Flounder Fanmail for Jimmy Wilson's Seafood & Chop House

The waiters debone the flounder tableside.
Troy Fields

My friend Jay Francis was holding the last five inches of crispy panfried flounder by the tail and munching on it like it was a lollipop. From across the table, it sounded like he was eating potato chips. At the old Jimmy Wilson's on Westheimer, which was decorated in distressed wood and rusty metal to look like a storm-damaged wharf on the Louisiana Gulf, I wouldn't have thought twice about this kind of behavior.

But the new Jimmy Wilson's on San Felipe is a much classier establishment. It was difficult to fault Francis for his lapse in manners — the crispy skin was too good to waste. And I'm pretty sure head cook Denis Wilson would take his bad behavior as a compliment.

The headless fish had been dipped in seasoned flour and slowly panfried (or maybe griddle-fried) until a thick, crispy crust formed on both sides. Served simply with Jimmy Wilson's rémoulade-like tartar sauce and a lemon wedge enclosed in a little yellow cheesecloth skirt, the huge, full-flavored flounder was the best I have ever tasted. And it was more than enough to serve two.

In an impressive display of old-­fashioned service, our waiter deftly deboned the fish tableside. I studied his technique since I so often make a mess of flounder. The secret was to first cut the top layer of meat from head to tail along the spine. The two long pieces of meat were folded back away and laid alongside the fish. The waiter then pressed between the tiny bones with a fork, loosening the meat that stuck to them. Then he picked up the whole skeleton in one piece and discarded it. Finally, he folded the top pieces back into place, re-creating the form of the whole fish.

I ordered one of the old-fashioned Louisiana dishes on the menu, the crawfish combination that featured a pile of fried crawfish and a pool of crawfish étouffée separated by dirty rice. The étouffée was delicious, but it was so rich, I could barely eat half of the portion. In the 1980s, I used to love to go to Cajun restaurants for this kind of butter-heavy cooking. It's odd how dated it tastes now.

At the old Jimmy Wilson's, there was a blackboard that listed the fresh fish available that day. It was one of the only restaurants in town where you could find such delicacies as ling or golden tilefish. At the new Jimmy Wilson's, the blackboard has become a video screen, and it seems like there's even more varieties of fish.

On my first visit to the new Jimmy Wilson's, I had an exquisite plate of angelfish in lemon butter caper sauce with jumbo lump crabmeat. Angelfish are often substituted for monkfish in cooking, even though they are more closely related to sharks and rays.

Like monkfish, angelfish have a rich flavor and resilient texture that reminds people of shellfish. The lemon butter sauce was reminiscent of the drawn butter you get with lobster, and the crabmeat lent the fish some of its rich shellfish flavor. I was tempted to lick the plate, but I controlled myself and requested some bread to mop up what was left. The "poor man's lobster" nickname often used for monkfish came to mind, although, in truth, angelfish isn't all that cheap.

When you order from Jimmy Wilson's fresh fish list, you still specify broiled, deep-fried or blackened, just like the good old days. (I can't remember the last time I ordered blackened fish.) And for an extra charge, you can add one of five "Louisiana toppings."

The sauces include rococo concoctions like the Pontchartrain, with shrimp, crawfish and scallops in a dark roux with mushrooms and butter for eight dollars, and the equally over-the-top Denis sauce with shrimp, crawfish, scallops, mushrooms, tomatoes and green onions in meunière for nine dollars. The simple lemon butter caper sauce with crabmeat is described as "our customer's favorite" and costs 12 bucks extra.

Since most varieties of fresh fish sell for $25 or more to begin with, by the time you add a sauce, you are looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 to $40 for a plate of fish. I am very happy paying these kinds of prices for fresh, rarely seen kinds of fish expertly prepared.

What I like best about the new Jimmy Wilson's is that our waiter didn't ask us if we wanted our flounder broiled or blackened or covered with seafood étouffée. Instead, he said the flounder came panfried. Likewise, the waiter who suggested the angelfish recommended we get it broiled and served in the lemon butter sauce.

Denis Wilson is a genius with seafood, and it's about time he stopped asking us how we want our fish cooked and started telling us.

Jimmy Wilson's was an excellent Cajun seafood restaurant; now it is turning into something more urbane. On the dinner visit when I sampled the angelfish, a waiter told us that fried green tomatoes topped with jumbo lump crabmeat was the restaurant's new signature appetizer. We tried it, and it was stunning. The tartness of the green tomato added a sparkle to the rich flavor of crab sautéed in butter lemon sauce. It was an inspired step up from too-familiar appetizer items like spinach and artichoke dip and fried ­calamari.

Oddly, the roux-based crawfish bisque, one of my favorite starters at the old Jimmy Wilson's, was dull and thick from overcooking. Thank goodness the gumbo still tasted fabulous, even though the oysters were missing thanks to Ike. There were plenty of shrimp and crawfish to make up for the missing mollusks. The roux was cooked to a glorious dark chocolate color. I picked a tiny bit of crab shell that somehow made it through the strainer out of my mouth as I ate the gumbo. I wouldn't dream of complaining about it — it was evidence that the intensely-flavored stock had been cooked with lots of shrimp and crab shells.

Desserts seem to have moved up to a new level, too. I have always defaulted to the bread pudding, but after sampling Jimmy Wilson's housemade chocolate pecan pie, I have found a new favorite. I was expecting a typical pecan pie with some chocolate under the pecan layer. What we got was far more extravagant.

Our eyes widened when the oversize dessert plate decorated with squiggles of caramel and chocolate sauce hit the table. On it was a monster wedge of pie made with a crushed Oreo bottom crust and a top layer of pecan halves beautifully arranged in caramel. The filling was an inch-thick layer of what tasted like flourless chocolate cake. The warm slice of chocolate soufflé-pecan pie was topped with two scoops of vanilla bean ice cream.

The long evolution of the new Jimmy Wilson's started two decades ago. Denis Wilson was one of the pioneers of the Cajun restaurant craze in Houston in the 1980s; the Cajun chain he founded was purchased by Tilman Fertitta. Afterward, Wilson opened his own freestanding restaurant at 12109 Westheimer called Denis' Seafood, which he later sold to a restaurant group. Denis' Seafood, sans Denis, in now located on I-10 [see "Cajun Gets a Crewcut," January 31]. Then Wilson took on a partner named Jimmy Jard, and they renamed the original location Jimmy Wilson's. Not long after the new Jimmy Wilson's on San Felipe was completed, they sold the old Westheimer location.

Architect Jim Herd, whose ­cutting-edge interiors can be found in such upscale Houston restaurants as Catalan, conceived and built the new Jimmy Wilson's. "It looks like something Mark Rothko might design if he was an architect," Jay Francis said, looking around the interior. Francis was referring to the huge rectangular shapes and saturated colors. There's a leaf green fabric panel high on one wall and a square of deep blue ceiling near the entrance. The back of the bar forms an enormous multistoried rectangular wine rack framed in dark wood.

It's a dramatic change from the nautical theme of the old place. And it seems like the food has gained sophistication from the surroundings. When I sit down in the new space, an oyster poor boy, one of my favorites at the old Jimmy Wilson's, is the last thing on my mind.

You often see upscale restaurant owners opening more casual satellites, as Marco Wiles did when he started making pizza at Dolce Vita. But you seldom see a casual restaurant successfully make the move upscale. And it hasn't been easy for the new Jimmy Wilson's.

Denis Wilson and Jimmy Jard embarked on a very ambitious project. Building a restaurant with a cutting-edge interior design was a challenging first step. Breaking in a new kitchen, updating the cooking style and elevating the service to a higher level has proven even tougher. When the restaurant first opened, complaints about fumbling service and uneven execution convinced me to wait awhile before reviewing it. But things seem to be running smoothly now.

Jimmy Wilson's is a work in progress. The blackened fish and overwrought sauces are still on the menu, and they still have their diehard fans. But now the dated stuff is served alongside some innovative appetizers, stunning desserts and some of the best fresh fish in the city. It's an excellent restaurant the way it is, but I get the feeling it's on its way to something remarkable.

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