New Orleans food writer Pableaux Johnson and I ordered our first dozen oysters of the season at Danton's, the new Gulf seafood joint on Montrose. We were tingling with anticipation as the shucker wiggled his knife.
I looked over Danton's short wine list and didn't see anything tart enough to drink with oysters. Oh, well, the classic oyster beverage in Texas and Louisiana is cold beer anyway. So I got a Dos Equis and Pableaux got a St. Arnold's Amber.
The mood was festive in the cozy little oyster bar section of the restaurant; it was packed with happy imbibers, and there was a good football game on TV. When the oysters arrived, we just sat admiring them for a minute. Perched on the ice, all shiny and freshly shucked, they were luscious-looking.
Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen
4611 Montrose, 713-807-8889.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays.
Dozen oysters: $9
($4.50 at happy hour)
Cup of gumbo or crab bisque: $5
Oysters Kyle: $8
Seafood poor boy: $10
Redfish, grilled or fried: $20
Nine were the perfect size — between two and a half and three inches. Two were too puny at around two inches, and one was a sea monster of three and a half inches or more. They tasted wonderfully briny, with just a hint of sweetness.
I asked the waitress for the bag tag, and she kindly complied. The tag said the oysters were harvested on November 23 from Galveston Bay. We had a little cold snap around then. According to the weather almanac, the overnight low was 42 degrees on Thanksgiving (November 22) and 45 degrees on November 23. It was just enough cold weather to get the oysters to start laying down some glycogen, the stuff that makes them sweet.
Danton's is running a half-price happy-hour special on freshly shucked oysters, so it's not a bad place to get your first dozen of the season. Pableaux and I were so giddy to be eating oysters again, we wolfed down half a dozen apiece and sent the waitress back for more.
The oyster bar is one of two old-fashioned dark-stained wooden bars in the restaurant. The other is just off the main dining room. Both were busy when I visited. The dark woodwork, sturdy wooden tables and oversize booths in the dining room give the place a classy atmosphere. But the mood of the place is lightened considerably by the old fishing camp photos that have been blown up and hung on the walls. I especially like the glamorous-looking woman with the big string of fish.
Under the word "Danton's" on the menu, it says: "A Gulf Coast Seafood Tradition." That's kind of presumptuous for a restaurant that's only been open for a month and a half. But I guess it's fair to say that the owner, veteran seafood chef Danton Nix, carries the seafood tradition around wherever he goes. I have heard reports that Nix has worked at Goode Company Seafood, Joyce's Oyster Resort and Willie G's, among others.
While we ate our second dozen, we looked over Danton's menu. It held few surprises. There were your poor boys, your gumbo, your fried seafood, your grilled seafood and the rest of that genre. I apologized to Pableaux for taking him out to eat all the same stuff he gets in New Orleans.
But Pableaux confessed that he's leaving New Orleans soon. He has taken a job at a daily newspaper in an inland state. And since he won't be eating much fresh Gulf seafood in the future, he was happy to be eating it here, especially in a restaurant as pleasant as Danton's.
Things turned momentarily somber as we both realized that after he moved, we wouldn't be eating oysters together much anymore. So we clinked beer bottles and I ordered a third dozen, for old times' sake. We sucked them down contemplatively and then relocated to a comfortable booth in the dining room and ordered some appetizers.
Pableaux got the gumbo, which was very dark and thick with lots of oysters and shrimp in it. The last time we had seafood gumbo together, I cooked it. What a bad idea that was.
Pableaux, who grew up in St. Martinsville, had picked up some outstanding andouille at some Cajun meat market on the way to Houston. He gave it to me as a present. I suggested we drive all the way down to Old Seabrook to get the freshest possible shrimp and some live crabs. I made a very dark roux and even had the traditional baby food jar full of fresh-ground filé powder on the table. It was the first time I had dared to make gumbo for Pableaux, but I thought it came out magnificently.
"You didn't brown the andouille before you put it in," he complained. "It's missing those caramelized flavors."
I expected a similarly scathing analysis of Danton's gumbo. But after several bites, he shrugged and said, "There's nothing wrong with this gumbo." That's high praise from a Louisiana food writer talking about Texas gumbo.
I tried some myself and nearly fell out of the booth. The broth was as dark as chocolate cake. The depth of flavor suggested that the kitchen started with a seafood stock so intense that it could probably pass for bouillabaisse in France. The seasoning was just peppery enough to get your attention, and not so spicy it got in the way. And the seafood was both plentiful and perfectly cooked.
I got the excessively thickened crab bisque that might have been okay if it didn't have to compete with the gumbo flavor that was still in my mouth. The bisque tasted like lumpy gravy by comparison. The two of us were joined by another dining companion who asked for the crab-stuffed jalapeños. The peppers were so hot you couldn't taste what was stuffed inside them.
We also got the wonderful "oysters Kyle" (Danton grew up in Kyle, Texas), six oysters gently cooked in butter, garlic and lemon juice and served with toasted, buttered rolls.
We found the entrées disappointing. Pableaux got the shrimp étouffée. I expect shrimp étouffée to be thickened with roux, and I figured a restaurant with a gumbo as good as Danton's would serve a kick-ass étouffée. But the dish, which the menu described as shrimp in a "rich, spicy onion sauce," appeared to be thickened with cornstarch.
"It tastes like bad Chinese food," Pableaux concluded. And I had to agree.
Our other companion got a sandwich described as a "crab burger with French fries and garlic rémoulade." There were two crab patties on a hamburger bun that was nicely dressed with lettuce and tomato. But the crab cakes were bready-tasting, like they were made with too much filler. I got redfish stuffed with what tasted like the same bready dressing.
The bowl of garlic rémoulade that came with the sandwich was the surprise hit. It was so good, we all scrambled for things to dip into it. After we polished off all the bread, crackers and the French fries that came with the crab burger, we ordered some of the oversize onion rings. And when the rémoulade ran out before the rings, we asked for another bowl.
On my second visit to Danton's, a friend and I ate a dozen oysters that had been bagged on November 28. They tasted about the same as the earlier ones. We fared much better on the entrées, though.
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I got a plate of fried shrimp and fried oysters with a side of excellent slaw. The shrimp were butterflied, which makes them drier than I like them, but the oysters were excellent — if you like them juicy.
My dining companion got a grilled red snapper special that was served with a choice of sauces. I steered him away from the shrimp étouffée sauce. He went for the tomato scallop sauce instead. The sea scallop was spongy; it tasted like it had been treated with the chemical that makes seafood absorb excess water. But the red snapper was spectacular — moist on the inside with a spicy crust on the exterior.
When I told him the gumbo here was better than his favorite at Jimmy Wilson's, he looked at me like I was a rube. He got a cup, just to challenge my silly assertion. He was shocked. He oohed and aahed over the darkness of the roux, the spice level and the seafood. When he was done with it, he set the cup down with authority and said, "That's the best gumbo I've ever had."
Danton's has got a few kinks to work out, but it looks like it's destined to become one of the best Gulf seafood restaurants in town. You better go check it out before they raise the price on those happy hour oysters.