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Bivalve Season Is Here

Houston restaurants are ready to get shucking.

Sex, Death and Oysters

The oyster crop is still not back to where it was before the droughts of 2010 and 2011.

'He first selected the smallest one...and then bowed his head as though he were saying grace. Opening his mouth very wide, he struggled for a moment, after which all was over. I shall never forget the comic look of despair he cast upon the other five over-occupied shells. I asked him how he felt. 'Profoundly grateful,' he said, 'as if I had swallowed a small baby.'"

According to a companion, William Makepeace Thackeray uttered the above in 1852 when presented with a half-dozen six- to eight-inch oysters, a common size at the time.

Gilhooley's specializes in oysters cooked any way you like them.
Daniel Kramer
Gilhooley's specializes in oysters cooked any way you like them.
From top left: Hibiscus-infused tequila agua fresca; chimichurri-grilled Texas redfish; fruit margarita; mangalitsa chicken tamale topped with Oaxacan mole
Mai Pham
From top left: Hibiscus-infused tequila agua fresca; chimichurri-grilled Texas redfish; fruit margarita; mangalitsa chicken tamale topped with Oaxacan mole

"As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Men have long waxed poetic about the oyster, and why not? It's one of the few foods we eat while it's still alive, and we eat the entire creature, entrails and all. Oysters don't hunt; they wait for the ocean currents to bring food. They produce objects we wear as jewelry, and research has confirmed they possess aphrodisiac properties.

Oh yeah, and when plucked from the ocean in its prime, an oyster — delicate, plump and ever so slimy — will taste of briny sea water and rich butter and will sensually melt on your tongue.

With oyster season officially under way as of November 1, I've been thinking about fresh, raw bivalves for weeks now. I got the scoop on the upcoming season from local oyster experts and chatted with a few chefs and restaurateurs to find out where you can get fresh oysters straight from our gulf waters.

"The prognosis for our season is incredible because of all the fresh water," says Tom Tollett, chef and owner of Tommy's Restaurant and Oyster Bar and an activist with the Galveston Bay Foundation. Tollett and others are excited about the large amount of rain that's fallen so far this year — it's been flushing water into the gulf from as far north as Dallas — because it should contribute to a stellar oyster season.

The oyster crop is still not back to where it was before the droughts of 2010 and 2011, when the salinity in the gulf reached record levels and predators that thrive in saltier conditions made our bays their home. Still, Tollett and his fellow chefs are optimistic about the season, which lasts until April 30.

"I hear they're supposed to be good this year," local fishmonger PJ Stoops says, though he admits he's not as in tune with what's happening in oyster reefs as he was when he sold gulf bycatch at Louisiana Foods. "They'll taste good, but the harvest might not be much of anything. Let's wait until February and talk about how good they are."

Stoops says that while the season officially began on November 1, the date is arbitrary, and the quality and availability of oysters depend largely on the weather and rainfall. If the water stays too warm past November 1, the early harvests will be no good, while a cooler-than-average September can mean the season will peak in November.

"These days there aren't many things that have to be seasonal," Stoops says. "But oysters do."

A word that has come up frequently during gulf oyster season in the past several years is "appellation," which refers to where, specifically, the oysters come from in the bay. In the past, there was no such thing as "gulf oysters," as that title was too broad. Recently, there's been a revival of "gulf appellation oysters," which come from specific reefs with names like "Pepper Grove," "Possum Pass" or "Todd's Dump." Appellation oysters are so popular, in fact, that Tommy's has partnered with the Galveston Bay Foundation for the past several years to host gulf appellation oyster tastings.

Before you assume that an oyster tasting sounds boring and redundant, talk to any oyster aficionado, who will tell you that the bivalves have a sense of "merroir," much like wine has a terroir. Merroir refers to the differences in flavor, texture and appearance among oysters from different reefs. Sometimes the differences are so pronounced that you can detect unique flavor profiles in specimens from different ends of the same reef.

"For the past 100 years, we've basically not really tagged oysters with appellations," Tollett explains. "That's just been in the last few years. We would like to have more oysters coming from these appellations, because it gives them more credibility."

That's interesting and all, but why would the humble oyster need more credibility?

Easy, says Tollett: "They're our keystone species in the bay."

He explains that an oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day, which helps keep the oceans clean. The cleaner the water in the bay is to begin with, the cleaner our oysters will be. And if our oysters are happy and healthy, so are our shrimp and fish. Tollett believes that drawing attention to the uniqueness of oysters can help the gulf as a whole. He even has a motto to get his point across:

"Eating oysters and recycling shells is a tasty way to save the bay."

So where can you get the fresh, plump gulf oysters now that commercial oystermen are hauling them in? Here are just a few places in town that either have gulf oysters on the menu now or will be serving them later in the season.

Oh, and for the record, there's no truth to the old adage that you can eat oysters only during months that contain an "r" (meaning, don't touch 'em in May, June, July or August). That came from the pre-refrigeration days when there was no way to keep oysters cool after harvesting during the hot summer months. It is true, however, that oysters are generally tastier and fatter when harvested in the winter or spring, when the water in which they live is cooler.

Liberty Kitchen Bar and Oysterette

The newest addition to the Liberty Kitchen, BRC Gastropub and Petite Sweets family is open for business and doing oysters in a big way. Chef Travis Lenig explains that they get oysters from all over — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and, of course, our local waters.

"We get them from the gulf year-round," Lenig says. "Sometimes they're not great, but the majority of the time they're good. They're just getting bigger now. The water is getting cooler and they're eating more, so they're growing."

The prices change according to the market, but right now, Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar, the Oysterette's sister, has Gulf of Mexico oysters on the menu for $14.50 per dozen.

Goode Company Seafood

Over at Goode Co., oysters can be found on tables year-round, and that includes our own Galveston Bay bivalves. A manager explains that later in the season, Goode Co. will start getting oysters from other coastal bays, and at that point they'll begin to feature oysters by appellation. For now, a dozen oysters from Galveston Bay at Goode Co. will set you back $13.95.

Gilhooley's

The amiable folks over at Gilhooley's in Dickinson tell us they get Galveston Bay oysters from the distributor Misho's Oyster Company in San Leon. The owner, Misho Ivic, picks out the best oysters to send to Gilhooley's, where they are served up fresh in a variety of ways (think smoked, grilled, baked or raw).

Desiree Mack, the manager at Gilhooley's, says oyster prices have been going up every year, but for now, they're some of the cheapest (and best) in Texas at $9.50 per dozen.

Eleven XI

"We won't serve gulf oysters during the hot months," Eleven XI general manager Joe Welborn explains. "We just won't serve oysters that have been steamed open and then rubber-banded."

As of this moment, it's still "the hot months" in Houston, but Welborn says he looks forward to truckloads of gulf oysters quite soon. He expects that all the appellation oysters will be gone within the first two to three weeks of their availability because they're so desirable. During the height of the season, though, Welborn anticipates having 12 to 18 appellation varieties from as far north as Prince Edward Island.

Eleven XI currently has "East Coast Oysters" on the menu for $30 per dozen, but Welborn says once the gulf oysters come in, they'll probably be about $1 apiece and will be shucked in front of customers, the best way to display their freshness.

We know there are many, many places to get raw oysters around our great city, so let us know where you go for delicious shucking.
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Top Five

Top 5 Soul Food Restaurants in Houston
Feed your soul and your stomach at these places.

Joanna O'Leary

If I had to choose a single cuisine for my final meal, soul food would be a top contender. I don't much care that the medical establishment says it's not so great for my health, and actually, I don't much believe them, either. How can what makes my soul (and my stomach) sing not help my body in some way? Fools. Here are five places where I know I can find good soul food in Houston:

5.Esther's Cajun Cafe and Soul Food.Like most soul food joints, Esther's offers cafeteria-style dining, oxtails and all the usual suspects (macaroni and cheese, collard greens, yams, etc.) in terms of sides. What sets it apart is the inclusion of NOLA favorites such as po-boys, étouffée and dirty rice served comfort-food style (read: mild seasonings and large portions). It's a delightful and delicious fusion of Southern styles. 

4.Alfreda's Cafeteria.When the Houston Press recommended ten restaurants to visit in the Third Ward, Alfreda's unsurprisingly earned a place on the list. Regulars know to go early in the day to get prime portions of baked chicken, oxtails, ribs and green beans; latecomers, never fear: Whatever's left is still good.

3.Just Oxtails Soul Food. This restaurant would probably be just as successful if it sold oxtails — and the ones here are fantastic — and nothing else, but it certainly doesn't hurt that its chicken and dumplings and its pork chops are also terrific. Equally appealing is the staff's exuberant, attentive service; you're guaranteed to leave smiling as well as full.

2.This Is It Soul Food. The restaurant's snazzy updated Web site and detailed descriptions have caused some to speculate that This Is It is becoming a bit too fancy to be a true soul food place, but anyone who has stopped by recently for some chitterlings, mac and cheese, or banana pudding knows (at least from the bare-bones, no-nonsense ambience) that This Is It is still all about hot, fresh and straightforward Southern grub.

1.Mikki's Soul Food Cafe. One of my strongest motivations to renew my vows is the thought of Mikki's catering my (second) wedding reception via large vats of fried cabbage with turkey, mashed potatoes made from scratch and candied yams. Of course, I would be forced to negotiate to have their smothered fried chicken (Monday special) available on a weekend night, but maybe they'd accommodate me if I asked nicely. Or begged.
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Edible Events

El Big Bad Is Coming Soon
Divine tequila cocktails and a chef-driven philosophy.

Mai Pham

Located on the prominent corner of Travis and Prairie in the building that used to house Cabo's,El Big Bad, the offshoot of Lea McKinney and Steve Sharma's wildly successfulEl Gran Malo, is almost ready to open. The gorgeous copper-topped bar is in place downstairs. The large, inviting patio is just waiting to be populated. The menu has been created by consulting chef Randy Rucker, and the two key players on the food side — executive chef Ben Rabbani and sous chef Mark Parmley — have been hired.

"You need to open soon!" I exclaimed as I stepped onto the restaurant's wide wooden upstairs patio. A light breeze drifted around me in lazy playfulness, making me want to hang out and admire the twinkling lights of downtown instead of going back downstairs.

"We're waiting on the murals to be completed," replied Sharma. "And a few other things," he added enigmatically. Even so, you can tell that Sharma and McKinney are more than ready to get the party started. And to give expectant fans something to look forward to, they recently held a "Snapshot" dinner, offering two seatings of a seven-course cocktail pairing dinner for $95, just to whet our appetites for what's to come.

To make the event even more special, El Big Bad partnered with Herradura Tequila, which flew in a third-generation jimador — a farmer who harvests agave plants — to kick off the dinner with a live demonstration. Guests watched in amazement as the jimador used a special tool to break down the spiky leaves of the plant before breaking open its core.

And then the festivities began. If you've been to dinners put on by the El Gran Malo team, you'll know that their drinks are seriously bad­ass. El Big Bad is no different. Their libations are extremely creative. They taste awesome. They're deceptively light but pack a strong punch. And they'll make you very, very happy.

This is no doubt how my friend Minh and several of the other attendees felt throughout the evening, starting with a shot of smooth Herradura Silver Tequila, which was served with delicious house-made red and green sangrita chasers to create a palette of red, white and green shot glasses: the colors of the Mexican flag.

The shots were paired with a first course of gulf shrimp aguachile made of lightly poached shrimp that had been marinated in a chile water of serrano, cilantro and shaved red onion. Resembling a ceviche but much milder and less tangy, the shrimp had an almost plain taste, until the bright pops of chile spice came into play. It was a shrewd pairing, allowing the tequila to shine next to the intensely herbaceous flavors of the two sangritas.

The second course — blue crab tostada with smashed white beans, corn, avocado and fried shallots — is something I'm hoping I'll see on the El Big Bad happy hour menu when it debuts, mainly because it's fun to pick up a crispy tortilla with your hands and munch on it until it's gone. Paired with an expertly concocted, magenta-colored agua fresca made of hibiscus-infused tequila, it was one of my favorite courses of the night.

Though each course offered something memorable — a salad of roasted beets sitting in a pool of mango puree with chile, lime and cilantro, and topped with round slivers of crunchy-crisp jícama sprinkled with crushed pistachios; chicken tamales made with a masa containing mangalitsa lard and served shrouded in a richly flavored, deep-brown Oaxacan mole; the whole grilled chimichurri-marinated Texas redfish served on wooden platters; hot beignet-like churros served with spicy Mexican chocolate sauce — the night, for me, was all about the drinks.

We're talking fresh and fruity pink-colored Herradura tequila margaritas made with blueberry, jalapeño and cilantro; peanut flips that tasted like spiked liquid Nutter Butters; gorgeously concocted Acapulco Slims of pineapple-infused Herradura Reposado with fresh pineapple, lime juice and sparkling wine; and even a French press Amaya Roasting coffee served with a "churro" shot of cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla-infused Herradura Añejo. The drinks, developed by the El Gran Malo team, were all expertly crafted, right down to the glass or vessel that was chosen for each one.

This is why I want El Big Bad to open sooner rather than later: The drinks are already stellar.

Complemented by chef-driven Mexican cuisine (think Mexican with unusual twists, such as refried black beans, guacamole topped with caramelized onions, or a kick-ass pozole or menudo as a hangover helper) and a stunning upper deck that wraps around two corners of the building and affords fabulous cityscape views, El Big Bad is poised to become one of the shining stars of a reinvigorated downtown scene.
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Restaurant News

Openings and Closings
Flora & Muse goes out with a bang; Tiger Den delays its opening.

Molly Dunn

In one of the most surprising, yet epic, ways for a restaurant to close, Flora & Muse informed its customers it would no longer be open for business...and did so during a Greek wine dinner.

On October 28, general manager Evan Turner told guests at the dinner that the restaurant would be shutting its doors forever after the evening's service. The Houston Chronicle's Alison Cook reports that the sudden closure came as a shock to everyone in the crowd and that the restaurant wanted to go out with a bang, so this dinner was its "last hurrah."

B4-U-Eat's newsletter also informed us that Triola's Italian American Grill on FM 1960 closed this week. No news as to why the eatery (which opened only in February) shut its doors — its phone has been disconnected, though.

That's it for closings; let's get to the happy news of what opened this week.

Last week we announced that Little Dipper would open at the end of October, and the bar concept from those behind Poison Girl, Black Hole Coffee House and Antidote Coffee officially opened on October 29. Eater reports that the bar opened with a happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m., during which wells were $2.50 and wines were $4. The owners also bought the first 50 Lone Stars for 50 lucky guests. The establishment focuses on bourbon, and like the owners' other establishments, Little Dipper will serve a variety of libations.

Eater's Darla Guillen announced on October 28 that Dean's Credit Clothing would reopen on Halloween. Guillen reports that Chris Morris, who has experience at The Pass & Provisions and Morton's: The Steakhouse, will be the bar's beverage man — he will choose the cocktail selections and beer list.

A few new sports bars have recently opened or will open soon outside the Loop. We reported a few weeks ago that MasterChef Season 4 contestant James Nelson consulted with the owners and chefs at Revolver in the Willowbrook area. The suburban social restaurant held a soft opening on October 25, according to Eater. The Locker Room also opened in Sugar Land. Eater explains that this sports bar will serve Canadian beers and food. Hockey fans now have a place to follow the puck — The Locker Room hosts NHL game-watch parties. They also show college football and NFL games.

Scott Gertner looks to be making a comeback after both his establishments closed just months apart. Prospect Park will take over the recently closed Scott Gertner's Sports Bar, as reported by CultureMap's Eric Sandler. Maybe Gertner will have better luck this time.

Menchie's Frozen Yogurt opened on November 2. The grand-opening celebrations at both locations (Westheimer and West Gray) awarded ten people from each location free frozen yogurt for a whole year. You read that right — a whole year of free frozen yogurt. It's a dream come true...for me, at least.

Commenter Chic_Chick_Eats states in a report two weeks ago that Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt opened another location in Pearland on Saturday, October 26, and that the winner from Food Network's "Cupcake Wars," Cupcake Cowgirls, opened a second location, on College Park Drive in The Woodlands on Monday, October 28. The cupcakery's other location is in Spring. Both stores are now serving a daily rotating lineup of cupcakes, including special fall flavors: apple pie and pumpkin spice.

The Crawfish Pot & Oyster Bar opened in the Hong Kong Food Market shopping center, as noted by Chic_Chick_Eats. The restaurant will focus on Cajun-seasoned seafood and serve fresh oysters from the Gulf — just in time for oyster season!

Unfortunately, Tiger Den will not officially open until November 12, as reported by Eater. The Chinatown ramen shop had a soft opening two weeks ago, and Mai Pham filled us in on her first meal there. While we were all excited to have a ramen shop and izakaya restaurant in Houston, we'll have to wait a little bit longer until it reopens.

El Big Bad is close to opening — on page 34, Mai Pham takes a sneak peek at what the Tex-Mex restaurant will offer. "We're talking fresh and fruity pink-colored Herradura tequila margaritas made with blueberry, jalapeño and cilantro; peanut flips that tasted like spiked liquid Nutter Butters; gorgeously concocted Acapulco Slims of pineapple-infused Herradura Reposado with fresh pineapple, lime juice and sparkling wine; and even a French press Amaya Roasting coffee served with a "churro" shot of cinnamon and Madagascar vanilla-infused Herradura Añejo," Pham writes. "The drinks, developed by the El Gran Malo team, were all expertly crafted, right down to the glass or vessel that was chosen for each one." El Big Bad needs to hurry it up because we can't wait for it to open. However, patience is a virtue, my friends.

Max's Wine Dive is expanding to more cities over the next few years (Atlanta, Chicago and Denver), but is also opening another location in Houston. The new local Max's is setting up shop on Fairview, next to Cuchara, according to Eater, and is expected to open its doors in January.

Thanks to a Swamplot reader's attentiveness, we now know that the building next to the Washington Avenue Fire Station will be a bar and market establishment, Lucky's Urban Eats. Swamplot published a photo of the building's exterior and its TABC notice hanging in a window. The restaurant's Web site says it will open in the spring of 2014.

Openings:

Allo French Rotisserie, 126 Vintage Park Blvd., 832-843-7422

Big & Juicy Juice Bar, 3115 Allen Pkwy., 832-291-0977

Brick House Tavern + Tap, 17111 Tomball Pkwy., 832-912-1094

Chocolat Du Monde, 2428 Times Blvd., 713-520-5600

Cupcake Cowgirls, 3091 College Park Dr., The Woodlands, 281-251-0840

Dean's Credit Clothing, 316 Main, 713-227-3326

Fat Bao, 3355 S. Hwy. 6, Suite A, Sugar Land, 281-313-1069

Izakaya-Wa, 12665 Memorial, 713-461-0155

Liberty Kitchen Bar & Oysterette, 4224 San Felipe, 713-622-1010

Little Dipper, 304 Main

Lulu Blues: A Creperie, 8121 Castleford

Maggie Rita's, 600 Travis, 713-229-8596

Magnum Food Park, 2924 Magnum Rd, 281-687-2351

Menchie's Frozen Yogurt, 1944 W. Gray, Suite A, 713-853-9695

Menchie's Frozen Yogurt, 5000 Westheimer, Suite 608, 713-853-9594

Muscle Maker Grill, 6415 San Felipe, 713-627-0915

My Food Park HTX, 800 Hwy. 6 S., 713-373-9521

Revolver, 17776 State Hwy. 249, 832-604-7281

Salata, 185 Heights Blvd., 713-865-3515

The Crawfish Pot & Oyster Bar, 9820 Gulf Fwy., Suite B-7, 228-238-8540

The Hidden Cellar, 16518 House Hahl Rd., Cypress, 713-401-8539

Tiger Den, 915 Oakgrove Dr., 281-480-2222

Trenza, 2800 Kirby, 713-526-1414

Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt, 1635 Broadway,. Suite 111, 832-569-4712

Yashoda Chat Express, 11248 Wilcrest

Closings:

El Corral Mexican Restaurant, 22432 Tomball Pkwy.

Flora & Muse, 12860 Queensbury Ln. #143

Lucky Village, 1111 Dairy Ashford

Sonic Drive-In, 7001 Harrisburg

Swirll Frozen Yogurt, 1944 W. Gray, Suite A; 5000 Westheimer, Suite 608

Triola's Italian American Grill, 8790 FM 1960 Bypass Rd. W., Suite 100A

Yummy Yummy for My Tummy, 6965 Barker Cypress Rd.

Zushi, 5900 Memorial

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