I Am the Walrus, Part 2
"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?"
But answer came there none --
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one. -- Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter
There isn't an actual oyster bar at Magnolia Bar & Grill on Richmond, but during the Sunday brunch they put out a giant tub full of ice and line up freshly shucked oysters on the half shell among the cubes. Thanks to the efforts of an unseen shucker, they're replenished as fast as they're removed.
I've eaten a lot of oysters lately, and I greatly appreciate the efforts of a good shucker. Some poorly trained Houston shuckers run the oysters under tap water as they shuck them, to remove the grit of the shell. This results in oysters that smell and taste like chlorine. The shucker at Magnolia leaves a little shell behind now and then, but the oysters are carefully laid flat to retain their fabulous briny liquor.
Gulf oysters are at their prime this time of year. And when the water temperature in Galveston Bay is below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, the shellfish are also the least likely to contain high levels of Vibrio vulnificus bacteria (for more information, see "Sex, Death and Oysters," March 25, 2004).
Last week I commented that Galveston Bay oystermen gather up the undersized oysters prized by raw-oyster eaters and sell them to oyster bars that pay top dollar for them (see "I Am the Walrus, Part 1").
Since then, an industry insider has explained to me that in fact the oyster bars are doing the oystermen a favor by taking the little ones off their hands. The big money is in shucked oysters, and nobody wants small shucked oysters -- they shrivel up too much when you cook them. So I stand corrected on the motives of oystermen.
Standing in front of the big tub of tiny oysters at Magnolia's Sunday brunch, I have to keep my own baser motivations in check. With oysters selling for seven to nine bucks a dozen these days, you could recoup your $19.95 brunch bill pretty quickly by making a pig of yourself at the oyster trough. I try to restrain myself and leave a few for the other customers. That proves easy to do, thanks to the abundance of fiery chicken-and-sausage gumbo, buttery crawfish étouffée and creamy shrimp fettuccine on the buffet line.
Magnolia has been Houston's premier upscale Cajun dining room for more than 20 years now. The restaurant opened in 1983 during Houston's legendary Cajun restaurant boom. It was the Cajun craze that launched the Pappas brothers and Tilman Fertitta into the restaurant business.
Few of the Cajun restaurants that opened back then have survived intact. Many are gone. Some have changed the spicy recipes to become kiddie-friendly restaurants. Others began to cut corners, substituting frozen mystery fish for increasingly expensive red snapper.
But at Magnolia Bar & Grill, the food tastes exactly the way it did 20 years ago. That's partly because Magnolia's head chef, Gerardo Bernal, has been at the restaurant since the beginning. The other reason is because founders Jim Gossen and Jody Larriviere still own it.
Gossen and Larriviere were among the seven partners in the Landry's restaurant group, a gang from Lafayette, Louisiana, that was famous for bizarre partnership agreements. Thanks to the quirky ownership arrangements, when Fertitta bought the Landry's group, Magnolia Bar & Grill wasn't included in the deal.
We ended up eating brunch at Magnolia last Sunday by accident. I was trying to take my weekend guests, a chef and his video-producer wife who were visiting from Austin, to one of Houston's dim sum palaces. But they eat dim sum in Austin all the time, they told me. What they don't have in the capital city is high-end Cajun food, they said. And they begged me to find them some.
The array of Cajun classics on the buffet made Magnolia the perfect choice. We were all amazed by how good the food was. By complete coincidence, I had stumbled onto the authentic Cajun flavor that I'd found missing at Willie G's.
My discerning brunchmates skipped the buffet. They were far more intrigued by the exotic items on Magnolia's dinner menu, all of which are available at brunch. That made it possible for me to sample a whole lot of Magnolia's food in one long, languorous meal.
The chef was blown away by the crawfish dinner, which included crawfish five ways. Even though you can get only frozen crawfish tails this time of year, the fried tails he got were tender, juicy and crisp without any evidence of grease. The crawfish in the étouffée and in the jambalaya weren't the least bit overcooked; each tail was firm and still juicy. The crawfish au gratin was a little too heavy on the cheese, but that didn't stop everybody at the table from fighting for another gooey bite.
For an appetizer, the video producer got the delectable peewee soft-shell crabs, four crunchy crabs with just a little seasoning, flash-fried without any batter. She followed the softshells with the "crab maison salad."
The lump crabmeat in Magnolia's signature salad is brilliantly set off by a dressing that includes mayonnaise, capers, lemon juice and parsley -- a recipe Magnolia stole from Galatoire's in New Orleans. The crab is then generously heaped on a bed of lettuce and surrounded by avocado and tomato slices. With the notable exception of Cafe Annie's crab tostadas, the crab maison salad may be the best crab salad in Houston.
After four trips through the buffet line and scads of oysters, étouffée, fried catfish, Cajun vegetables and a slice of rare roast beef au jus, I finally finished off my brunch with a made-to-order crawfish omelette and some bread pudding with whiskey sauce.
Tuesday is a special night at Magnolia Bar & Grill. A music group called the Guzzlers performs on the patio. The musicians are oil-field-services entrepreneurs who wish they were rock stars, and they're cheered on by oil-field guys from all over western Louisiana and East Texas. The crowd includes few women, and the ones who do happen by quickly become objects of intense interest.
"What a great place to look for a sugar daddy," one of my dining companions observed last week, when I met two attractive young women there for dinner.
We started off with two and a half dozen oysters. (One of the women, an oyster novice, could handle only six.) The oysters came to the table freshly shucked and full of brine. They were even better than the ones I'd had at brunch. I don't think there was one in the entire bunch that was more than three inches long.
The kitchen had just received the first fresh crawfish of the season, the waitress told us, so we got two pounds of those for a second appetizer course. Because it was so early in the season, the crawfish were extremely small. And thanks to the bold seasonings in Magnolia's kitchen, they were incredibly spicy. We couldn't stop eating them, even after our entrées arrived.
I got the slow-cooked Opelousas baked duck, which was served with caramelized roasted yams, rice dressing and a little cup of chicken-and-sausage gumbo. The parts of the duck that were covered with the crispy skin were extremely moist. I ate them with a little of the sweet roasted yam. The breast was a bit dried out, and at the suggestion of the waitress, I put that meat in the soup, creating a sort of baked duck gumbo. It was a sensational entrée all around.
The oyster novice got the fried seafood platter, which included some giant shrimp that had been butterflied and dipped in a spicy breading before being fried. There was also a stuffed shrimp and a stuffed crab, which tasted much alike, thanks to the similarity of the stuffings, plus some outstanding hand-cut french fries. She also handed me a so-so fried oyster (it got dried out because it was too small) and a slippery frog's leg.
The sugar-daddy shopper got the Magnolia dinner, which included "eggplant royal," a dish of baked eggplant stuffed with shrimp and crabmeat; crab au gratin, crabmeat smothered in cheese sauce; and sides of rice dressing and vegetables. After the oysters and crawfish, she could barely eat any of her entrée. I helped out the best I could, but I had to admit, the plate was an embarrassment of richness.
When Magnolia Bar & Grill first opened in '83, I ate there often. But in the last few years, I haven't had anything but oysters and crawfish at the bar. Too bad I was missing out on the baked duck and the spicy gumbo. Come to think of it, I still haven't sampled the turtle soup, either.
Put Magnolia's Sunday brunch on your "places to take guests from out of town" list. Don't miss the oysters while the weather is cold, and check out the boiled crawfish this spring, if you're a mudbug fan. Oh, and remember Tuesday nights if you're a single woman looking for a middle-aged oil-field-services guy who thinks he's a rock star.
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