Catch of the Day

There are some women who, widowed at the age of 60, would simply sink into retirement. And then there's Joyce Gilbreath. After years of being a stay-at-home wife, she decided the best way to deal with being suddenly alone was to try something new. So early last year, when she learned a friend was seeking a loan to purchase a Niko-Niko's at Winrock and San Felipe, she put up the money and went into the restaurant business. Then, when she discovered that she and her friend had unreconcilable philosophies about running the place, she bought her partner out and tried again.

What she tried again with was Joyce's Oyster Resort, and call it beginner's luck, or second time lucky, but Gilbreath has struck culinary gold. In part, that was because she was smart enough to bring in some meaningful help: Chuck Bulnes, who had recently sold his interest in Berryhill's Hot Tamales and was ready for another adventure, and Dan Nix, who not only managed the original Joe's Crab Shack in the late eighties, but also cooked for Jim Goode as well as for the Landry empire. Bulnes, who worked the counter at Berryhill's, brought expertise to the front end, while Nix landed the starring role in the kitchen.

"Starring" is the right word here: Nix has created a menu filled with outstanding Louisiana-accented seafood. And in most circumstances I would begin by extolling that food. However, in the case of Joyce's, the atmosphere deserves just as many accolades as the cuisine. On all three of my visits, I noticed total strangers being treated like extended family. That's primarily because of Gilbreath, who is more than just a general overseer. She exudes a genuine concern from the moment you walk in. Then there's the wait staff, which seems to have absorbed completely the owner's benevolent attitude. When the food is ready, whoever is closest to the kitchen delivers it with a smile and two words of caution -- "hot plate," a warning you're well advised to heed. In any seafood restaurant, one can expect nautical decor consisting of aquatic specimens on the walls along with thick ropes, fishing nets, shells and the like, a blue color scheme and lots of brass and varnished wood. Joyce's does not disappoint in this department, and even adds a crocodile's head on the counter for good bayou measure.

While at times it's nice to enjoy seafood in all its simplicity, Chef Nix throws caution to the wind and goes for bold, spicy flavors. Take, for example, the fried jalapenos. When I noticed this appetizer advertised on the chalkboard above the counter, I ignored it, believing they were the heavily battered, stuffed- with-processed-cheese kind found in most places. It wasn't until our server said everyone was raving about them that I gave them a chance. I'm glad I did. As the waiter put it, "We take fresh jalapenos, remove the seeds and fill them with shrimp and crabmeat and real cheese, then lightly coat and fry them." Just so. The peppers were as they should be -- hot -- the stuffing was delectable and the batter exactly as he had described it. They were the best I had ever eaten.

A similarly enchanting appetizer was the compechana, a Mexican-style shrimp cocktail. I had visions of rubbery shrimp and commercial cocktail sauce found at so many other places, but was pleasantly surprised to find a fountain glass filled with extra-large shrimp mixed with a wonderful relish of fresh tomatoes, cilantro, onions and jalapenos. As a lagniappe, avocado slices and crab claws covered the rim of the glass. Another way to sample Nix's creativity is with the baked oyster platter, which is a combination of three different kinds of oyster preparations: the standard oysters Rockefeller with a creamy spinach topping; the oysters Dan, in which Nix combines freshly grated Parmesan cheese with garlic, olive oil and crabmeat; and the voodoo oysters, with fresh tomatoes, garlic and basil. Like everything else served at Joyce's, the portions were generous. And while the oysters were not inexpensive, running about a buck apiece, I definitely felt I was getting my money's worth.

The crab cakes, too, are an example of a lot of seafood for the cents. They're not the medallion-size cakes you normally find, but instead are the size of a generous hamburger bun. Appearing almost like small omelets, these pan-fried cakes combine a goodly amount of crab with red bell peppers, green onions and fresh corn for a rainbow of colors. They're served with a bright-green roasted fresh poblano pepper sauce for an added kick.

Three soups are available. One is a crab bisque, in which an abundant amount of fleshy crabmeat is mixed with a dark brown roux to give it an earthy flavor. This earthy flavor is duplicated in the gumbo, which is so laden with crab, shrimp and oysters that there's hardly enough room for any liquid. Fortunately, the rice is served on the side. On one occasion, the gumbo was somewhat bitter, suggesting that the roux was a little overdone. The oyster stew had a much thinner consistency than the other soups and also had a buttery film on the top. Nice and spicy, this creamy soup was made with the holy trinity of onions, celery and bell peppers mixed with, of course, minced oysters. I know there were oysters in there because I found a small piece of shell in one spoonful -- a small price to pay for such a tasty dish.

Each time I visited Joyce's, I found something among the daily specials to pique my interest -- none more so than the crawfish magnifique, served in a mirliton pirogue, which is the Louisiana name for a hollowed-out chayote squash that's first covered in a paper-thin breading, then lightly fried. It is then overfilled with easily a pound of crawfish cooked in a dark, spicy roux. The sauce's heat level counterbalances the blandness of the squash to form a perfect union. Pecan rice and stir-fried summer vegetables are almost superfluous as side dishes. In fact, the pecan rice, which is served with most of the main courses, is itself fairly spicy, and I would perhaps have preferred a more delicately flavored rice as an accompaniment, such as saffron-flavored, which would not compete with the entree.

The grilled red snapper is prepared with a mango relish that not only adds color, but also a sweetness that works well with the fish. Another sweet/sour combination can be found in the grilled ling special. Ling is a large, very meaty, deep-water fish not often found in restaurants. Here it's prepared with sweet pineapple slices and, as a bonus, topped with crawfish. This kind of creative culinary flair is Chef Nix's hallmark, and since you never know exactly how the specials will be prepared from day to day, it's an encouragement to return often.

The Louisiana theme is carried through to dessert, where Nix has worked his magic with an unassuming bread pudding. It would be hard to beat his white chocolate bread pudding this side of Bourbon Street. A rich, custardy-yellow cream made with eggs, milk and sugar forms the basis of this baked masterpiece, with French bread and white chocolate giving it a different twist.

Since everyone in the place seems to know everyone else, it has become a neighborhood watering hole where old friends become reacquainted over a dozen oysters and a cold one. Because the place is so family friendly, folks tend to linger, which means there's generally always a line patiently waiting to get in. For those incapable of waiting, there are three strategies available -- come early, be seated at the oyster bar or get your order to go.

Just to show you what a friendly place this is, at the conclusion of one meal, as I was examining the check, I noticed that they had forgotten to charge me for a soup. When I notified Bulnes of this omission, he said that since it was their mistake, they'd eat it. Even though I insisted on paying, he wouldn't hear of it. Smart man. He knows I'll make up for it the next time I sail in.

Joyce's Oyster Resort, 6415 San Felipe (at Winrock), 975-9902.
Joyce's Oyster Resort: stuffed jalapenos, $5.95; oyster stew, $3.75 cup; baked oyster platter, $8.95; shrimp compechana, $6.95; crawfish magnifique, $15.95; grilled ling, $15.95; grilled red snapper, $15.95; white chocolate bread pudding, $4.75.

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