Forgive me my skittishness. Disappointment has ambushed me from behind too many familiar restaurant doors of late. Indeed, those who read this column with any regularity (hi, Mom!) know that I have grown tiresome on the subject of the second law of thermodynamics and its dire effect on treasured eating places. So when I ventured into Goode Company Seafood after a long absence, I was prepared for the worst.
I needn't have been. Jim Goode's urban fish camp remains as good as it ever was -- which is to say it is one of the best restaurants (and one of the best restaurant values) in town. Is there anything (besides his inexplicably stodgy onion rings) that this guy doesn't do well? His nearby barbecue place is a bastion of quality. His burger and taco spot, right across Kirby Drive's restaurant row, functions as a border joint without tears. But it is at his rambly seafood restaurant on Westpark that Goode's gift as a hybridizer of Texas food genres makes its nimblest display.
His mesquite-grilled catfish in salsa verde scrambles together local culinary influences and skips away laughing. Its mild, meaty catfish swims in on a Deep South current; its rustic tomatillo sauce hums with a south-of-the-border tartness and green-chile edge; its woodsmokiness conjures up a cowboy campfire. Every element works together brilliantly to make a modern Houston classic -- not to mention what would be my favorite dish on the menu if it weren't for the crawfish Campechana. And the shrimp pie. And the fried green tomatoes ... oh, you get the picture.
As a hyper-visual former ad man, Goode happens to be a skilled packager of environments as well as food. His catfish inhabits a shrewdly reimagined Gulf Coast fishing camp -- one neatened and spruced up for life in the city. That coastal staple, the big wooden porch, has been glassed-in and air-conditioned without losing its essential porchness, even though the view is of an apartment complex's backside instead of a sweep of bay.
An old railroad car has been grafted onto the wooden structure and fitted out with a sleek, pink-granite counter; its proportions, serene white paint, tiny gray floor tiles and high stools make it an oddly perfect substitute for a seaside diner.
Everywhere there is the vintage memorabilia so dear to Jim Goode's pack-rattish collector's heart. Elderly fishing poles stand at attention and crawl across walls. Long-dead vacationers proudly hoist their catch for the camera. Politically correct fish trophies (molded, not stuffed) cavort overhead. The place is less densely decorated than Goode's hyperkinetic barbecue spot, as befits a fish camp, but both settings have acquired a scuffed, well-loved patina that has canceled out their early preciousness. In a weird, Goode-lian way, these reinvented Texas milieus have become the real thing.
The seafood always was the real thing. It's hard to exaggerate the powerful simplicity of the mesquite-grilled tuna and swordfish, which come off the fire with their oceanic juices miraculously intact. (In fact, knock wood, I have never encountered an overcooked piece of fish here -- including the multi-fish mesquite kebab, which is a tricky business done surprisingly well.)
It's just as hard to overstate the playful originality of the Campeche-style crawfish cocktail, in which sweet crawfish tails consort with a racy salsa cruda inside a tall sundae glass. Onion for crunch, avocado for luxury, cilantro for vigor, a bit of green chile for good Texas measure: the only thing wrong with this inspired Cajun-Mexicano hybrid is that it's not available 12 months of the year. Right now you'll have to settle for shrimp, oyster or mixed versions of the Campechana, but they're no slouch either. Just add Goode's elegantly thin tortilla chips and count yourself lucky to be a Houstonian.
The fried stuff here is fine in a cornmeal-crusted, Gulf Coast mode (I have a particular fondness for the fried-oyster poorboy), but it inevitably pales in comparison to the mesquite-grilled items. I'd rather have my shrimp grilled and smoky and anointed with that energetic green sauce (or a more aggressive red salsa, or both), then satisfy my baser instincts with Goode's crackly gold wheels of fried green tomato, or a mess of their worthy, double-dipped French fries goosed with seasoned salt.
Extras such as these are the sort of thing that makes a good restaurant great. So do delicate small seafood empanadas; larger pastry turnovers filled with spicy shrimp creole; Cajun meat pies folded around a haunting, faintly sweet, almost curried mixture of ground beef; an occasional special of okra steamed with tomato, onion and slab bacon, so crisp and immaculate it takes on an Oriental quality. On Fridays there are homey green beans and new potatoes. Always there is that soft, insinuating Louisiana-style garlic bread, long yielding loaves of the stuff, more delicious than it has any right to be.
Anything not to like? Only in the mildest way: oysters Rockefeller that are too tiny and too baked beneath their anise-flavored spinach caps (and what is that orange substance doing on top of them?). Stuffed crab and shrimp that are eminently respectable under their crunchy mantles but that fail to generate any magic. And I do wish they'd put a nice, crisp Muscadet or Sancerre on their list of wines by the glass. Dessert? I'm afraid I couldn't tell you; the interests of science notwithstanding, I have always been too stuffed to order it, and I intend to keep it that way.
Two attributes of the restaurant must be singled out for special commendation. The many combos that allow diners to mix and match various mesquite-grilled and fried items are wonderfully user-friendly. That goes double for the inviting counter, where friendly service and a clockwork kitchen makes it a pleasure to eat alone. Seldom does a place with food this good make it so comfortable for solo diners. And only rarely does a place with food this good manage to keep its standards so high over the years.
Goode Company Seafood, 2621 Westpark, 523-7154.
Goode Company Seafood:
fried green tomatoes $1.95;
seafood Campechanas, $5.95;
mesquite-grilled catfish with salsa verde, $10.95;
grilled swordfish, $15.95.
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