Delighting in the details

Picardys is much more than shrimp--or even seafood

During the course of a few visits, we ate our way through most of Picardys menu. I wanted to avoid the Forrest Gump reference; it's too easy, but it is accurate. Picardys Shrimp Shop does serve eight different shrimp specialties, not even including the shrimp gumbo and shrimp pasta salad, as well as its short list of other seafood. Randall Warder, formerly chef de cuisine at The Mansion, was menu consultant at Picardys, and you can see those Rosewood details in the food. The tortilla soup we tried the first night was not ceremonially assembled and garnished table-side, like it is on Turtle Creek, but it had five-star flavor. Like all soups, tortilla soup depends entirely on the quality of the stock it's made with; the mouth-filling satisfaction of this chile-red soup--the fresh tortilla strips, the bits of chicken and avocado--was built on a strong flavor foundation of sturdy broth. The grilled shrimp taco--warm flour tortillas folded around firm pieces of grilled shrimp, creamy chunks of avocado, and a mango-laced salsa--is reminiscent of Fearing's famous lobster taco, though I actually liked the more accessible and casual shrimp version better. Most dishes at Picardys are less concept than cooking--crabcakes, oyster loaf, catfish; boiled, fried, and raw--but this is not just another fish house. An understanding of the ingredients is evident in the cooking, and the high standard of quality makes this seafood special.

Take the gumbo, for instance. It's one of those dishes that's inevitable on any Dallas seafood-house menu, just because we're next to Louisiana, and Cajun culture leaks a little into the southeast part of Texas. It seems like such an easy dish, and restaurants should be able to take a nice markup on it, too, so it's served everywhere. Face it, whether you call it soup or stew, all you have to do is make a roux, add some vegetables and seafood...The truth is, most restaurant gumbo is just an idea of gumbo, a version of gumbo, a gumbo dream. It's rarely--I'd like to say never, but my memory could be at fault--as good as gumbo should be. We passed the cup of Picardys gumbo around the table as if it were the chalice, marveled at this gumbo and admired its deep-brown roux, rolled the dark taste around in our mouths, savored the sweet shrimp, and we all agreed: We've never had better gumbo in a restaurant. A spoonful followed by a sip of cold Sam Adams (there's a brief wine list, too) from a glass so chilled that ice slid down its side in curved chunks, and we were inclined to like Picardys.

And we did. Fried shrimp that was crumb-coated, crunchy and fresh, served with hot fried potatoes; shrimp with cheddar grits ("an Old South favorite," shrimp sauteed and slathered in a deliciously messy Manales-style sauce of New Orleans fame that leaked into the pile of cheesy grits); fried catfish that was sweet and creamy within its brown jacket of crust--it was all remarkably good. The only things we didn't like were the odd hush puppies--eggy, almost dumplinglike fried balls seasoned with thyme--and the crabcakes that were a thrifty, housewifely recipe with too many crumbs and not enough crabmeat. I might also mention that the tartar sauce we were served was just pure, pickle-free mayonnaise.

So for those of you who expect the critic to quibble, I'm not saying Picardys was perfect, just that it was promising enough for me to pleasantly anticipate my next meal there. And on my next visit, we were savvy; we arrived at Picardys just before 6 and snagged a table before the restaurant filled on a Monday night. Again, Brew was our waiter, and he not only remembered serving us before, but where we sat and what we ate. This time, we ordered corn chowder, resonant with onion, celery, and sage; a platter of cold oysters, small but fresh and briny; a lovely fillet of simple broiled trout enriched with a warm new-potato salad, barely beefed up with bacon and scallion; and a plate of unfortunately tepid nachos, each chip precisely topped with black beans, grilled shrimp, cheese, and a fresh jalapeno slice. The catch of the day was tuna with a sweetish tropical sauce, according to Brew, and we declined, but we did order Long John Silver-quality fish and chips (that were not only greasy, but came without the promised vinegar) and, for the child, a hot dog and a Caesar salad. Don't ask. I suppose it's natural for seafood to be an acquired taste for a landlocked kid. The special kids' menu offers entrees at $2.95, and ice-cream sundaes for 99 cents. We tried all the adult desserts--a chocolate peanut-butter pie that puts Gennie's to shame; banana bread pudding drizzled with hot chocolate sauce; a soup plate of warm peach cobbler; and a wedge of ethereal lemon pie (made by Vice Versa).

Picardys is a concept with "legs"--I suspect that Angus and Don, like every other Dallas restaurateur, want to take their show on the road and open Picardys Addison, Picardys Plano, Picardys Deep Ellum. And if they stick to simplicity and keep their eye on the details, Picardys should take off running. Leave it to the French, who always have le mot juste when it comes to food or love: The word "picardys," McKay says, means the way the sunlight dances on shrimp just under the water. It's a pretty word for a pretty phenomenon, but before anyone ever came up with the word, he had to take a minute and really notice the way the sunlight dances on shrimp just under the water. It's all about attention to detail.

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