"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."
-- Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter
The first slurp from the icy shell was cold and briny, then the flavor of the oyster turned sweet as I chewed. The tiny muscle that holds the shell closed was the chewiest, sweetest bit of all. A fellow oyster lover and I had convened at Willie G's on Post Oak. We sat there as smugly as the Walrus and the Carpenter, each keeping company with our own platter of 12 fat little oysters. This spared us having to negotiate who gets the choicer ones.
Willie G's is a formerly great Cajun restaurant founded by the Landry family. It was the hottest restaurant in Houston back in the 1980s when Cajun food was the rage. Then Tilman Fertitta bought it and dumbed-down the concept. He got rid of the spicy seasonings. Now Willie G's is little more than an upscale Landry's location.
Nevertheless, I've been spending a lot of time here lately. Last month, when my family offered to take me out to dinner on my birthday, they were surprised by my choice of restaurants. I wanted to go to Willie G's. No, I had not developed a craving for underseasoned gumbo.
It was the oysters. They were calling my name. Fertitta couldn't find a way to ruin Willie G's fabulous oyster bar. It remains one of the best in town. And now, here I am again, a month later, savoring a dozen wiggling bivalves with a fellow oyster aficionado.
Tart, lemony wines like Muscadet or Sancerre are the usual choice of French oyster connoisseurs, but there were no such wines on Willie G's menu. In Ireland, they eat oysters with Guinness, and in New Orleans they favor Dixie beer, so we split the difference with a couple of drafts of Newcastle Brown Ale.
As the two of us assessed the quality of this year's oyster harvest, we tried to describe the slightly mineral aftertaste.
"Coppery, like sucking on a penny," I mused to my friend.
"No, more like silver, like sucking on a dime," he said, smacking his lips.
Thanks to the harrowing hurricane season, oysters have shot up in price this year. Houston oyster bars have been alternating between local oysters from Galveston Bay and imports from western Louisiana, depending on the supply. My friend and I wagered on the provenance of the excellent specimens we were sucking down. Louisiana oysters have a deeper, well-shaped shell, while Galveston Bay oysters are flat, I contended. We asked the waiter to settle the issue.
"They're New York bluepoints," he answered confidently.
"Get a rope," I said, giggling.
"Could you please confirm that?" my bewildered friend asked the waiter.
"You know and I know that's complete and utter shite," I whispered as the waiter walked away.
Restaurants can't get away with lies about where their oysters come from. Every bag is labeled with the harvest location. This is to help health authorities pinpoint the source of any cases of contamination. But it also makes it easy to prove your waiter is lying when he claims your oysters are from Long Island.
"Well, I was told they were bluepoints, but it turns out they're from Galveston Bay," he said when he came back to our table. Maybe the waiter, who grew up in Idaho, thought Galveston Bay was an unattractive place for oysters. Or maybe he was just repeating what his managers told him to say.
In any case, we pronounced this an excellent year for Galveston Bay oysters. And Willie G's is a great place to eat them because they serve you so many small ones. By my own crude measuring system, I estimated that at least half of the oysters on our platters were under the legal limit of three inches.
No, Willie G's isn't breaking the law. And neither was the fishmonger who sold them those perfect little two-and-a-half-inchers. The fact is that the Texas Parks & Wildlife wardens who monitor the oyster harvest give oystermen a little leeway. If they board an oyster boat and find that more than 10 percent of the oysters are undersized, they throw the whole catch overboard. But if only a few are too small, they don't take any action.
When the oystermen get their catch back to shore, they sort out the little ones and sell them at a premium to restaurants that serve oysters on the half shell. The big ones go to the shucking plant.
The coldest part of the winter is the best time to eat oysters, for a number of reasons. As the water gets colder, oysters put on a layer of insulation called glycogen, which is an animal starch containing a sugar compound. That's why winter oysters taste so much sweeter. As the water warms up, they convert that sugar into reproductive material and the flavor gets fishier. They are thin and taste like nothing in the summer, after they spawn.
But there's an even better reason to eat Gulf Coast oysters in the winter, as I learned from my friends at the Texas Seafood Safety Desk. Vibrio vulnificus, the warm-water bacteria that kills around 40 oyster eaters every year and makes a few hundred sick, is most abundant in the summer when the water is warmest. When the water temperature falls below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, there are hardly any of the bacteria to be found.
I love raw oysters but have come to consider them a seasonal treat. So on the morning of my birthday, with the marine forecast at www.weatherunderground.com showing the water temperature in Galveston Bay at 62 degrees Fahrenheit, I celebrated at Willie G's.
The oyster bar at Willie G's is top-notch, but as this is a restaurant review, I feel somewhat obliged to discuss the rest of the menu. The seafood gumbo, crab bisque and crawfish bisque, all of which I also sampled on my birthday, were bland, floury-tasting soups with gummy, overcooked seafood.
A redfish topped with Pontchartrain sauce was awful. The fish was gloppy, and the mushroom wine sauce with crab served on top only made matters worse. I suspect the awful texture was due to the fish's being past its prime.
The only items on Willie G's regular menu that I ended up enjoying were those made with lump crabmeat. These are priced according to the market and can be quite expensive. The items that involve the least cooking are your best bet. The jumbo lump crab salad, for instance, is a whole lot of fresh jumbo crabmeat heaped on a very average salad. The last time I ordered one, it was $24 and quite tasty.
The jumbo lump crab sauté, an oval serving dish full of jumbo lump crab sautéed in butter with green onions and mushrooms, was also $24. The problem with this dish is the starch. You're offered a baked potato, fettuccine in Alfredo sauce or angel hair with marinara, none of which makes any sense with crab in butter sauce. I solved the dilemma by asking for angel hair with no sauce at all. Then I dunked forkfuls of pasta into the crabby butter. There is also a crabmeat fettuccine on the menu, but I wouldn't chance it.
My oyster-eating buddy had the "snapper Charlie," Gulf red snapper topped with lump crabmeat in butter. I have to say that this dish was quite good. The fish wasn't the freshest, but the kitchen left the tail on to prove that it was indeed a Gulf red snapper. And it's hard to mess up snapper, crab and butter. The fettuccine Alfredo that he got on the side was a gloppy mess of overcooked noodles in lame cheese sauce.
Willie G's does to Cajun food what Kenny G does to jazz: It takes the spicy kick out of an edgy American genre and turns it into something innocuous enough for mass consumption. The next time we get a cold snap, I recommend you stop by Willie G's oyster bar for some fabulous Galveston Bay oysters -- and then go eat the rest of your dinner somewhere else.