You've gotta hand it to restaurateur/developer extraordinaire Tilman Fertitta: He's not one to be slowed by mere acts of God. Less than four months after the force-three tidal surge of Tropical Storm Frances pounded across his Kemah Waterfront, Fertitta's 14-acre empire has risen from the wreckage. The boardwalk, ripped from its pilings in September, has been hammered back into place; every single shrub and palm that floated out on that raging tide has been replaced; and the neon-lit Ferris wheel twirls merrily over its reflection in the well-behaved waters of the bay below.
You'd almost believe nothing ever went wrong, unless you ventured farther south to Galveston for comparison. Half the island's traffic lights still dangle blinking or blind above temporary stop signs on sawhorses, and washed-out beachfront houses teeter precariously over the incoming tide.
Not only did Fertitta's swarm of workers swab out and reopen his existing restaurants, including the heavily damaged Landry's and Flying Dutchman, but the ambitious centerpiece of his Waterfront project, the Aquarium restaurant, opened on schedule less than a month after the storm.
From top to bottom, the finished Aquarium is a jaw-dropping monument to "eatertainment" excess. Miniature geysers erupt from the floodlit pavement fountain in front. The entrance looks like the frontispiece to a Disney adventure ride, with cavelike walls, an enormous turquoise neon sign and -- ye gods -- a gift shop! Inside, a spiral staircase wraps around a three-and-a-half-story cylindrical tank containing 15,000 gallons of clear blue water and hundreds of tropical fish. Upstairs the 200-seat dining room centers on an even more astonishing sight: a complete reef in a 50,000-gallon tank. Skates and sharks and speckled trout sail by in apparent harmony, aloof to the diners and unruffled by the fate of their brethren on the plates. Three more 2,000-gallon "jewel" tanks are tucked away at the back of the room, containing the bad boys who don't play well with others: lionfish and clown fish were the only two species I recognized.
With a "wow" factor this high and a kitchen cranking out a thousand meals a day, I honestly didn't expect much from the food. Good news: I found the menu almost as ambitious as the ambiance and, excepting a couple of minor glitches, quite serviceable. But the trick is getting to that food.
In order to snare one of those 200 seats, you must first get past the hostesses who guard the gate. They don't look threatening, these very small young women in their very small matching black frocks. On each of my visits no fewer than five hostesses clustered around the podium; their sheer number led me to expect boundless energy and efficiency. The stumbling block is that these five hostesses function as one. All five check the waiting list simultaneously for the same name. All five fail to find the name, which the customer is often able to point out reading upside down. All five attend to the complex task of handing out a single coaster-pager. All five agree that there are no more pagers to be given out. They bear an uncanny resemblance to the schools of sleek little fish in the tank in front of them, darting in unison first this way, then that.
"I want to thank you all for being so helpful in getting my family seated," said a middle-aged man as he left late one evening. The school of hostesses momentarily froze. As the family straggled down the spiral stairs, one hostess timidly asked the others, "Do you think he was being sarcastic?" I couldn't tell, either. More than two months after the grand opening, two-hour waits are still common and heated arguments inevitable. On one visit, a cranky young woman -- a customer, not a hostess -- actually threw her menu at me. I still don't know what set her off (Low blood sugar? Barstool infringement?), but I decided to keep her spiral-bound menu with its full-color illustrations of tropical fish rather than buy one at the gift shop.
Once seated at a table, you can relax. The views from almost all tables are spectacular, and the waitstaff is attentive, efficient and thoroughly professional. (But watch out: If you ask for suggestions, your waiter will invariably recommend the three most expensive items on the menu. It's sticker-shock city.)
Many of the appetizers are generous enough to serve several or to double as an entree for one (and at these prices, that's a real plus). The imaginative lime-grilled chicken lettuce wraps ($12.99) are stuffed with sprouts, sesame noodles and peanuts. The crab wontons ($7.99) arrive four to a plate, each the size of a small light bulb. But surprisingly, the lonesome crab cake ($8.99) can be demolished in just a few bites. Not that I wanted more: though flavorful, it was unpleasantly wet and overbreaded.
I loved the rich, caramel-colored lobster bisque, served in a hubcap-sized dish ($5.99). A suspicion of thickening flour tainted the otherwise pristine mix of seafood and cream, but it was redolent of sherry and loaded with lobster chunks. Too bad the Aquarium's "signature" seafood gumbo ($5.99) was built on a burned roux the time I tried it.
Seafood dominates the entree list, as you'd expect from a place that bills itself as an "underwater dining experience." Two full pages of the menu are devoted to fresh fish, ranging from familiar Gulf Coast denizens (snapper, flounder, catfish) to guests from colder climes (salmon, tuna, wahoo, halibut and mahi-mahi). Another page is all about jumbo shrimp: broiled, grilled, fried, stuffed and coconut-breaded. All of the entrees are served with "Aquarium rice" and an inoffensive assortment of steamed vegetables. A modest dinner salad is available for an additional $2.99; don't bother.
I was disappointed by the sauteed Gulf red snapper ($18.99) that the servers so enthusiastically recommended. Needing a knife to cut a fish filet is a bad sign; the poor thing had suffered over too high a flame. While the light batter on the surface still looked moist and appealing, the bottom layer was tough enough to be fork-proof. Adding insult to injury, the crabmeat-and-avocado pico de gallo topping was irredeemably bland.
The Aquarium's big seafood platters, broiled or fried, are a better bet than single-item entrees. Variety spreads the dining risk: If one item is mishandled, the others can atone. The broiled Fisherman's platter ($24.99), for example, scored big points for tender, sweet scallops, tasty stuffed shrimp and a surprising filet-o-generic-fish that was firm, flavorful and perfectly cooked. It broke even with the broiled shrimp and rock lobster tail, the latter by its nature tougher and drier than tails from Maine. Despite penalties for the stone-cold oysters Rockefeller and soggy stuffed crab, the total score came out a winner.
But I'll tell you who's having the most fun at the Aquarium -- except perhaps the divers who get to pet the moray eels -- and that's the in-house pastry chef, John MacArvey, an alumnus of the hotel formerly known as the Ritz. His dramatic creations are imaginative, playful and, above all, delicious. My favorite is the Aquarium's signature toasted almond-and-chocolate truffle cake ($7.99). The dark, rich wedge of thickly iced cake balances point up on the plate, neatly skewered with a crunchy shark-shaped cookie and decorated with frivolous, brightly colored curlicues of spun sugar. Lift the berry and mint garnish to discover white and dark chocolate starfish candies tucked underneath. Likewise, the passion fruit creme brulee ($5.99), a fine balance of sweet custard and tart passion fruit sauce, sports an angelfish cookie in front of coral-like chocolate lace.
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SHOW ME HOW
Until the novelty wears off at the Aquarium, hungry or impatient customers would be wise to map an attack strategy. You can skirt the "no reservations for small parties" policy with a carefully timed phone call from the road: Promise to arrive within 30 minutes, and the school of hostesses will add you to the waiting list right then. Try dining later for less competition: the Waterfront is a ghost town by 10 p.m. And don't overlook the 14 unlisted seats at the glowing resin lit-from-within bar, which offers everything from a "Brackish Bellini" (despite the off-putting name, a juicy peach concoction) to a full four-course meal. No matter that you're not facing the reef. You can stroll around to admire the fish after you're fed.
Will the novelty wear off? No less an eminence than the New York Times recently predicted the death of theme restaurants, forecasting doom for all but the hoariest, the Hard Rock Cafe. The food, explained the Times, never measured up to the decor at troubled "eatertainery" chains such as Planet Hollywood, the Rainforest Cafe and David Copperfield's Magic Underground. So is the Aquarium's food good enough to keep it afloat? Well, by golly, if anyone can surmount acts of God, long odds and the New York Times, it's the unsinkable Tilman Fertitta.
Aquarium, 402 Second St., Kemah, (281)334-9010.
Got a hot restaurant tip or an interesting piece of food news? E-mail Margaret Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org.