Cajun Gets a Crewcut at Denis' Seafood House
"The third time's the charm," I muttered as I slurped. The 13 oysters I got last week at Denis' Seafood House on the Katy Freeway were the best I've had so far this season. The oyster meats were beginning to turn creamy beige, the color of oyster fat.
They serve a "baker's dozen" for $9 at Denis'. The oysters come on a metal plate with a dozen depressions where the oysters sit. (The extra one balances on top.) Luckily, these oysters were so big they didn't fall into the water. I wasn't so lucky a couple of weeks ago. The shucker had filled the shell-shaped depressions with ice. But unfortunately, the service at Denis' was so slow, the ice melted before the oysters got to the table, getting inside the oysters.
On that unlucky first visit to the restaurant's grand new digs at Katy Freeway near Bunker Hill, I sat in a booth not far from the bar. It was a Saturday night and the restaurant was packed. I ordered oysters and a gin martini, one of my favorite cocktail-and-appetizer combinations. I got the ice-cold martini right away, and I could see my plate of oysters sitting on the end of the bar. But I couldn't get anyone to bring them to me.
The cocktail was warm by the time I walked over to the bar and got the bartender to follow me back to my table with the oysters. The first two oysters tasted like chlorine. I got back up and walked over to the bar again, where I asked the bartender if I could talk to the oyster shucker. The shucker eventually came to our table, and I berated him for rinsing the oysters in tap water. He assured me that he hadn't rinsed them at all.
The young Spanish-speaking shucker pointed to the pool of water under each oyster. "It's from the ice," he explained. It turned out he had given me some exceptionally small oysters and several of them had slipped down under the ice-melt while they sat on the bar. I sampled a few more oysters and discovered that the ones that hadn't been diluted tasted wonderfully briny. The young man kindly shucked me another half dozen to make up for the slow service. And he delivered them personally before the ice melted.
After we finished the oysters and a terrible, tough blackened crab claw appetizer on that first visit, we waited for at least ten minutes before our entrée order was taken by a woman we assumed to be our waitress. We never saw her again.
Then the guy who was actually our waiter showed up and informed us that the woman had never turned our order in. Our table was littered with empty glasses, oyster shells, saltine wrappers and other debris by this time, but no one cleared it off. And we couldn't find anyone to refill our water glasses, either.
What made the lack of service really annoying was the profusion of employees. The manager, a guy with a long apron and a graying crewcut, was standing self-importantly at the end of the bar rocking on his heels. A fashionably dressed hostess was flitting around the place cooing and blowing kisses to VIPs. I wanted to hand them each a bus tub.
We weren't the only ones getting exasperated. The lady in the booth across from ours couldn't get anyone to bring her kids more water. So she got up and walked over to the service stand and carried a pitcher of ice water back to her table. When her party left, no one cleared their table off either.
Deciding what to order was easy. The new Denis' Seafood House has a big blackboard that lists the fish available that day. When I saw that ling was one of the choices, I knew what I was going to eat. Thanks to its meaty texture, ling, a Gulf fish that is also known as cobia, has earned the nickname "chicken of the sea."
When the waiter finally arrived with our entrées, we literally picked up our empty appetizer plates and shoved them into his hands in order to get rid of the mess. And we demanded our water glasses be refilled.
The piece of ling I got was small for the 25 bucks it set me back, but it was very firm and quite delicious. My dining companion got a more generous portion of crisply fried wild catfish, so I helped her out with the excess. The coleslaw was good, and the mashed potatoes were all right too, but it was hard to appreciate the food after our battle with the service staff.
Denis Wilson's convoluted saga stretches back to the 1980s when he joined the Landry boys in bringing the first Cajun seafood to Houston. Following the tragedy of Tilman Fertitta's takeover of the Landry's chain, Denis Wilson opened his own Cajun seafood restaurant on Westheimer and got great reviews. And now there's the comedy of the new situation.
Denis Wilson sold his name and his restaurant concept to the owners of the flashy new Denis' Seafood restaurant located in between Guadalajara Hacienda and Ciro's Italian Grill on I-10's eastbound access road just west of Bunker Hill.
The first time I saw the place, I was dumbstruck. The exterior is several stories high. In a tribute to Jimmy Buffet's happy hour song, all of the numbers on the clock atop the entryway say "5." There's a courtyard with a giant fountain visible from the parking lot. The cavernous interior has high ceilings and a mix of terrazzo floors and carpeting. The front dining room is flanked by a long marble bar. Beyond that there are several temperature-controlled wine storage rooms.
The Blue Dog paintings of Denis Wilson's favorite Cajun artist, George Rodrigue, have been hidden away in a private dining room. Meanwhile, an enormous glass tile mosaic mural of a swamp scene by Dixie Friend Gay, the artist who did the nature mural at Bush Intercontinental Airport, spans the entire length of the rear dining room. I think it's fair to say that the new Denis Wilson-less Denis Wilson's is much more tasteful than the original.
Meanwhile, Denis Wilson still owns the old Denis' restaurant on Westheimer. The food tastes the same, but the name has changed. Denis Wilson took on a new partner by the name of Jimmy Jard. The two have juggled their names and rechristened the Westheimer restaurant Jimmy Wilson's Seafood and Chop House. The pair also built a more upscale location at San Felipe and Post Oak.
I made a total of four visits to the new Denis' Seafood House on the Katy Freeway over the course of a month. One day at lunchtime, I determined that the Cajun-style crawfish bisque with dark roux was just as intensely flavored and spicy as the original. The seafood gumbo was a little thin compared to the gumbo at Danton's on Montrose. A shrimp-and-oyster poor boy came with overcooked oysters and dried-out butterflied shrimp.
On another visit, at three o'clock one afternoon, I sat down at the bar and asked for a dozen of the largest oysters on hand. I figured if I eliminated all the incompetent middlemen, I might get a decent plate of oysters. But in fact, the bag tag revealed the oysters were from Aransas Bay near Corpus Christi, and they were blander than those from Galveston Bay.
I'm glad I decided to give the oysters one last try on my final visit when they tasted so good. That night, the blackboard featured another favorite of mine, "golden tilefish." I ordered some sautéed with Florentine sauce.
When you order fresh fish at Denis' Seafood House, you specify whether you want it grilled, sautéed or blackened. I recommend you avoid the blackened option, which tends to result in overcooked and overseasoned fish. You can also add one of seven "Louisiana toppings" for an extra charge.
The golden tilefish cost me $22, but the inch-thick piece of juicy white-fleshed fish with crispy edges was worth every penny. And so was the $6 Florentine topping, a cream sauce of fresh spinach, shrimp, scallops and crawfish that cloaked the fish like a velvet robe on a winter night.
My dining companion got grilled redfish with the Pontchartrain sauce, which is the most popular of the Louisiana toppings. It's a browned butter and wine sauce with mushrooms, shrimp, scallops and crawfish that tastes a little like a seafood soup with sherry. For a side dish, he got red beans and rice. Weirdly, he found a pebble about the size of a pea in his beans, which he showed to the waiter.
Mr. Crewcut came by our table and asked if anyone had chipped a tooth on the rock. We said we hadn't. Then he joked about how unlikely it was that a rock had made it through the washing and cooking process. Then he asked us how we liked the fish and made happy talk for a while before wandering off without so much as an apology.
"He thinks we planted a rock in the beans to get a free meal," my companion said in amazement when the manager was out of earshot.
I highly recommend the fish dishes at the spectacular new location of Denis' Seafood House on Katy Freeway. But get your oysters without ice, skip the red beans and rice, and be prepared to get up and get your own water.
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