The crawfish bisque at Denis' Seafood House is as dark as chocolate and spicy as hell. Crawfish tails and hush-puppy dumplings hide in its luscious roux-thickened murk. But I can't pay full attention to the fabulous soup, because I'm distracted by the appetizer, which the four of us can't quite seem to finish.
The Cajun sampler comes on the kind of metal tabletop stand that restaurants often use for pizza. Piles of fried shrimp, fried crawfish, calamari, fried green tomatoes and crab balls are heaped over a crunchy mountain of onion rings on the elevated plate. Rémoulade, tartar sauce, marinara sauce and spinach dip are tucked beneath it.
It's a dilemma. I don't want my soup to get cold, but I can't stop eating the awesome fried seafood. I end up alternating between the two. In three visits to Denis' Seafood, I have witnessed a lot of these sorts of sensory-overload problems.
A friend who wears dress shirts to work met me here for lunch one day. He became so engrossed in the spicy, roux-darkened tomato sauce and caramelized onions in the shrimp Creole lunch special that his uninhibited slurping splattered the sauce all over his shirt. He ended up doing an emergency laundry job with a napkin and a water glass at the table. When we left the restaurant, his shirt was soaking wet. Luckily for him, it was pouring rain outside anyway.
Another night, I ordered fish for dinner, but I became enthralled with the stuffed crabs on my daughter's fried seafood platter. I hardly ever order stuffed crabs, because most restaurants are so miserly with the crabmeat. At Denis', they barely bother with breading. I've never had stuffed crabs that were so rich with meat or so spicy. I was in the process of excavating every nook and cranny in the shell when my daughter gently extracted it from my hand.
The restaurant was packed on each of my three visits. But the place is so big, there's never a long wait for a table. The interior looks like it was assembled from pieces of a building that was torn down in New Orleans. The corroded tin roof seems ancient, and there are similarly weathered planks and panels throughout.
The walls are covered with the Blue Dog paintings of Louisiana artist George Rodrigue. One of my dining companions pooh-poohed these works, comparing them to the paintings of dogs playing poker that used to be so popular. I understood her point, but it wasn't much of an indictment, since I like those paintings of dogs playing poker.
The service at Denis' Seafood is outstanding. I tend to ask a lot of questions, and each of the three servers I had knew the menu inside and out. One waitress's unbounded enthusiasm for the shrimp poor boy persuaded us to order it. We thanked her profusely after tasting the sandwich, which featured a crusty roll sliced in half and stuffed with huge, juicy butterflied fried shrimp dressed with lettuce and tomato. With a healthy dose of Louisiana pepper sauce, it's one of the best shrimp poor boys in the city.
The waitstaff also seems to know every species of fish on the blackboard, and when they go in and out of season. I always ask for the server's recommendation on pairing the fish with the "Louisiana toppings."
These toppings are dinners in themselves. My favorites are the "Pontchartrain," with shrimp, scallops, crawfish and mushrooms in a dark roux, and the "sauce piquante," with shrimp, crawfish and blackened oysters in a very spicy roux. There are six toppings in all. I haven't tried the "house," with shrimp, scallops and crawfish in a cream sauce, or the "Denis'," which comes with shrimp, scallops, crawfish, mushrooms and tomatoes in white wine. For an extra $6, you can get one of the toppings on any menu item. But the best idea is to order one of them with a fish special.
And what an incredible choice of fish! Every day, the fish list is posted on a huge blackboard above the kitchen. Such rarities as angelfish, ling and tilefish make regular appearances. I had ling with the "lemon butter sauce," which is studded with crawfish and capers. Ling is a bright white, dense fish, with a flavor so meaty some Gulf fishermen call it chicken of the sea. It's rarely seen on restaurant menus because there's a very limited supply. Another night, I had a fabulous, full-flavored amberjack pan-fried and covered with the sauce piquante.
The integrity of Denis' Seafood is a breath of fresh air in a city with a smelly reputation for fish fraud. Too many restaurants here rip off consumers by mislabeling tilapia or other cheap fish as "snapper." Which is why Denis' Seafood's fish blackboard is such a welcome sight. You get the fish you pay for here. And if you're willing to pay for it, they can treat you to some exotic stuff.
In the early '80s, Paul Prudhomme made Cajun food a national sensation. Cajun restaurants started popping up all over. The best ones outside Louisiana were located in Houston. The Landry brothers of Lafayette and their five partners taught us how to eat Cajun. As a result, we now consume more crawfish in Houston than they do in New Orleans. Denis' is one of the last relics of that wonderful era. Denis Wilson was one of the partners in Landry's, our waitress tells us. "Tilman Fertitta bought up all the Landry family restaurants. But this one is still independent."
Ten years ago, Alison Cook, then of the Houston Press, told the sad saga of the Landry brothers and their five partners, and how infighting and family squabbles tore apart the gumbo kingdom (see "Food Fight," June 30, 1994). Fertitta acquired what was left of the Landry empire in 1986. "They were so far ahead of themselves in the '70s and early '80s. They let the Pappases learn from them and build a big restaurant company. Then I bought them out and built a big restaurant company. It's ironic," Fertitta told Cook a decade ago.
Until Fertitta took over, Willie G's, Don's and the Landry brothers' other restaurants served top-quality seafood lovingly prepared in the Cajun cooking style that Prudhomme had made so popular. Denis Wilson still carries on the spirit of those original restaurants at Denis' Seafood.
Tilman Fertitta removed the Cajun flavors from the food at Landry's and Willie G's after he took over. His food is for the "masses," not the "classes," he explained. A decade later, it seems Fertitta got what he wanted -- lots of money -- but also all the lawsuits, shareholders' meetings and stock market analysts that come with it.
Wilson kept what Fertitta didn't want: culinary integrity. Denis's Seafood outclasses most of its competition for two reasons. First, it's always been honest about what it's serving. When you order red snapper at Denis', you get Gulf red snapper, not some mystery fish. Second, the restaurant doesn't hold back on the seasonings. This is the real old-fashioned Louisiana deal.
Whether you're nostalgic for spicy Cajun seafood, or you're eager to try the definitive version for the first time, put Denis's Seafood at the top of your list.
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