Many things float: dead fish, wine corks, Ivory soap, Enron limited partnerships. Sometimes restaurants float, too--in Texas, no less. That's the fascinating thing about The Wharf @ Bayview Marina, a bobbing house of "North Florida" cuisine on Lake Ray Hubbard. "We're actually floating on the water," says manager Gary Weaver. "We're the only restaurant here at Lake Hubbard that's on the water."
Yet that may not be as swell as it sounds. Lake Ray Hubbard is the fanny-packed tourist of water bodies: shallow, trashy and rippled around the pylons. The long entrance ramp that eventually drains you into the Wharf's dining room is trimmed in red neon and borders a Hubbard pool loaded with aquatic weeds and equipped with jets firing crude fountain spurts like some blowhole that never inhales.
No matter. The gangplank opens into an entrance with marine-blue whitewashed walls and a stained-glass accent piece just short of the hostess stand. Beyond that is a huge lobster tank, a sparsely populated aquatic tract home with four residents.
There are no recorded lobster sightings in Lake Hubbard that I'm aware of. But the Wharf's bugs got me to wondering. The lobsters are sold in sizes ranging from 1.75 to 3 pounds at $25 per. We leaned into the low end of the scale, and our lobster arrived in reasonable enough condition with the tail severed from the body for easy plucking. It also flaunted the dark red hue of raw liver instead of the typically bright ruddy red shades lobsters normally achieve after a bath in the boil.
The tail meat was firm, tender and sweet. But it was the skid marks it left on the tongue that were perplexing. This tail had an aftertaste of river silt, as if its maternal parent had a conjugal run-in with a Lake Hubbard tomcat (the kind with gills).
The claws were even more bizarre. After requesting and receiving shell crackers (they think you can eat a lobster by banging it with spoons?) and busting into those crustacean mitts, slimy translucent blue meat slithered out. The dang thing didn't dance in the boil long enough, which perhaps explains its resemblance to blood pudding on the color charts (though unlike lobsters, pig's blood, a chief component in blood pudding, should never be boiled as it will clot).
This is why after breaking open the lobster, we were thankful for the expansive view of...Lake Ray Hubbard. Out the window we could see the Bayview Marina, which looked more like an apartment-building carport than a series of tranquil sailboat slips. A fish jumped.
On the other side of the dining room above a raised dining area is a mural of a circa 18th-century harbor with sailboats, lighthouses and burly men doing the burly things that we now relegate to bass-boat crews.
All of this water imagery dampened the mouth in anticipation of elegantly delicate sea richness.
But gad, what's this? It looks like a Jell-O mold--only it doesn't jiggle, and it doesn't have any mini-marshmallows or maraschino cherries locked in its translucent depths. The menu calls it tarter of halibut and salmon, and the fish (it looks like an orphaned layer of wedding cake) is blended with shallots, Dijon mustard, spices and no doubt a few pulverized capers. It rests in a puddle--embedded with slices of lemon and lime--of what tastes like spicy rémoulade. But this "tarter" is fishy, and not just in flavor. Menu verbiage says this mush pie is "tarter" served as a fish carpaccio. Hmmm. How is this mission accomplished? Technically, carpaccio is thin slices or shavings of meat, and tartare is coarsely ground or finely chopped meat. Unless the kitchen crew was to mold the meat mush into meat slices, it seems unlikely it could be served as carpaccio. Even odder, it wasn't equipped with toast points or crackers or anything upon which to spread the stuff--except thick slices of bread, which made the dish even more clumsy than it already was.
Would jumbo blue crab cakes fare better than the wedding kind? The introduction nearly bled us of hope: The cakes looked like egg foo yong. Made with blue crab claw meat and rumored to be spicy, the cakes were dark brown, bland and rumpled with onions, scallions and a little too much filler. But they came with a ramekin of honey mustard, which made them taste like egg foo yong if you squinted just right.
Things got weirder as they hooked from Florida and approached New Orleans. A bowl of what was purported to be chicken gumbo (technically a thick, stewlike dish) looked to be little more than relatively clear broth with carrot cubes, potato squares (no okra, spinach or mustard greens that we could decipher) and the very occasional appearance of twisted chicken breast scraps. Instead of the rich flavors emanating from roux, this gumbo had little more than a fierce pepper bite poking a bland chicken stock. It left an oily sheen behind on the lips and inner cheeks after each slurp. Was this gumbo or Carmex?
The Wharf @ Bayview Marina was crafted in a former (but floating) Lone Star Oyster Bar by chef/owner Ace French, a certified master chef ("the highest and most demanding level of achievement of all the certification levels" from the American Culinary Federation) and master ice carver. Ace was raised near the beaches of northern Florida, where at an early age he "learned an appreciation for fine seafood...Of course, buying fresh seafood in Dallas, Texas, that fresh is a difficult task, as well as expensive," he says in his personal message on the menu. "Our prices reflect the old adage, 'You get what you pay for...'"
Eek. Did I pay for this? Rib eye luau is a fruity slap at the thick and dripping beef-wits keeping Dallas steak houses afloat (though not on Lake Ray Hubbard). A thin piece of steak is "deep-marinated" in Jack Daniel's Green Label bourbon and pineapple juice for 24 hours. After this culinary Rolfing, the steak is grilled to medium rare perfection (tough to do with a piece of meat the thickness of a powder puff) and deposited onto a plate. Cut into it--into the gray surface with a ruby-red center, into the bulging globules of fat that bump the expanse like boils--bring it to your lips and you taste pineapple, nothing but pineapple. Is this a USDA choice fruit cocktail?
Key West mahi mahi with charred papaya didn't inspire either. The fish was dry and charred (not the fruit, thank God) from dirty grill bars, judging by the surface bitterness.
The best entrant was the black peppercorn Alaskan halibut, deep-marinated in chardonnay, lemon and rosemary. But we didn't taste any chardonnay, lemon or rosemary, or even peppercorns--not a bad thing--just delicately rich fish flavors firmly planted in a firm, juicy fillet.
But the crown on this Wharf came in the form of coconut cream cake: a creamy dunce cap with coconut flakes growing out of it like pubescent male chin fringe. The frosting seemed squirted from a gun, and the cake was hard and dry instead of soft and fluffy.
Conclusion: The nights I whiffled into the wharf, Certified Master Chef Ace wasn't on the control deck. Or rather that's my hope; because the Wharf also serves soufflés. 600 Cooke Drive, Rowlett, 972-463-9999. Open 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-12 a.m. Friday & Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
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