Restaurant Reviews

Bridging the Gulf

I'm pleased to report that there's finally a restaurant worth mentioning on the ill-fated corner of Richmond and Greenbriar. It's a tough spot, what with the strip center's ownership changes, fierce parking competition from the nearby nightclubs, and revolving-door restaurant turnovers, but somebody's got to fill it. I sincerely hope that this particular site, which was most recently home to the dreadfully named Fakawwee Lodge, will prove less fatal to Mick's Gulf Coast Grill than it has to previous inhabitants.

Owner Mickey Wooten is a 25-year veteran of both the Houston and Kemah seafood restaurant scenes -- a graduate of the Anchorage, Bordman's, Jimmy Walker's and Fish Bones, to name a few -- who's teamed with Louisiana chef Greg Webb to build a menu that spans the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico. Wooten has the offshore expertise, while Webb, fresh from the Cajun wild-game cookoff circuit, capably handles the onshore matters. The result is a solid, reasonably priced bill of fare.

Inside, Mick's has kept the Ralph Lauren lodge look, legacy of the former tenant, but lightened it considerably. Wooten dipped into the Southwestern color palette, too, but with unusual restraint. Perhaps the restraint is dictated by budget, but the understuffed effect is a relief. There's a stone fireplace with a gas log fire at one end, a spacious curved bar at the other end, a few fish trophies and posters on the walls -- but not too many! -- and comfortable booth seating. High, open ceilings, civilized table spacing and windowed frontage combine to ward off claustrophobia.

Although Mick's is a great choice for dinner, personally, I like it best for its recently developed Sunday brunch. On Sundays, you can pick anything from the regular menu or choose from a killer a la carte roster of egg and pancake dishes. You can't go wrong: There's not a loser in the brunch. It starts with a basket of homemade breakfast breads hot from the weekend baker's oven -- a different selection every Sunday. Selections might include cranberry scones, wedges of cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted flat bread and the best biscuits in town. These are rolled and cut biscuits, mind you, not the "plopped" kind; they're soft, flaky and sweet.

Mick's egg concoctions are adventurous and a lot of fun. I still can't decide which of three main contenders is my favorite. Two are rich variations on the eggs Benedict theme. The Seabrook special ($8.50) slips crawfish-crab cakes and Swiss cheese between the poached eggs and in-house English muffins (actually, I think they're the biscuits, in disguise) and is topped with a creamy, lemony hollandaise. The eggs carpaccio American ($12) substitute herbed and seared tenderloin for the usual Canadian bacon, along with fresh asparagus under a delightful Boursin cheese sauce. And then there's the wild game scrambler ($12): herbed scrambled eggs with cooked-to-order venison backstrap, duckling and tenderloin and a well of melted Boursin in the center, served up in its own diminutive cast-iron skillet. If that last touch sounds a little too precious, well, it does keep the eggs nice and hot.

Those crawfish-crab cakes ($7.95) are worth a look at dinnertime, too, when they reappear on the appetizer list. Close inspection reveals crispy bits of tasso in between the chunks of crab and crawdads, and only enough breading to hold them together under a chipotle cream sauce. The shrimp diablo ($6.95) is spicy enough to get your attention without burning your mouth, and is generously served in a crisp tortilla cup. The serving of barbecued oysters ($5.95) is also ample, with several small oysters piggybacking in each of four shells; alas, the watery barbecue sauce is amiable to the point of being forgettable. I found a cup of duck and sausage gumbo ($2.95) much too salty for my taste -- a shame, because the otherwise impressive roux is thick-textured, dark and rich, with bobbing chunks of crispy-skinned duckling and sweet smoked sausage.

The emphasis at Mick's may be seafood, both on the menu and on the walls, but chef Webb contributes an impressive number of well-handled wild-game entrees: alligator, duck, quail, venison; even boar, on occasion. I keep meaning to try his special black opal duckling -- it involves a voodoo mix of spicy rub, an intensely hot oven and a resulting black-lacquered exterior -- but I always seem to fall for the ocean entries first. The mixed bayou grill ($16.95) is a grand tour of the Gulf Coast, including Louisiana-style frog legs, the crawfish-crab cakes, a grilled, marinated kebab of shrimp, salmon and catch-o-the-day fish, plus a catfish fillet. If you run out of room halfway through the platter, skip the catfish: The poor guy seems dull and bland compared to his friskier companions. The frog legs, however, are so good, garlicky and red-chile spicy that you might consider ordering them on their own ($10.95).

For sides, I like Mick's fresh, crisp asparagus or the fire-roasted corn polenta ($2.95), which is herbed, topped with Mexican farmer's cheese and broiled. On a recent visit, unadvertised and heavenly baked apples, pears and grapes swam next to our entrees in a light cinnamon-sugar syrup.

The desserts at Mick's are better on the table than they appear on the dessert tray; on a recent visit, the tray samples looked as if they'd been around the block a few times. So far the clear winner is the towering Key lime pie in a graham cracker crust ($4.95). By itself it's quite tart, but the sweet raspberry sauce smooths and balances the taste. I also liked the pecan pie ($4.95), and appreciate cooks who go to the trouble of toasting the pecans first. Some day I'll have saved enough room, I hope, to try Mick's variant of creme brulee: if I understand this correctly, it's served in a puff pastry with a well filled with white and dark chocolate. My clothing shrinks at the thought.

Mick's Gulf Coast Grill, 2181 Richmond, 520-6425.

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Margaret L.Briggs