The Pacific Ocean Grill
The seafood gumbo I had at Joyce's Ocean Grill on Westheimer was darker than beef gravy, dense with fresh shrimp and just-cooked oysters, and peppery all the way to the back of my throat. Piping hot, it was better than a fuzzy blanket on a cold and rainy afternoon.
Sitting at the bar at lunchtime, I savored my cup of gumbo, trying to make it last -- not just because it tasted so good on a blustery day, but because I wanted to have some with my sandwich.
I had ordered the lunch special called "half po-boy & cup of soup" and asked for half a catfish poor boy and seafood gumbo. It sounded like a great combination.
Somewhere near the bottom of my cup of gumbo, I asked the taciturn bartender if he thought the kitchen might have forgotten my sandwich.
"It's on the way," he said unconvincingly.
"Do they always serve the soup first and then the sandwich later?" I asked him facetiously.
"Yes," he said.
That shut me up. I'd assumed everyone knew that soup and a sandwich are served together -- like coffee and a doughnut. Could it be that Joyce's chef really intended to serve a two-part lunch, a soup course followed by a sandwich course?
After I had glared at him for another five minutes, the bartender finally went back to the kitchen. I was sure he would return with my sandwich and an apology. But he came back empty-handed and avoided my gaze.
"Did they forget my sandwich?" I asked again when he was in earshot.
"It's on the way," he repeated in his droning tone, and then he disappeared. After a while, another server went behind the bar and asked me if I was taken care of. I explained my dilemma, and he immediately went to the kitchen and returned with my poor boy.
"Sometimes you have to throw a few punches back there," he said, smiling as he set down the plate in front of me.
A fresh poor boy roll was dressed with lettuce and tomato and topped with a large crusty chunk of hot-from-the-fryer catfish. It was small for a whole sandwich but extremely generous for the half it was supposed to be. I anointed the golden-colored batter with the entire contents of the bowl of tartar sauce that came on the side and then I splashed some Tabasco sauce on top of that. The catfish emitted little plumes of steam when I picked up the sandwich and tried to bite it. I nibbled around the edges while I waited for the fish to cool off. The poor boy was spectacular. And so were the homemade french fries it came with.
It would have been perfect with a cup of seafood gumbo on the side.
Joyce's Ocean Grill is the newly born sister of Joyce's Seafood & Steaks on San Felipe, which was formerly known as Joyce's Oyster Resort. I have long been a fan of the original Joyce's, a friendly hangout with a funky sort of atmosphere, thanks to its turquoise paint job and goofy nautical knickknacks.
Joyce's Ocean Grill has been open a couple of months. It is much larger, and sadly lacking in the character department, despite the feeble application of some turquoise paint here and there and a couple of rope-wrapped pillars.
Joyce's is the third restaurant to do business at this address on Westheimer in the last five years. The Stables restaurant sold steak and lobster here for decades. Then the real estate was purchased by the Dallas chain Rockfish Seafood Grill. The new owners bulldozed the old building and built an expansive new place. But after a few years, they went out of business. Joyce's has taken over the location and done some cosmetic remodeling.
On my first visit to Joyce's, I brought three family members, and we were seated on the right side of the modern, high-ceilinged dining room. While the space felt enormous, the dominant decorations on that side of the room were snapshot-size photos on a wall lined with booths. They were so small, you would have to be seated next to one to make out the subject matter. Easy listening music was piped in at such low volume you couldn't really tell who was playing. Everything was so low-key, it felt like we should whisper.
I had an excellent grilled fresh flounder. The meat flaked away from the bone firm and perfectly moist. An out-of-town guest was thrilled with the pecan-crusted Gulf red snapper special. Another dining companion had grilled yellowfin tuna, served on the rare side as requested and coated with an innovative ginger-port glaze. The only culinary disappointments were the crab cakes, which were thin and short on crabmeat, and the crab bisque, which was bland.
On our way out after dinner, I sized up the bar area. It was better lit and cozier than the dreary dining room and a lot livelier, as it was closer to the front door and the attractive hostess. I resolved that next time I'd eat in the bar. Since then, I've had a dinner and my soup-and-sandwich lunch there.
Dinner started out with my last oysters on the half shell of the season, which I ate with my buddy John Bebout. They were tiny, briny and absolutely delicious.
I ordered a shrimp poor boy for an entrée, and Bebout got grilled shrimp. He also inquired at great length about the oyster stew. He really wanted to try it, but as he explained to the vivacious female bartender, he's very picky when it comes to the dish. She assured him theirs was excellent.
The manager volunteered to go to the kitchen and bring Bebout a sample. The milky oyster broth he brought back was fabulous, and Bebout and I ordered it.
Oyster stew is a simple dish. You cook the oysters in their liquor, add some milk or cream, heat it back up and serve it with a little butter. That's about it.
The bowl of stew that was set down in front of us contained lots of the creamy broth and six cold, uncooked oysters. The cold oysters made the rest of the soup lukewarm. If the kitchen had just heated the soup and let the oysters cook a little, it would have been perfect.
The manager came by and asked how we liked the soup. We explained the problem and encouraged him to try one of the cold oysters. But instead he whisked away the soup, took it back to the kitchen and returned it properly cooked. The difference was amazing. With hot broth and the oysters cooked until the gills turned frilly, the stew was awesome.
The shrimp poor boy was also outstanding. The grilled shrimp, which were crowded together on a skewer so tightly that they still stuck together on the plate, were cooked perfectly. The green beans that came with the shrimp were cooked al dente and seasoned with flair.
If you cut them some slack for screwups, the food at Joyce's was great, Bebout observed. But the atmosphere was deadly dull. It was Thursday, the night when Houston singles hang in restaurant bars and fish for phone numbers. And at seven in the evening, Bebout and I were the only two people in Joyce's bar. The median age of the patrons we watched being seated in the dining room was somewhere around 70.
"I think the young singles are all down the street at Ra Sushi, so Joyce's has decided to cater to River Oaks retirees," Bebout said. The restaurant is too new to typecast quite so rigidly. They may well broaden their market in the future. But when I asked the bartender if Joyce's had any happy-hour specials, her look of incredulity told me that this was never going to be a hard-partying bar.
The next time I hear someone complain about noisy restaurants where you can't even have a conversation, I will recommend the ever-so-quiet Joyce's Ocean Grill. They might mess up your order, but if you're not in a hurry, they'll get it right eventually. And when they do, the seafood will taste wonderful.
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