When I told my friends that I was doing a Chef Chat with Danton's, the response was almost uniform: "I love that place!" Judging from the comments on parts one and two of this Chef Chat, many readers feel the same way. Danton Nix may call himself a mere cook, but his food makes people very, very happy.
Every dish I tried at Danton's was one I would gladly order again. It's not just that the seafood was impeccably fresh, but also that it was cooked with precision, just to the point of being done. I can't remember the last time I ate crawfish this tender or crab this delicate.
The one criticism that I might level, and to me it's a minor one, is that the presentation at Danton's isn't up to the high standard of the food. Nix readily admitted that he had room for improvement in his plating technique, but added that he hoped he overcame it with the depth of the flavors and how people feel when they've finished eating.
"When I eat a real good meal it's like the endorphins kick in; I feel good all over and I'm happy to pay my bill. Me being a casual seafood restaurant, which is what I consider myself, I don't think [fancy presentation] is necessary, nor do I have the training. There's value on both sides, but I prefer to put my effort into the way food tastes."
We started with the Crab Danton, jumbo lump blue crab in an intense white garlic remoulade that lingers on the palate. It's one of the first recipes that Nix came up with for Danton's, and it remains one of the restaurant's most popular dishes - it's often what he is asked to serve at food shows like Menu of Menus. As Nix put it, "so long as you like crab meat and a lot of garlic and remoulade, you're going to like it."
During crawfish season, Nix waits until he can get the larger-size selects, at which point he pushes everything on the menu that contains crawfish. (Danton's only serves fresh crawfish, so all crawfish dishes are seasonal.) It's not surprising, then, that he brought out Baked Oysters Dan Jr. (oysters on the half shell, covered with garlic butter, crawfish tails and Parmesan-Reggiano, served on a bed of chunky rock salt), Crawfish Bisque (thick, deeply browned and addictive), and Crawfish ½ & ½ (a half portion of fried crawfish and a half portion of crawfish etouffee, separated by a swath of dirty rice). All are tasty, but if you can only pick one, go with the deeply satisfying Baked Oysters Dan Jr. Did I mention the melted parmesan?
I also tried a few bites of Danton's refreshing version of campechana, a tangy, tomatoey Mexican-style seafood cocktail with crab meat, shrimp and avocado, topped with crab fingers and served with house-made tortilla chips. Around this time I began to notice a cayenne-fueled buzzing in the back of my mouth and asked Nix which dish that had come from.
He replied that it could have come from anything: "Most of my food is fairly well-seasoned. Some of it's downright hot, but everything is well-seasoned, so you're always going to get a little bit of something. If you don't like spices and you don't like garlic, you're probably not going to be real happy here."
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I had saved a little room for dessert, and was glad I did, because the white chocolate bread pudding then made an appearance. It's a soupy, non-traditional preparation: chunks of French bread soaking in a thin white chocolate sauce. Nothing complicated, just a sweet, satisfying way to end a meal.
At this point Nix apologized, saying he had meant to bring me the soft-shell crab as well and did I want to try it? Regretfully, I had to stop, or I might have eaten my way through the entire menu in one sitting.