Restaurant Reviews

Raw Weather

For dessert, we ordered our third dozen. The waitress was confused. Admittedly, it was a tad strange. But the two dozen oysters the four of us ate as an appetizer were without a doubt the best part of the meal. So what was the matter with following up our grilled fish and steak dinners with a dozen more? And what else would you expect at a restaurant called Joyce's Oyster Resort?

Okay, a restaurant formerly called Joyce's Oyster Resort. The restaurant recently changed its name to Joyce's Seafood and Steaks because so many people assumed that the place served only oysters. That's too bad. The old name was evocative. I always pictured a dozen ice-cold mollusks on the half shell stretching out on their bed of rock salt, as if they were vacationing at the beach. And I imagined eating them while sipping a frozen drink decorated with a festive little umbrella. The new name is duller than fish sticks. The food is still great.

Joyce's raw oysters are outstanding. They're select oysters that have been kept ice-cold, and they're served within seconds of being shucked. The first dozen were briny, delectably sweet and not much bigger than bite-size. Since you pretty much have to put the whole oyster in your mouth, most people prefer their raw oysters petite. The sweet taste comes from the sugary layer of "fat" oysters put on during cold weather. This winter's oyster season is the best in recent history.

I've recently discovered that cold water has another beneficial effect on Texas oysters. The Vibrio vulnificus bacteria (see "Keep On Shuckin'," April 11, 2002), which is potentially hazardous to humans, is dormant when the water temperature is below 65 degrees, according to the Seafood Safety Desk at the Texas Department of Health. As I write these words, the water temperature at Morgan's Point is 59 degrees. And that's the highest I've seen it all month.

Our second dozen comprised far bigger oysters. I don't know whether the shucker was saving the little ones for other customers or if he decided that people who wolfed their first dozen that fast must be really hungry. To tell you the truth, we didn't mind. Smaller ones are daintier, but when oysters are this sweet, even the big ones taste good. And there's no point in dousing them with a lot of horseradish, Tabasco or ketchup this time of year, either. I eat mine au naturel.

We were disappointed to learn the Gulf red snapper wasn't available. I've had Joyce's version in the past, and it's excellent. But at least you can rely on Joyce's not to substitute something else and call it red snapper. One of my dining companions got the striped bass, which is served with the same fresh tomato and lump crabmeat garnish that the snapper usually comes with. It's firm with a mild but pleasant flavor.

I got the mahimahi. It has that wonderfully strong taste that some people enigmatically refer to as a "fishy" flavor. (Can beef have a beefy flavor?) The big flavor of the firm, grilled fillet was nicely balanced with a piquant roasted poblano chile sauce. I'm not sure where Joyce's gets its mahimahi, but don't let the Hawaiian name fool you into thinking this is a Pacific fish.

Mahimahi has become the most popular name for dolphinfish, regardless of where it's caught. The dolphinfish is a large iridescent green and blue fish that's native to the Gulf of Mexico, among other places. It's known as dorado in Spanish and is common in Mexico.

Since those playful porpoises that jumped in front of the bow wake in the movie Titanic are also commonly called dolphins, people get disgusted when the waiter offers dolphinfish. Luckily, not many people in Houston understand Hawaiian. Literally, mahimahi means "strong strong," but it might be more accurately translated around here as "fishy fishy."

Another one of my dining companions ordered the fried oyster dinner. Most restaurants fry their oysters for too long in grease that isn't hot enough, a seafood expert recently complained to me. I've been happily eating these substandard fried oysters all my life. I guess I thought they were supposed to be dry and chewy. Joyce's fried oysters don't look like any I've had before. They're a light golden color and amazingly juicy. After eating a few off my friend's plate, I started to fantasize about a poor boy made with these oysters. And I realized that Joyce's fried oysters have ruined me for all others.

Since the place is called Joyce's Seafood and Steaks now, I felt it was my duty to sample the beef. To that end, I cajoled the last of my three dining companions into getting the filet mignon. Joyce's serves Certified Black Angus beef. The steak came perfectly cooked to medium rare, and it was very tender. But there's something about eating steak in a restaurant with nautical decorations that just doesn't seem right.

Joyce's walls are painted electric turquoise with navy blue trim. The eye-popping color scheme is set off by lots of brass ship fittings and lacquered rope in the bar area. There's a giant ship in a bottle displayed on a divider between the two sections of the dining room. Maybe I'm getting burned out on minimalist interiors, because I love Joyce's unsubtle decor. Founder Joyce Gilbert, by the way, has more or less retired from the business. Her partners run the place now, and Joyce keeps track of things by phone and by popping in every now and then.

On a previous visit, I made the mistake of ordering barbecued shrimp for dinner. This is the Louisiana version of barbecued shrimp, as invented at Pascal's Manale in New Orleans, which is shrimp cooked in a butter and Tabasco mixture. There isn't any smoke or grilling involved, so it's a little unclear (to Texans, anyway) why they call it barbecue.

The dish is served with lots of crusty bread. It's a deceptive entrée. There aren't that many shrimp, but there's a whole lot of butter. Once you start dipping the bread in the spicy sauce, you're doomed. It tastes fantastic, but it's way too much butter for one person to eat. The barbecued shrimp is also available as an appetizer. I recommend that you order the smaller portion -- and split it with somebody.

I also sampled Joyce's oyster pinwheel, which includes six baked oysters. There are three varieties to choose from: oysters Rockefeller, which is made with creamed spinach; oysters with crabmeat and garlic sauce; and oysters with crabmeat and tomato sauce. I liked the oysters Rockefeller the best and the seafood in tomato sauce the least. But there isn't much reason to order these at this time of year anyway. We have all year to eat cooked oyster dishes, but we have only a few months to eat them raw.

The gumbo at Joyce's is very good, and I love the fact that they serve poor boys here. It keeps the place feeling casual. No matter how you're dressed, you'd feel at home hanging out at the bar, drinking beer and eating a sandwich. Not only is Joyce's Seafood and Steaks one of the best seafood restaurants in the city, it's also a wonderfully relaxed place.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh