Seaworthy

Lefty's handles the big bugs adroitly

Last week, my silver-haired mother ate an Egg McMuffin for the first time in her life. I won't go into the details surrounding her surrender to fast food, except that circumstances demanded it, that she'd reached the point between hunger and availability otherwise known as a rock and a hard place, that required her to eat something she'd previously considered inedible.

This is the kind of thing that must have happened over and over in the annals of human eating, though we have no recorded history of most of these landmark occasions. It was Swift who commented, "It was a brave man who first ate an oyster," or something to that effect. Well, what about the first person hungry enough to eat an artichoke? Caviar? Fugu fish? A chile serrano? Or, God forbid, a lobster, like the one recently served to my mother, one of my companions for dinner at Lefty's, a new lobster and chowder house on the far west end of the strip in Addison.

Mother quailed at an Egg McMuffin but has never flinched at the sight of what looks like a large red bug on her plate. Southern and inland born, lobsters weren't native food for her, or frequently eaten, but some kind of atavistic Yankee memory made them my mother's festal meal of choice. For years, we've celebrated her birthday by ritually slaughtering and consuming as many lobsters as we could afford. When we were children, only the grownups donned the bibs and cracked the skeletons and picked out the meat. Kids ate fried chicken and watched in disgust. But, one by one, we were converted to the hard-core version of dinner: man vs. creature.

Lefty's is owned by Kenny Bowers, Jack Chaplin's former partner in Daddy Jack's, the popular lobster and chowder house on Greenville, and anyone who's been to Daddy Jack's will feel at home in Lefty's. Oars form the front door handles, and wide screen doors lead into the strip-mall space, its walls painted lobster-red, its tables spread with red-and-white checked cloths. The background music is blues and jazz, the kitchen is half-open to the dining room, the service is friendly and snappy, and the food is excellent. Add Lefty's name to the short roster of places to eat good seafood in Dallas.

There's no reason why there should be good seafood in Dallas: We're landlocked, 300 miles from the nearest coast. Still, customers here want seafood, largely in the name of healthy eating, and, in the name of "freshness," think they want seafood that's never been frozen. The truth is you can't really get fresh fish anywhere anymore, unless you've actually caught and cooked it yourself. Big fishing boats are out at sea for days; their cargo is old by the time they get to shore.

Lefty's is smart to focus its menu on shellfish--shrimp, lobster, crabs, and clams--farm-raised salmon, and only a few fin fish, flounder, and some snapper.

There's no slack for those who don't like seafood, either. If you don't want seafood, don't eat at Lefty's. Except for one steak and a surf-and-turf combination, everything on Lefty's menu was once a swimmer.

We started with mussels marinara, a big bowl filled with black-shelled mussels, open-mouthed to present the soft little blobs of meat inside, and entirely coated with a chunky sauce, pungent with oregano, which set off the sweet, briny taste of the mussels.

Clam chowder was designated "Boston" style, which means New England style, which means it was a white broth, not tomato-tinted like Manhattan chowder. In its habitat, clam chowder is as hotly debated a dish as chili con carne is here; I don't feel any more qualified to take sides on this question than a New Yorker would on the subject of beans in chili. I can say with certainty, though, that this was a delicious chowder, with a strong, earthy taste of potato from the lumps in the bottom of the bowl, and the soothing milk broth studded with big, tender bites of clam.

The New England crab cakes seemed strangely named, since crab cakes originated in the Chesapeake area, and crabs aren't really cold-water creatures, but these were certainly New England-style as they exhibited the same thrifty inspiration that accounts for dishes like Indian pudding. Plenty of cracker crumbs glued the crabmeat into little cakes, which were griddled and served with tartar and cocktail sauces.

It seems strange, in a time when the common dinner salad has finally metamorphosed into an edible course, that the one served by Lefty's was the lowest point of the meal, consisting of dry greens topped with drier, spongy mushrooms and a glob of bitter, emulsified dressing. But salad is obviously beside the point.

Living up to the lobster part of its name, Lefty's offers them in several dishes: Chunks of lobster garnish many, and you can order a 16-ounce tail, two lobsters, or the lobster dinner. Lobster is a luxury food, but the lobster dinner, featuring a whole Maine lobster, was just about the cheapest entree on Lefty's menu. Even what are called chicken lobsters generally weigh in at a pound and a half; this little one-pound guy would barely be legal in Maine. It was broiled, not boiled, as Mom prefers, but the meat was hot and sweet and the little carcass offered all those arcane delights of lobster dissection--cracking the claws and removing the pink, claw-shaped meat, sucking out the tiny bits of flesh inside the bug-like legs, scooping up the squishy green tomalley, or liver.

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