Don't Worry, Be Happy

We'd told The Sundance Grill to expect us at 8 o'clock, but driving down to Seabrook, we got hopelessly lost and arrived some 20 minutes late. This area having a long nautical tradition, we expected our temerity to cost us dearly. Maybe we'd be keelhauled, or, like Billy Budd, end up swinging from a yardarm. But we needn't have worried. They're an easygoing bunch at the Sundance Grill. No Prussian precision here, thank goodness. As tardy as we were, our table on the restaurant's large deck was waiting for us.

That kind of informality, of course, can cut both ways. Both our drinks and the menus took an age to arrive, at no time were we offered water, and knives and forks we had to ask for twice. But what the heck? The evening had turned almost cool, and there was a moon above us that looked like a piece of lemon peel suspended in a jar of marmalade. To complain would have been churlish. And the wait did give me a chance to gaze across Clear Lake and imagine it dotted with corsairs flying the Jolly Roger and filled with pirates swilling rum and waving cutlasses.

The deck has trees wrapped in small white lights, and there's a small jetty where, from time to time, motorboats tie up. Yachts slipped past us in the gathering gloom, some of them so noiseless they might have been specters.

The ethos here is inspired by the Caribbean. A reggae band plays on the weekends; dishes are named for the Bahamas, Cancun and Bimini; and diners wear boat shoes and shirts of many colors. (At times, too many colors.) It's the kind of place likely to draw parrotheads, and one man, indeed, bore Jimmy Buffett a striking resemblance.

All of this put me in such a good mood, I threw my dinner roll to a duck. But I must have thrown too hard, because I struck the creature smack on the head. Honest to God, I saw its eyes glaze over. Happily, it recovered. If it hadn't, I might have spent my life paying its medical bills.

For appetizers, we ordered Norwegian smoked salmon rosettes ($7.75), crabmeat quesadillas ($7.95) and Hanzee's cakes ($6.95). The salmon, expertly cured, was excellent, though the kitchen might have thought to serve it with something more enterprising than cream cheese and a bagel. The quesadillas were pleasantly chewy. And nicely mottled, they looked great, too. Which brings me to the lightly sauteed Hanzee's cakes. Avoid them at all costs. A blend of poached salmon and crabmeat, they're so utterly delicious, one bite and you'll be enslaved for life.

For our main course, we had the grilled Sausalito salmon ($14.95), served with a nondescript avocado-citrus salsa, and the filet mignon, which cost $23.95 and was worth every penny. This was one stupendous piece of meat. The outside had been seared until it developed something resembling a crust. But inside, it was fork tender and running with juice. And making it even more delicious was a perfectly balanced bordelaise sauce.

I ordered the mixed grill ($18.95). "Good choice, sir," said the waiter. Pathetic, isn't it, when an inconsequential remark from an 18-year-old can cause one to glow with pride. But he was right: It was a good choice. To the kitchen's credit, it knows how to sear. The salmon was nicely seared, the shrimp were nicely seared and the scallops, in addition to being blissfully tender, were nicely seared as well. The plate also included a strip of snapper, which, though grilled to perfection, someone -- shame on you, whoever you are -- had neglected to season.

Visiting the Sundance Grill for lunch a week later, I chose to sit on the deck again, despite the fact that the temperature hovered in the high nineties. (The pat of butter I was given melted before I even got the wrapper off. ("For God's sake," I told it, and myself, "get a grip.") I took this course of action because it is my firm belief that the body must not just be hardened, but reminded as well that you are in charge of it -- and not the other way around. Fail to do this, and it's only a matter of time before you're watching Star Trek round the clock, and your only sustenance is a diet of Malomars.

But then I overreached myself by ordering the stuffed jalapenos ($5.95), which, combined with the heat, caused me to sweat so much, I looked like an ice sculpture in a tanning salon. The cabo jabos, as the stuffed jalapenos are called, look like kiwi fruit and are constructed like a Chinese box: crabmeat inside a large pepper inside a crust of breadcrumbs -- the culinary equivalent, I suppose, of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The Philippine snapper ($15.75) did much to restore my equilibrium. After being grilled, the fish is basted with soy sauce to which cilantro and ginger have been added and is served with a perfectly delightful cucumber-cashew salsa.

I didn't see any ducks that second time. I imagine they heard I was coming and, for safety's sake, chose to spend the day in Galveston. But even without them, the lake looked and sounded busy. Crowded with buoys, bristling with masts, hovered over by gulls. Being a lake can't be easy. Those gulls, by the way, do make a frightful racket. Tiresome things. Had a bread roll been to hand, I would happily have brained one of them.

The Sundance Grill, 222 Jennings Island, Seabrook, 474-2248.


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