By Molly Dunn
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The fruits de mer Max at Brasserie Max and Julie came on three platters that a team of waiters arranged into a tiered tower in the middle of our table. A lobster head anchored in shaved ice protruded festively from the top platter like the nose cone of a rocket. Cold lobster meat, crab claws and boiled shrimp were arranged in a circle around the red head.
The middle platter was covered with shaved ice and topped with cold cooked mussels and tiny raw clams. And the bottom platter held two dozen raw oysters.
I don't eat raw Gulf oysters in September. But water temperatures are already hitting the sixties in colder Northern waters. After all, September has an "R" in it. So we asked where the oysters were from.
4315 Montrose Blvd.
Houston, TX 77006
Onion soup: 5.95
Fruits de mer Julie
(for 2 to 4): $45
Fruits de mer Max
(for 4 to 6): $75
"Connecticut," we were told. Just to be absolutely certain, we asked the waiter to provide proof. He returned from the kitchen with a Sysco invoice for Connecticut oysters that we studied intently. Not that we aren't trusting sorts. But a liver is a terrible thing to waste.
There were six of us at the table, and we ripped into the raw seafood like a pack of hungry barracudas. The oysters weren't plump and sweet, but they were briny and cold and it was a pleasure to be eating raw oysters again. The tiny little neck clams were delectable and slightly chewy. I dipped them in the vinegary mignonette sauce.
The shrimp were so popular, I didn't even get to taste one. I would guess the crab claws were Pacific Mexican crab rather than the sweeter Gulf blue crab. A homemade mayonnaise accompanied the shrimp and crab beautifully. One or two of the mussels were slightly off, and the lobster meat was a tad mushy, but all in all, it was a magnificent fruits de mer presentation.
In the Brittany region of France, there is a window sticker displayed by some restaurants advertising "l'authentique plateau de fruits de mer frais Bretons." It turns out there is an organization that certifies restaurants that do it properly. (So French!) To qualify, a restaurant must serve at least six different sorts of cold shellfish and crustaceans accompanied by rye bread, homemade mayonnaise and salted butter. Except for the rye bread, Brasserie Max and Julie could put the sticker in their window. But I'm not sure I would want them to, because their crusty white bread is fabulous.
Brasserie Max and Julie is owned by the Café Rabelais gang, and it has the same sort of short, reasonably priced list of French wines. We drank a bottle of crisp, citrus-scented Domaine Le Fruitiere Muscadet that went brilliantly with our cold seafood.
As we got down to the last few clams and crab claws, a frequent dining companion who was seated to my left pointed out that my plate held far more empty shells than anyone else's. Okay, so I guess I was the hungriest barracuda. I felt a little guilty, so when she wasn't looking, I dumped some of my empty shells onto her plate to even things out.
My favorite entrée of the evening was raie Grenobloise, flaky skate wing with salty capers and crunchy croutons in a simple lemon butter sauce served over rice. Every time I order skate, I am stunned by how good it is, and this simple preparation let the seafood shine.
I also sampled the salade landaise, a hearty salad of frisée with sautéed chicken livers and a poached egg. It's one of my favorite French salads when it's made with moist pink chicken livers, but the chicken livers at Brasserie Max and Julie were rubbery and overcooked.
And then there was the andouillette frites et sauce moutarde, the famous tripe sausage of Lyons. One of my tablemates compared the aroma to dirty socks, but it was much more offensive than that.
I don't criticize andouillette lightly. Many years ago, when I first started reviewing for the Austin Chronicle, I made disparaging remarks about an andouillette. I was pursued by two chefs who insisted I try their andouillette so that I would see the error of my ways. After eating a lot more andouillette than I ever wanted, I had to admit, if you clean the tripe well and cook it until it's very soft, tripe sausage can be good. But I am not what you'd call a fan of the stuff.
When I visited Brasserie Max and Julie, I brought a Frenchman named Bernard Brunon along. Bernard was raised in Roanne in the very hasp of the andouillette belt. It was Bernard who I called when I found the awesome sweetbreads tacos at the Tacambaro taco truck behind Canino's. And it was Bernard who compared Tacambaro's tripitas to the flavor of a good French andouillette. [See "Taco Truck Disappears, Reappears," Houstoned, August 23.]
Bernard is a lifelong fan of andouillette, and he hated Max and Julie's version — too funky and too chewy. He said we'd be better off eating the tripitas at Tacambaro. He wasn't overly impressed by the pale french fries that were served on the side in a paper cone either. "They just aren't all that crispy," he said.