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The crawfish bisque at Denis' Seafood House is as dark as chocolate and spicy as hell. Crawfish tails and hush-puppy dumplings hide in its luscious roux-thickened murk. But I can't pay full attention to the fabulous soup, because I'm distracted by the appetizer, which the four of us can't quite seem to finish.
9777 Katy Freeway
Houston, TX 77024
Region: Outer Loop - NW
The Cajun sampler comes on the kind of metal tabletop stand that restaurants often use for pizza. Piles of fried shrimp, fried crawfish, calamari, fried green tomatoes and crab balls are heaped over a crunchy mountain of onion rings on the elevated plate. Rémoulade, tartar sauce, marinara sauce and spinach dip are tucked beneath it.
It's a dilemma. I don't want my soup to get cold, but I can't stop eating the awesome fried seafood. I end up alternating between the two. In three visits to Denis' Seafood, I have witnessed a lot of these sorts of sensory-overload problems.
A friend who wears dress shirts to work met me here for lunch one day. He became so engrossed in the spicy, roux-darkened tomato sauce and caramelized onions in the shrimp Creole lunch special that his uninhibited slurping splattered the sauce all over his shirt. He ended up doing an emergency laundry job with a napkin and a water glass at the table. When we left the restaurant, his shirt was soaking wet. Luckily for him, it was pouring rain outside anyway.
Another night, I ordered fish for dinner, but I became enthralled with the stuffed crabs on my daughter's fried seafood platter. I hardly ever order stuffed crabs, because most restaurants are so miserly with the crabmeat. At Denis', they barely bother with breading. I've never had stuffed crabs that were so rich with meat or so spicy. I was in the process of excavating every nook and cranny in the shell when my daughter gently extracted it from my hand.
The restaurant was packed on each of my three visits. But the place is so big, there's never a long wait for a table. The interior looks like it was assembled from pieces of a building that was torn down in New Orleans. The corroded tin roof seems ancient, and there are similarly weathered planks and panels throughout.
The walls are covered with the Blue Dog paintings of Louisiana artist George Rodrigue. One of my dining companions pooh-poohed these works, comparing them to the paintings of dogs playing poker that used to be so popular. I understood her point, but it wasn't much of an indictment, since I likethose paintings of dogs playing poker.
The service at Denis' Seafood is outstanding. I tend to ask a lot of questions, and each of the three servers I had knew the menu inside and out. One waitress's unbounded enthusiasm for the shrimp poor boy persuaded us to order it. We thanked her profusely after tasting the sandwich, which featured a crusty roll sliced in half and stuffed with huge, juicy butterflied fried shrimp dressed with lettuce and tomato. With a healthy dose of Louisiana pepper sauce, it's one of the best shrimp poor boys in the city.
The waitstaff also seems to know every species of fish on the blackboard, and when they go in and out of season. I always ask for the server's recommendation on pairing the fish with the "Louisiana toppings."
These toppings are dinners in themselves. My favorites are the "Pontchartrain," with shrimp, scallops, crawfish and mushrooms in a dark roux, and the "sauce piquante," with shrimp, crawfish and blackened oysters in a very spicy roux. There are six toppings in all. I haven't tried the "house," with shrimp, scallops and crawfish in a cream sauce, or the "Denis'," which comes with shrimp, scallops, crawfish, mushrooms and tomatoes in white wine. For an extra $6, you can get one of the toppings on any menu item. But the best idea is to order one of them with a fish special.
And what an incredible choice of fish! Every day, the fish list is posted on a huge blackboard above the kitchen. Such rarities as angelfish, ling and tilefish make regular appearances. I had ling with the "lemon butter sauce," which is studded with crawfish and capers. Ling is a bright white, dense fish, with a flavor so meaty some Gulf fishermen call it chicken of the sea. It's rarely seen on restaurant menus because there's a very limited supply. Another night, I had a fabulous, full-flavored amberjack pan-fried and covered with the sauce piquante.
The integrity of Denis' Seafood is a breath of fresh air in a city with a smelly reputation for fish fraud. Too many restaurants here rip off consumers by mislabeling tilapia or other cheap fish as "snapper." Which is why Denis' Seafood's fish blackboard is such a welcome sight. You get the fish you pay for here. And if you're willing to pay for it, they can treat you to some exotic stuff.
In the early '80s, Paul Prudhomme made Cajun food a national sensation. Cajun restaurants started popping up all over. The best ones outside Louisiana were located in Houston. The Landry brothers of Lafayette and their five partners taught us how to eat Cajun. As a result, we now consume more crawfish in Houston than they do in New Orleans. Denis' is one of the last relics of that wonderful era. Denis Wilson was one of the partners in Landry's, our waitress tells us. "Tilman Fertitta bought up all the Landry family restaurants. But this one is still independent."
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