Room with a View
It took us a while to worm our way through the tony Waterford Harbor neighborhood just off FM 2094 in Clear Lake Shores, eagerly following the discreet signs for the Mallorca Restaurant like wooden bread crumbs. We finally fetched up at the Yacht Club in the heart of the marina, an imposing Williamsburgish red brick building, trimmed in white and topped by a weather vane galleon under full bronze sail.
"Are you sure this is it?" whispered one of my friends. "It looks like a private country club." Acres of expensive vessels stretched endlessly in all directions, rocking gently at anchor, halyards clanging musically against metal masts and rigging.
One last waist-high Mallorca sign was placed ambiguously next to the south wall of the building. What I had nearsightedly seen as an amoeba in the logo was revealed on closer inspection to be a black outlined map of Spain. We tried the nearest entrance and found ourselves in a hallway leading to a narrow galley bar between two dining areas: to our right, a dark, formal dining room, forbiddingly empty and hushed; to our left, a smaller room, cheerful and bright with windows all round overlooking the lake, more millions of dollars' worth of boats and a spectacular sunset.
Still, no one greeted us. Two staffers whizzed by without giving us a second glance. There were no more signs to go by, and an obviously private wedding party was in tipsy progress in the pretty windowed room. A few of the bar patrons glanced at us, briefly curious, then firmly turned their backs to resume nursing their gin and tonics. What to do? We tried to catch the eye of the gray-haired woman mixing drinks, dressed in a baggy maroon uniform. Are we in the right place? we asked her timidly.
"Oh, yes, yes," she said, in heavily accented English. "Just go through there and sit anywhere," she said, gesturing impatiently toward the windowed dining room. "Except don't sit with the wedding party."
We hesitantly seated ourselves in a prime spot in the west-facing bay window, wrestling the additional chairs we needed from nearby tables. The room was pleasant in a stark, new-condo sort of way: The white walls, white woodwork and pale tablecloths were relieved by a central brick fireplace -- "I'll bet that's cozy in winter," said another friend, enviously -- and dominated by the wraparound windowed view of the marina and the lake. Seagoing ducks paddled by, threading their way between the docks and boats. The sunset sky, bright gold under lowering dark clouds, was breathtaking. My spirits rose. Just about anything would taste good in this setting, I thought.
Our waiter briskly greeted us with a lagniappe basket of herbed garlic toast. The thin, crisp toast points were irresistible, salty and heavily garlicked, although I couldn't help but notice the kitchen thriftily included the bread heels as well as the inner slices. In the marked absence of a wine list, we ordered blender cocktails. After an interminable wait, we were disappointed to find our daiquiris and margaritas pale, weak and overly sweet, like slushy Shirley Temples for kids. The waiter, though he remained friendly, seemed increasingly distracted and harassed, which puzzled us, as the dining room contained only four other parties at that point. We asked him for limes to doctor the drinks; he brought them out in a thin paper napkin and deposited them unceremoniously on the tablecloth.
We started with a cup of French onion soup ($3), which arrived steaming hot under a thick blanket of white, chewy cheese. Unfortunately, the broth was so beefy-strong and salty that it overwhelmed any vestige of onion flavor. On the other hand, the New England-style seafood chowder ($3.50 cup) suffered from severe flavor anemia, despite its ambitious menu billing as the "best in the U.S.A." It was so creamy-bland as to be completely tasteless, except for a faint undertone of raw flour. I'll grant make-up points, though, for the generous amount of seafood in the cup; I was happy to find tenderly cooked shrimp, scallops, crabmeat and a massive oyster in my portion, just as advertised.
Another member of our party fared better with the fried cheese cubes ($4.50), a pile of precise blocks of stretchy soft mozzarella like edible Legos, lightly breaded and fried to a pale golden-brown. Yes, they were bland, too, but at least partially redeemed by a perky pink remoulade-style sauce for dunking, heavy on the pickle relish. He munched away happily until the air-conditioning system kicked on with a mighty roar. A polar blast from the overhead vent swept our table, fluttering the napkins and chilling the cheese cubes. "Urk, now they're rubbery," he said, pushing the plate away.
I noticed that with the exception of the small wedding party, whose members were still steadily swigging champagne, most of the other customers were starting out with straightforward seafood numbers, such as shrimp cocktail ($6.50) or shrimp sauteed in olive oil (also $6.50). Perhaps that's where we went wrong, I thought. As the frigid air bellowed across the room, a slender matron at the next table gathered her young daughter into her lap, absentmindedly chafing the little girl's bare arms and legs for warmth.
The prices on Mallorca's dinner menu run relatively high, starting at $16.95 for standard fish entrees and quickly ramping up to an eye-popping $44.95 for Chateaubriand for Two. It also sports a lot of exclamatory remarks, as in "grilled to perfection!" or "topped with sauteed crabmeat!" To be fair, all the entree prices include a modest dinner salad and the "vegetable and potato of the day." The house salad dressing is a good pick, an interesting creamy French variant spiked with brandy(!). The vegetable side dish, well, let's just say it was a standard steamed medley of Green Giant-style favorites: broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. The potato of the day turned out to be cheese tortellini. "Our customers want to dine lighter," the waiter confided. "So we've discontinued the potatoes." I stared at the cheese-stuffed pasta topped with a vivid Velveeta-colored cheese sauce in disbelief, unable even to guess at the calories and fat grams lurking within.
For dinner, we tried the snapper pecan ($16.95), which is "grilled to golden brown!" Again, I'll readily admit that it's a generous serving, two good-size filets of red snapper, but both were sadly overcooked and mushy, imprisoned in a tough, overbrowned coating of herbed breading that tasted like commercial turkey stuffing mixed with tiny, elderly pecan bits. Less would have been a lot more, in this case.
The Paella Valenciana ($17.95) sounded wonderful, a treasure trove of ingredients: chicken, pork, chorizo, shrimp, clams, mussels, scallops, crab fingers and redfish, all combined with rice and, the menu blares, "the spice of kings -- SAFFRON!" I was bitterly disappointed, though, and again the problem was careless overcooking. The mussels gaped open, parched and dry, atop a sticky mess of strangely red-tinted rice; the crab fingers were too tough to pull through teeth, as if glued to their cartilage; and the poor scallops resembled pale rubber pencil erasers. I partially revived the chunks of chicken and pork by squeezing lemon juice all over them, but nothing could save the burned bits of sausage, so tough and tasteless that I couldn't say for sure whether they were indeed chorizo.
Again, our cheese-cube-eater scored slightly higher with his tenderloin with shrimp and snapper combination plate ($22.50). The filet mignon obviously started out as a gorgeous cut of aged, tender meat. My friend ordered it well done. I managed to refrain from commenting, but the waiter couldn't help himself: "You want it dead, right?" he asked. (I am sick of similar tired jokes from waiters when I order my own steaks very rare. Let's all just shut up and let people eat what they like, okay?)
Despite the well-done order, the steak was still suspiciously large when it arrived but charred absolutely black on the outside. The thick center was bright pink and barely warm. Rather than send it back -- "What, so they'll put more charcoal on it?" -- my friend contented himself with eating the thinner ends that were cooked through. His portions of grilled snapper and shrimp, lightly seasoned and blessedly only lightly grilled, seemed to fare better than any of the other seafood items we tried.
While we waited for the check, too discouraged to try the cheesecake tower ($4.50) or the Key lime pie ($4) for dessert, I studied the well-dressed diners around us. Some were just in from their boats, I guessed, still wearing deck shoes, natty polo shirts and even shorts, or crisp khaki slacks. Many were clearly regular, repeat customers, greeted warmly by name by the Mallorca staffers. By the time we left, the small dining room was full, and the larger, gloomier hall was filling. Mallorca is certainly popular in its neighborhood, and has been for many years, but I'll have to admit I just don't get it. Perhaps it's the exclusive yacht club ambiance that's the draw: a quiet, pretty room with a view where guests are comfortable and well known, where money doesn't matter. Maybe the locals like it because the tacky tourists who crowd the nearby Kemah Waterfront can't find it. And why should the day-trippers even try? They're eating better food at the same inflated prices down on the boardwalk.
Mallorca Restaurant, 800 Mariners Drive, Clear Lake Shores, (281)334-2584.
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