PK's Blue Water Grill has the soul of a funky fish house and the body of a fashionable seafood restaurant.
That disarming combination takes some getting used to, but it's a successful enough merger. The proprietor, Pat Kiley, reportedly spent more than a decade with Goode Co. Seafood, and he's transplanted a good deal of the culinary philosophy along with a bit of the spirit of that highly successful establishment to this sedate, stylish operation. Whether that's a strategically calculated approach or just a happy accident is hard to say. But the results are easy to like.
The place formerly housed a location of The Grotto, one of those Tony Vallone Italian eateries that were absorbed by restaurant borg Tilman Fertitta a few years ago. Anchoring a well-appointed strip center on Woodway in Tanglewood, the space still maintains a level of style and design befitting its upscale socioeconomic area. A few pieces of tasteful modern art adorn the cool, blue walls, while panels of rippled glass and banquettes help divide the large room into more intimate sections. A dazzling aquarium near the entrance provides another touch of class. The lighting is dim, and the initial impression is that it's, if not quite elegant, certainly well turned-out. The clientele tends to run toward affluent retirees and fortysomethings named Muffy and Buffy and Tad and Thad chatting endlessly about whose kids got into what college fraternities and sororities. Not surprisingly, the parking lot is crowded with expensive, late-model vehicles.
Just below the refined but steady chatter of a nearly full restaurant comes the faint hint of music, virtually lost beneath the clamor. Later, as the customers thin out a bit and the noise level ratchets down, you can finally tune in and hear what it really is: a stream of steamy swamp rock and bust-head blues. Down-and-dirty stuff, it's the kind of music that conjures up a San Leon roadhouse where dented pickups and a rusted-out El Camino populate the parking lot and the only art on the walls is an outdated NASCAR calendar.
Along with that earthy music, there's a certain unfussy attitude among the jeans-and-polo shirted young staff that sort of runs counter to PK's polished surroundings. I guess "unfussy" is the right adjective for a waiter who refers to himself as "Big Shot Bob," isn't it?
That split personality extends to the inviting menu, where such relatively sophisticated dishes as "crab poblano corn chowder" and "grilled scallops with a Jezebel glaze" share space with uncouth delights like "New Orleans-style po-boys" and "PK's campenchana."
If the latter sounds familiar, chances are you're recalling some lip-smacking visits to Goode Co. Seafood, which popularized this "Campeche-style seafood cocktail" in the Houston market. So intent is Kiley in making the point that this is his version and he's not ripping off his former employer, the menu emphatically lists this dish as PK's campenchana (PK's version). Maybe misspelling the word -- it should be campechana -- is just another way of making it his very own?
Quibbles about spelling and ownership aside, the dish is excellent.
Diced onion, garlic and peppers mixed with a lime, vinegar and tomato sauce flood a tall sundae glass crammed with crab meat and boiled shrimp. Any resemblance to ceviche is dismissed after a few eye-squinting, tongue-buzzing bites. Ceviche seems almost delicate by comparison. Campechana smacks you around, and you love it. Nominally this is an appetizer, but it's large enough and, more to the point, flavorful enough to go it alone. It's unfortunate the menu doesn't offer a smaller option along with the $9 big boy.
Another perky item on the appetizer list is a plate of "mini-rellenos," a reworking of the traditional jalapeño "popper" formula. In this version, the less potent poblano pepper is stuffed with a shrimp-and-crab filling, then fried and served with a Cajun ranch dipping sauce. The fiery undercurrent, which can't be coming from that mild poblano, suggests these have been spiked with something more inflammatory.
The gumbo, which comes in shrimp, crab and seafood variations, proves to be considerably more civilized, with just enough of that salty, dark-roux essence to keep it interesting.
To its considerable credit, PK's offers most of its seafood fare in both mesquite grilled and fried versions, though a few of the more toothsome fish -- like halibut, flounder and trout -- are only available grilled. There's an agreeable range of solo and "combo" platters, mixing and matching an inventory of redfish (farm-raised), catfish, oysters, shrimp and -- for those who can't seem to get that cholesterol count high enough -- a duet of filet mignon with bacon-wrapped shrimp. Your server will, I assume, stand by with a defibrillator on request.
Even the po-boys can be ordered either grilled or fried, though it can cause some confusion, even for the likes of Big Shot Bob. When I ordered a "combo" of shrimp and oysters, I asked that the former be grilled and the latter fried. That temporarily stumped him. Grilled and fried items -- on the same sandwich? Can the kitchen do that? The waiter nodded slowly, but informed me, "I guess they can. But no one's ever asked for that before."
Wow. For a second, I was tempted to contact the Guinness Book of World Records and stake my claim to this singular culinary feat. Then I realized that Big Shot Bob wasn't exactly gazing at me with admiration. In fact, the look was more like "Geez, what a doofus." Perhaps I had broken one of those rules of conventional wisdom, like never play poker with someone named Doc or don't spit into the wind? Never mix grilled with fried on a po-boy? But I did -- and lived to tell the tale: not bad, not bad at all.
Along with an engaging patio, PK's boasts a handsome bar area, perfect for a happy hour drink on the way home. The wine list is fairly reserved, with most of the bottles in the $30 to $35 range. The priciest selection on it, a $90 Tommasi Amarone, seems an expensive oddity since that super-rich Italian red pairs with virtually nothing on this seafood-heavy menu (with the possible exception of quail).
PK's has tried to warm up its rather impersonal red brick building by ushering in customers through a portico that says "Strictly Blue Water."
Now, that's a catchy phrase, but I have to confess to not knowing what it means.
Surely it's not a literal claim that everything inside originates from azure seas? Since the menu contains such decidedly non-seafood fare as chicken and beef, that theory scarcely holds water, no matter what the color. Perhaps it's some well-known nautical term that a sailing-impaired landlubber like me wouldn't recognize? Or it could just be the owner's own inspirational credo, not unlike Elvis's "Taking Care of Business."
As for the inevitable question of whether PK's is "as good" as Goode Co. Seafood, that's tricky. Certainly, PK's best dishes can rival those of Goode Co. But Goode Co. is more expansive, both in its overall menu and, more notably, in its almost raucous attitude.
For the most part, PK's has decided to be on its best behavior. That's probably a shrewd move, given its conventional customer base. Strictly Blue Water, as it turns out, means Calm Seas Ahead.
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