The last time I ate at Truluck's (5350 Westheimer), the restaurant was still located in the charming silver diner car -- still abandoned, by the way -- up the road from its current location on Westheimer. When the restaurant moved to a swankier, if much more boring, building a few years back, it all but dropped off my radar. Heck, I didn't even include it in yesterday's list of the ten best places to eat in the Galleria area.
Of course, the new digs weren't the whole reason I stopped considering Truluck's when dining out; I tend to be -- admittedly -- a chain restaurant snot and prefer to seek out Houston originals instead of a restaurant I could easily find in Atlanta, Dallas or Miami. The move from quaint diner car to taupe strip center seemed to further cement the fact that Truluck's wasn't trying to do anything outstanding with its cuisine, and instead was trying to make itself as blandly yet broadly appealing as possible.
Last night's media tasting dinner went a long way to proving me wrong, however. The crowd at Truluck's is still as expected: expense-account suits trading polite conversation over wine and crab claws and slightly older folks celebrating one or another kind of anniversary. Another year of cheating death, perhaps. Who knows. On the bar side of the house, the crowd was much more upbeat, however. A piano player sang bizarre yet catchy lounge renditions of songs like Journey's "Faithfully" while younger men and women fresh off work happily gulped down cocktails and sliders.
And while the bar food we sampled -- butterscotch chicken wings and crab rangoons among them -- didn't impress at all, the food in the main restaurant was another story entirely. I certainly wasn't expecting a dining experience this good from a chain, no matter how expensive it may be.
Although I can't speak to the service last night -- it was both impeccable and personable at the same time, but they also knew they were serving people who were going to write about them afterward -- I can at least speak to the food. A kitchen as busy as Truluck's was last night couldn't possibly have labored overtime on one table's dishes, and I'd like to think that the food we were served was exactly what any other table would have received.
The low points were few and far between: Nearly everyone at the table lamented the abominable presence of tomatoes in an otherwise decent gumbo, a rather bland crabcake riddled with shards of shell and a truly uninspired wedge salad with blue cheese that could have been much sharper. But if that's the worst the restaurant had to offer, I'd say it's in pretty good shape.
Florida stone crab claws and Delaware Bay oysters were a bright, fun way to begin the meal. Picking the juicy, tender, clean crab out of the pre-cracked shells, I immediately understood why nearly every table in the restaurant had a platter of their own. And although the oysters were missing their liquor, the creamy mustard sauce that Truluck's makes in house to go with the crab (it was just as good on the oysters) nearly made up for it.
A subtly sherry-tinged crab and corn chowder and a sweet, tangy salad of Sonoma greens and goat cheese in a honey vinaigrette similarly made up for the gumbo and wedge salad missteps. And although we all searched for an entree that wasn't delicious, we couldn't find one on the list of seven that we tried.
One of the best dishes from the entree list was the Texas striped bass Pontchartrain, a dish which reminded me fondly of the catfish in brown butter with crawfish tails at Moonshine in Austin. The striped bass was served in a nutty parmesan crust, topped with a rich sauce of baby Gulf shrimp, crawfish tails and lump crab meat. And although I was wary of the crab-stuffed rainbow trout, the combination ended up surprising me in a good way, especially when paired with the Anson Mills cheese grits underneath. These are both dishes I would happily and eagerly order again.
On another surprising note, the miso-glazed Chilean sea bass on the menu came with a sort of guilt-free pass: It's partially wild, farmed sea bass from a sustainable fishery off South Georgia Island, one of the rugged Sandwich Islands off the southern tip of Chile that's always covered in snow. So if you find yourself craving the fluffy, soft, fatty fish -- and, honestly, it's quite worth craving -- but you're of the sustainable-minded persuasion, you can get your fix here if you don't mind shelling out a little cash.
When we were done with dinner, Mary Jane Poorman of Houstonist, who was sitting to my left, commented that she'd love to come back some time when we weren't part of a large group receiving special treatment and choice wine pairings (the Merryvale Muscat de Frontignan at dessert being the most amazing of the night), just to see what Truluck's is like on an average night. And I can't wait to invite myself along with her; this is a menu that I want to try again.
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