Bliss at Bayou City

Dishes have been named for sopranos (peach Melba), actresses (crepes suzettes), ballerinas (Pavlova), novelists (Chateaubriand), entrepreneurs (bananas Foster), chefs (fettuccine Alfredo), diplomats (beef stroganoff), battles (chicken Marengo) and even states (baked Alaska). But until Chris Mannery came along, no one, to the best of my knowledge, ever thought of naming a plate for a dog.

Actually, any number of dogs. At Bayou City Seafood n' Pasta, which Mannery owns, dishes include pasta Justice, pasta Montana and snapper Courtney, all named for his golden retrievers. And it doesn't end there. Snapper Remington and pasta Cheyenne are also named for canines -- as are pasta Naranja and pasta Apache. About the only dishes on this menu that don't honor dogs are pasta Kimberley and Dale's special, Kimberley being Mannery's best friend and Dale one of his business associates.

Bayou City Seafood is, perhaps, best known for its crawfish. "The best in Houston," Mannery says modestly. "Only the largest and plumpest will do." Representations of crawfish dot this place, and a poster advertises the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. Crawfish are the restaurant's presiding deity. Bayou City Seafood is a crawfish Lourdes -- the closest mud crawlers will ever get to having their very own shrine.

The restaurant is furnished minimally: tables, chairs, wooden blinds -- very Somerset Maugham -- a neon swordfish and a sign reading, "Let the good times roll." The exhortation hardly seems necessary. The people who fill this place come not to put on the dog or to catch a glimpse of Dick DeGuerin. (God forbid.) They come to chow down. Which they do with great abandon. At Bayou City Seafood, people are wont to roll up their shirtsleeves when lunch arrives, and some go so far as to don a bib. I tell you: It's a sight to gladden the heart.

There's an egalitarian spirit here I find enchanting. It's the kind of place where your waitress is likely to call you "Hon" (mine didn't, I'm sad to say) and feels obligated to set you right if you make what she considers a poor choice. Ours crinkled her nose when I ordered the rice dressing. "Get the jambalaya," she said. "It's much better." (True, it turned out.) She came to our aid again when one of my guests ordered a large pasta Montana. (Pasta dishes come in two sizes.) "Get the small one," she said, crinkling her nose again. "It's plenty, believe me." We did. And it was. Which brings me to a word of warning. If you visit Bayou City Seafood, be sure to bring an appetite. The servings here tend toward the epic. Everyone in my party took home a doggy bag.

Ever on the lookout for something exotic, I ordered the fried alligator ($4.95). I can't say I enjoyed it especially. It reminded me of bad calamari: tough and bland. Not that I blame the kitchen. I'd eaten alligator once before, and it was tough and bland that time, too. Gators are nasty things, and I wouldn't eat them at all if they didn't eat us. When you eat a gator, I like to think, you're performing a public service.

Bayou City Seafood serves a great jambalaya ($4.95). As well as being moist and full of shrimp, it's also humongous: three mounds of it looking like the pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Menkaure in miniature. There are two kinds of jambalaya: red, which contains tomatoes; and brown, which doesn't. Mannery's is the former kind, the version favored by New Orleans.

The seafood gumbo ($3.50) is great as well. Full of file, it has the color and consistency of Buffalo Bayou. After cooking, it's allowed to age for 36 hours -- which is why it has so much character. This gumbo is the real thing -- not some young upstart. Like an old dowager whose powers may be waning but can still hold a room enthralled, it has personality to spare.

The spicy Cajun chicken fingers ($4.95) are massive. The accompanying sauce makes a big impression, too. Its major component is Cajun Chef -- not unlike Tabasco -- to which Mannery adds garlic and butter and spices. It's not unpleasant -- even if it is a bit of a braggart. And it lingers. This is the sauce equivalent of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Once it hits your palate, it refuses to leave.

The fried catfish ($10.95) is wonderful. It comes with a wedge of lemon, a baked potato and masses of butter. What more could anyone want? The distinguishing element here is freshness. (Mannery owns his own fish wholesalers.) The fish is lightly breaded and lightly fried and couldn't possibly have tasted better. It seemed very pure somehow. You had the feeling that you were eating catfish the way it was intended that catfish be eaten.

I also recommend the pasta Montana -- crabmeat, shrimp, crawfish and lobster sauteed with tomatoes, mushrooms and broccoli in white wine, basil and garlic and tossed with angel-hair pasta -- ($8.95 for a small serving; $14.95 for the large). A really nice combination, this. And better still, everything is expertly cooked.

The fried frog legs ($10.95) were a bit more problematic. How did they taste? Froggy, I suppose. But beyond that, it's hard to say. To tell the truth, they were oddly indeterminate, suggesting nothing in particular -- not even the chicken to which they're sometimes compared. I bit into one of these things -- the flesh is surprisingly tender -- and waited for something to happen. And nothing did. No explosion of flavor. Not even a minor detonation. It was hard not to feel disappointed. Really, Mr. Frog, you'll have to do better than that.

Mannery, a genial fellow, admitted that he doesn't like frog legs very much. And he hinted that, one day, he might name a dish for me. I hope he doesn't. I don't want people thinking that I'm one of his dogs.

Bayou City Seafood n' Pasta, 4370 Richmond, 621-6602.


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