There is a lot to love about Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, and at the top of that list is the gumbo. There's rich, lingering flavor from duck confit, stock and dark roux. Meaty Gulf shrimp and delicately fried oysters rest on top and in the center is a mound of long-grained rice dotted with flecks of parsley. Dark green rounds of okra lend a bit of silkiness to the broth and finely diced red bell peppers and onions add the needed punch. A touch of heat slowly grows until it seems to warm the soul as much as the belly. The soup is everything desired in a traditional New Orleans gumbo.
It's hard to resist having a bowl every single visit. On the menu, it's called LH Gumbo -- after Lennie Hall, who worked with chef Mark Holley at Pesce and is working with him again at Holley's.
There is reason to resist, at least occasionally, and that's to indulge in another soup that represents both culinary history and Holley's personal journey as a chef. It's called Koonce's Peanut Soup (after James Koonce, a chef and sommelier who worked with Holley for years at Brennan's). Its warmth and savory depths brighten even the dullest of days.
Peanut soup has its origins in West African peanut stew and grew in popularity in states such as Virginia, where peanuts are a big commodity crop. Before the Civil War, peanuts were not considered fit for consumption by the gentry. Slaves, however, knew the nuts could be successfully incorporated into soups and stews.
The base is primarily tomato, but peanut butter adds a note that is more deep than nutty. Hot sauce and Worcestershire add yet another level of seasoning. Roasted peanuts dusted in a bit of blackening seasoning and a few shrimp glazed with honey and cayenne decorate the surface. The overall flavor is akin to the saucy part of a really good étouffée.
The main dining room is soothing and attractive. The dress code is business casual. Smooth New Orleans jazz is pumped over the sound system, and waiters swirl around the tables in their long, pinstriped aprons. Walls are in seafoam green and blue, tables are dressed in white and the bright turquoise seats liven up the scene with a fun punch of color.
There's another dining room near the entrance where casually dressed guests are welcome. It's more reminiscent of a French Quarter diner, and it gets quite loud. Instead of New Orleans jazz, the playlist include '80s hits from Pink Floyd and The Police (not that there's anything wrong with that).
The menu at Holley's has an adventurous streak. Not everything here is from the South. A case in point being the Peruvian ceviche with Gulf flounder, chunks of sweet potato, a bit of pleasantly pungent celery seed and roasted corn on top. The raw fish and vegetables are cured in lime juice and when that process is done, the result is called leche de tigre, or tiger's milk. The liquid is so good it seems like a crime to not pick up the bowl and drink it. While the "Fish in a Jar" reads on the menu like it might be similar to the ceviche, it is dramatically different. Shrimp, scallops and snapper are enhanced by the fruity depths of charred orange and punctuated with red onion. A bit of milk gives it a slight, welcome creamy character.
Thirty-three dollars for a dozen oysters sounds really high, but don't pass judgment before inquiring about them. These are not typical Gulf oysters. On a recent visit, there were six different types, including three from Massachusetts: Falmouth and Wellfleet, both with deep, bowl-like shells as well as darkly frilled, oblong ones from Chilmark. An appellation from Prince Edward Island called Conway Cup was quite lovely in its emerald-tinged shell. It's great fun to sit at the bar, get a tray with a few of each kind and wash them all down with a $9 glass of -prosecco.
A half-dozen for $18 is perfect for people dining alone. Spicy ponzu sauce, finely diced escabeche mignonette, and cocktail sauce with freshly grated horseradish come alongside, but with oysters as fine and briny as these, condiments are a bonus, not required.
The restaurant's blackened grouper could come straight from a Paul Prudhomme cookbook. It's as comforting as a Southern lullaby. The blackening seasoning -- salty, spicy and tinged with dried herbs -- could make even an old boot taste good, so just imagine it on a nice filet. It's difficult to say if the grouper is the best thing on the plate, because the smoky collard greens accentuated with kimchi and ham hock are equally amazing. Everything, including the hoppin' John that anchors the dish, sponges up the piquant pot liquor -- the brothy byproduct of cooking the greens with the ham hock.
Like the peanut soup, hoppin' John also has West African origins. Slaves brought to the United States subsisted on mixtures of rice and beans during their unwilling voyages. In happier times, it became a New Year's Day dish. The peas are symbolic of coins, and it is thought that leaving three on the plate ensures luck, fortune and romance for the coming year. Greens represent currency. The version at Holley's is made with Carolina gold rice and lady creamer peas.
Among all this glory, some of the pricey entrées at Holley's completely fail. The $34 chicory-crusted beef tenderloin was an unwieldy hunk of beef the color of tar, accentuated by the pale glob of grits it rested on. Surrounding it was a messy moat of reddish chipotle jus. Aside from the chicory coating, seasoning seemed absent. At least there was a consolation prize among the wreckage: a spinach-stuffed dumpling with a nice sear on top. It was a little dry but pretty good.
The simply grilled fish of the day was mahi-mahi. It was $28 and just as unimpressive as the tenderloin. It was overcooked, dense and underseasoned. Halved, roasted Brussels sprouts and long, graceful, young carrots accompanied it. The bright orange carrots tinged with deeply roasted ends were the one attractive thing on the plate. Everything had been shoved to one side. A thin, orangey sauce ran to the other. Maybe it was looking to escape?
Put together, those two main dishes cost $62, and that felt like a gut punch.
There is, of course, bread pudding for dessert (which is pretty much required in all Southern restaurants), but instead, go for the coconut cake. It comes in a generous portion -- three layers divided up with a not-too-sweet creamy white frosting and crunchy toasted coconut flakes. Caramel sauce is drizzled across the top, and cinnamon-sugar-toasted pecans are the crowning touch. It's a sweet meditation that should be savored at your leisure with a cup of coffee alongside.
On each visit, a wine list was provided, but there are several house cocktails as well. To order them, though, you have to see the cocktail list first. There's no good reason to make the diner ask. Why not provide it every time?
The bar program is rather interesting, too. One cocktail, The Lancelot, is named for Holley's Kentucky-born grandfather. Buffalo Trace bourbon is infused with cherries, then combined with Rittenhouse rye, lime juice and mint. It's small but strong and an attractive shade of red.
Wines by the glass are expensive. Only two choices are less than $13. Conversely, some of the wines by the bottle are quite reasonable. A $41 2013 Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir was a gentle option that flexed nicely with a variety of food.
If a bottle of wine is too much to drink, then consider the selection of Texas beers. A draft pint is $7. Selections include 8th Wonder, Saint Arnold and Karbach (Houston); Independence Brewing Company (Austin); and Southern Star Brewing (Conroe). Service can get into the weeds during busy times, leading to a forgotten dish or delays on drink orders. However, it's also so personable, conscientious and sweet that minor oversights are forgiven. The staff at Holley's makes a point of remembering who has been there before, and Holley himself sometimes gives guests tours of the restaurant. Servers will often pick up dishes that diners have finished, even if they're not the designated waitstaff for those tables -- a mark of professionalism.
Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar's cuisine is food for the mind as well as the body. Some dishes are windows into the history of the deep South. While parts of that are not pretty, these dishes are testaments to perseverance. When people make the best of what's available despite their hardships, they can create food that endures. It reaches across history, taps diners on their shoulders and simply asks to be remembered.
Chicory-dusted beef tenderloin $34 Simply grilled fish Market Price Blackened grouper $27 Fish in a jar $18 Oysters on the half shell $18 for six/$33 for 12 Peruano ceviche $14 LH gumbo $13 Koonce's peanut soup $12 Duck fat-Lyonnaise potatoes $8 Hoppin' John $8 Kimchi greens $8