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Half-Cocked

A pleasant atmosphere can see you through some of the rough spots on Half Shells' menu.
Stephen Karlisch

Damn. It's frustrating to discover a restaurant's signature dish spelled out on the front of the menu after you've trolled through a half-dozen or so mediocre dishes. But there it is, right on the plastic menu cover: "Half Shells Seafood Grill, Home of the Oyster Nacho." Not that I know what an oyster nacho is. Maybe it's just a simple series of lubricous bumps of raw flesh pummeled with cheese, tomato, smashed beans and guacamole. If that's the case, the nacho crunch could come from a dangerous dental adventure involving an oyster shell, which wouldn't be hard to do after a couple of Half Shells' frozen margaritas, drinks that come in an alarming shade of pea-green gray. This is just an assumption, which is all you really have to go on before dining, because there is no description of the dish on the menu. In fact, Half Shells devotes more menu space to the house salad of mixed greens with tomatoes and pepperoncini.

Yet this somewhat clumsy menu style sets the tone for Half Shells. Not that the Half Shells timbre is universally flat. An iced platter holding a dozen oysters--ranging in size from small thumbnail to fat flattened super ball--was clean, vibrant and moist. Yet it was just one in a too small handful of items that held together well.

Sometimes a successful restaurant experience hinges on the atmosphere, the more bizarre and offbeat the better. Or worse. The restaurant road is littered with enough Planet Hollywoods and Jekyll and Hyde Clubs to suggest that the contrived atmospheric experience has a limited shelf life. No, good restaurant experiences must be rich in spontaneous atmospherics, the kind that fall just shy of arrests. And there has to be at least some decent food that pairs well with these experiences. The platter of crab legs, for instance, tossed off its sweetness with high school cheerleader enthusiasm, plus the tray was wisely equipped with a large ramekin of drawn butter. The crabmeat was succulent and possessed a hefty undercurrent of brininess.

On our second visit, we found ourselves swamped in cheerleaders and flag wavers and marching band members who twirled tubas and beat drums in the name of a star-studded cavalcade of some kind, an event for which the Grapevine law enforcement community fired off strobe lights and erected orange cones, leaving Grapevine's Main Street accessible only to pompon girls.

We navigated through the crowd and stumbled onto the entrance of the restaurant, which was clogged by a knot of parade revelers.

It was a long time before we figured out all this fuss was caused by a simple Grapevine high school homecoming parade, one that took place at dusk on a school night without any additional lighting. The floats were mostly cars with people sitting on every available space, the participants mostly sluggish and the spectators mostly satisfied in that sort of way that makes you wonder if Grapevine used to be known as Stepford.

The food seemed to mimic this lackluster, straight-line inertia. Though the calamari was coated in a veneer that was adequately seasoned, the breading was limp, as was the meat.

The things that we could get a sense of from the menu descriptions weren't much better than the unknowns. Shrimp scampi, a cluster of baby shrimp--tasting and feeling like warped, cheap seafood sausages boiled into bland, mushy submission--couldn't transcend the collection of fresh bell pepper slivers, mushrooms and tri-color linguini strips that swam in a white wine sauce. This culinary swimming was done in chilly waters, as the dish was served so cold we had to send it back for microwave therapy.

We sent back a chilly shrimp/scallop pasta-of-the-day thingamajig also with tri-color linguini for microwave treatment as well. The tomato-based sauce was chilly, as were those weird shrimp. The scallops chosen were similarly afflicted and came back to our table as a seafood version of a plastic fruit still life. They were hard to eat.

But not impossible. The atmosphere aids digestion to an extent that is difficult to overemphasize. The interior of this Mid-Cities version of Half Shells (the other is in Snider Plaza) is an architectural burst of used brick, hardwood flooring, stained concrete and walls subjected to rag-painting. Tables are constructed of coarse wood planks, and a clock impersonating an Old World globe hangs above a faux fireplace.

Yet this rusticity seems to inspire deep reflections into the human condition, in addition to bewilderment concerning those baby shrimp in sausage casings. For just as we were chewing what we had hoped was our last strip of linguini, a woman in her late 40s rose from her chair and announced to the whole restaurant that the goateed gentleman sitting across from her had a crush on her in high school some 25 years ago. She also announced that he kept pestering her to marry him. Yet instead of consenting, she got down on her knees, clutching a ring in a black case, and asked him to marry her.

The details got a little blurry after this, but what I think happened is he took the ring from the box in her hand and put it on her finger before they started making out in full view of the wait staff and the pompon girls. Which was entertaining, in part because the betrothed woman seemed at least a foot taller than he was.

It was after this prelude to matrimony that I sat down and noticed how swell my fish tacos were. Four flour tortilla rolls filled with deep-fried catfish and a spicy-sweet sauce were arranged symmetrically over a thick carpet of greens studded with a single mound of tasty rice pilaf. Other than the crab legs and the oysters, this was the best entry on the menu.

No, that's not right at all. Other than those pasta compositions with the rubberized shrimp, the rest of the menu held its own. Raphael's Mexican shrimp cocktail, a frosty mug filled with tomatoes, creamy avocado, onions and firm, succulent baby shrimp that behaved as though they actually may have been alive at one time or another, coalesced into a zesty, vibrant appetizer.

Fresh fish of the day held up, too. Halibut arrived firm with a delectably thin, crisp exterior that ushered in the sweet, flaky meat.

Soup also had good texture and flavor. Poblano cream soup was a smooth, silky pottage with a nice surge of heat that did well chasing Half Shells' oysters. But the kid shrimp basket was a mixed bag: edible on one visit, soggy and dreary on another. Yet this really isn't that serious an issue, since kids will eat virtually anything paired with a few crayons.

Half Shells is under the purview of former Rockfish Seafood Grill partner Bill Bayne, who scooped up Half Shells Seafood Grill in Snider Plaza when he cut loose from Rockfish parent See-Worthy Restaurants Inc. Bayne and his wife purchased the Rusty Anchor on Main Street in Grapevine's downtown historic district, a 100-year-old space that he converted into Half Shells.

The place does have a few standout menu items. Yet to fully appreciate the full breadth of this menu, we recommend you bring your own parade and wedding proposal skit.

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Half Shells Seafood Grill

414 S. Main St.
Grapevine, TX 76051

817-481-2010


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