Fishing at Shenanigans is fraught with peril.
Fishing at Shenanigans is fraught with peril.
Stephen P. Karlisch

Food Foolery

"It's better to look good than to feel good." The adage works in most social settings and perhaps the occasional funeral. The inverse works for most sporting events held in a stadium. But no matter how you play with the words--reversing them, putting an umlaut over the vowels, converting a few selected words to pig Latin--it's impossible to make this rule work for restaurants. What good does it do to be dining in sharp, buttoned-down digs if you feel like punting your Taco Bell value meal from lunch?

Shenanigans Seafood & Steakhouse emphasizes this point. Everything in the restaurant looks good. Dapper. Trim. Smart. Well-accessorized. The dining room has walls taller than Peter Boyle's forehead, with long draperies hanging down over the windows on one wall. Fish--swordfish, saltwater dorado, salmon, tuna--are mounted on the walls above the open kitchen and on the opposite wall in little taxidermy schools. An iced display case in the entryway holds mussels, crab legs, a lobster tail and long jagged-edged sheets of salmon and whitefish muscle. Tall black pillars in front of the kitchen glow at their summits. Studded leather chairs hug tables.

There's a wine room. And a cigar den. The huge bar has mirrors and TV screens competing for retina time. There's a massive two-story back bar (left over from when the restaurant was a Humperdink's) that stores more bottles than should be counted without the aid of scotch and water. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission could use this place as a training ground for their agents to sharpen their proclivity for spotting hooch without tax stamps. The top two rows of liquor bottles are visible in the dining room through a special glass area in the wall (restaurant propaganda says its signature bars qualify as the world's largest, according to the Guinness Book of World Records). This is the kind of interior decorating most men would spend their kid's college money for if there weren't women in their lives constantly choking their dreams in Laura Ashley frill.


Shenanigans Seafood 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-12 a.m. Sunday. $$$

Salmon rolls: $8.99
Calamari steak strips: $7.99
Sea bass: $21.99
Lobster Napoleon: $23.99
Ribeye steak: $23.99
Pork chop: $14.99
Key lime pie: $5.99

Shenanigans' food looks good, too. The Asian seared Chilean sea bass looks succulent and buttery dressed in frilly little soba noodle loops. The lobster Napoleon is neatly topped with a heap of bright Corvette-red and bedsheet-white lobster meat. Calamari is fluffy and golden and crisp. Flame-grilled center-cut pork loin in a roasted shallot demi-glace is downright lovely.

But this is where the beauty stops. The dictionary defines shenanigans as trickery, nonsense or playful mischievous pranks. Shenanigans the restaurant doesn't have the deftness to pull off any of this. It's a sleight of hand with fingers tripping over thumbs, and thumbs trying to be all fingers. One of the few saving graces in this show-but-no-tell hall of cuisine is the calamari, a dish that most restaurants render into hopeless boredom. They call it chile calamari steak strips, a pile of julienned calamari steak strips that are thickly coated and fried. The coating is crisp and well-seasoned without being chalky, floury or greasy. Plus, the flesh is almost buttery in texture: no French-fried rubber bands to get caught in your teeth. The chile garlic sauce dribbled on the plate was bracingly sweet and hot, giving it an edge you generally don't get with marinara or aioli.

Things drop off from there. Firecracker salmon rolls were tidy and assembled with an eye toward tantalizing visual flourishes. Arriving as a handful of culinary scrolls with their ends tied off, the rolls contain salmon mingled and twisted with spinach and wrapped in a sheet of wonton before they're deep-fried. And it didn't take but one bite to drive this cooking process home. The slightest pressure on the rolls and the things drooled grease, shining fingers, glossing lips, polka-dotting napkins, oil-slicking plates.

Woes continued with the Asian seared Chilean sea bass, a peculiar beast that, despite its alluring visual appeal, was a terror on the palate. Pan-seared and served with soba noodles and "bang bang vegetables" (pea pods, bell pepper, etc.) in a soy glaze, the fish had a nice razor-thin crust and buttery demeanor. But it was either undergoing a frightening aging process or it collided with a putrid vinegar barrel on its way to the table. The fish emitted a strong sour odor. Though it flaked well, the top of the fish was greasy, and it sported a stale oil flavor that developed into a harsh tang.

The same problem infected the lobster Napoleon. This visually arresting dish was a layered disc with plump pieces of lobster meat covering squash slices and a foundation of mashed potatoes. Two shelled claws were placed on the edge of the plate at opposite poles.

Even before the first bite of lobster, it was impossible to avoid the fume. Like the sea bass, it smelled of vinegar, though it tasted like juice from a deli pickle barrel. While the lobster meat was infused with the taste, the squash slices seemed to have absorbed the brunt of this overwhelming off flavor. A smoked tomato buerre blanc dallied around the rim of the plate, tasting pretty good as long as you didn't touch it with anything from that embittered lobster tower.

Fortunately, the service mated to much of this mayhem was smooth, gracious and attentive, though the servers' knowledge of the menu is questionable. Our waiter on one visit highly recommended the flame-grilled center-cut pork loin over the whiskey chicken, a boneless breast pan-seared in Jack Daniel's. Any dish from this menu cooked with a shot of whiskey or any fluid with moderate-to-high proof should be considered over one cooked with temperance.

The pork loin looked good on arrival, neatly placed in a puddle of roasted shallot demi-glace near a Granny Smith apple slaw with scraps of mint (the slaw was one of the best chews on the menu). But the meat was dry and dull, almost pulpy, and the sauce did nothing to enliven it. A dollop of Parmesan mashed potatoes was even more bewildering, tasting suspiciously like potato buds.

The only entrée to hover above mediocrity was the 16-ounce certified premium ribeye with a spice rub that tasted no different than a decent cut of beef sprinkled with pulverized black peppercorns. Shenanigans tags most of its meat "certified premium," suggesting perhaps another meat grade (there is a 12-ounce USDA Prime top sirloin on the menu). Our server said the labeling was put on the menu to indicate Certified Angus Beef, but it's odd that Shenanigans didn't put the designation on the menu. The ribeye was rich, tender and juicy--a truly decent steak.

Dessert wasn't bad, either. The pecan-crusted Key lime pie was light and fluffy with a good crisp crust. The only thing that was a little short was the custard, which could have been pumped up a little with citrus intensity to better wrestle with the hearty crust.

Shenanigans is operated by Ram International, a Lakewood, Washington-based restaurant company founded in 1971. Ram operates restaurants in the Pacific Northwest and other states, including Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Illinois and Texas, where their restaurants are primarily under the Humperdink's moniker. Ram says its restaurants have "comfortable classic designs" with "high ceilings, large windows and a spacious open feeling where no one feature overpowers another." Shenanigans leaves the overpowering to the menu.


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