shrimp boats bumping at their moorings. "Oh, my God, that was exciting," says Milburn, starstruck as any teenager. "There they were at six in the morning, Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine, drinking coffee and tea. He's got that cigarette going of course. Oh, man, it was the coolest thing I've ever seen." Milburn should be flattered: Of Nicholson's 12 on-screen minutes in The Evening Star, at least three are spent at Clary's.

It's Clary's air of authenticity that must have attracted the filmmaker. The restaurant has that endearing patina of genteel wear endemic to the sleepy backwaters of the Gulf Coast, but the low-ceilinged warren of dining rooms is deeply comfortable. The rattan chairs are thickly cushioned, the bar well stocked, the tables draped with linen and the waiters fitted out with tuxedos. Tuxes -- at the beach? "People don't just drop in, they plan to come here for a dining experience, and that's what we want to give them," says Milburn. "We don't require our customers to wear jackets to dinner anymore; I'm real careful to explain that, but I think Clary's customers are more comfortable not wearing a T-shirt and shorts here."

Guests are welcomed to the table with a small dish of spicy boiled shrimp, hot from the pot, and a menu recitation that sounds like a fishing report. On a recent visit we were advised that the flounder were running well, the shrimp just in and the blue crabs fat and plentiful. The service at Clary's seems sweetly old-fashioned. "For the lady?" our waiter asked me warmly, pen poised. "And for the gentleman?" Getting no response from my husband, he leaned over and softly prompted, "That would be you, sir."

After devouring our freebie shrimp -- slightly spicy, still in their shells and remarkably tender -- we agreed that the first thing we needed was more shrimp. Clary's boiled shrimp, served hot or cold, have a devoted following of their own. It's an old Cajun trick, Milburn confides, to drop the fresh shrimp, shell and all, into spiced water at a rolling boil, then turn off the heat so that they cook slowly and gently. Milburn has been on the island since 1957, but he was born in Opelousas, Louisiana, and that heritage shines through his menu.

Clary's is also known for its medium-dark seafood gumbo ($4.50), although I find it only middling-fair, a spicy blend predominated by shrimp but a little too thick and gravyish, with too much rice for my taste. I prefer the crab balls, crispy golden-brown outside, unabashedly mushy inside and perfectly seasoned. Bigger than golf balls, a half order of six or so ($5.50) is usually plenty for me.

My favorite entree during crab season is Clary's Special Butter Lump Crab; full enjoyment of it requires complete suspension of dietary beliefs. Meaty, moist chunks of fresh blue crab are doused with melted butter and studded with green onions and bacon bits, then the whole mess is covered with a thick blanket of bright gold cheddar cheese and run under the broiler to melt. "That's what I made for Mr. Nicholson and Ms. MacLaine: my special butter crab," confides Milburn.

Milburn goes to a lot of trouble to accommodate his special customers. He whipped up a simple blackened butter sauce for a couple from Alaska who were horrified at the furbelows of cheese and bacon on the blue crab. In 1984 he added a nonsmoking area and called it Hank's Room after the local surgeon who lectured him endlessly on the evils of tobacco. And for a customer who couldn't decide between the butter crab, the grilled oysters and the baked shrimp, he created a combination platter called the Saralyn B.

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