Restaurant Reviews

Bib Rustle

There's a sight at Lobster Ranch I can't seem to get out of my head. It's in the lobster tank, which is behind a display case where other live lobsters crawl tentatively around crushed ice like Raid-misted mantises and huge North Atlantic salmon--silvery with tails that curl like scissors-scraped ribbon--are neatly laid out. Lobsters are stacked tightly in this tank from top to bottom, stumbling over each other, stepping into claws, getting tangled in antennae. Could it be that Lobster Ranch treats its lobsters--cramming them in ill-fitting pens to live out their last moments--like so much veal before they're executed and forced to spend their remaining intact moments (sometimes they're halved) with a corn cob stub, new potatoes and a sprig of broccoli as big as a showgirl headdress? The image compelled me to sneak into the kitchen to examine the tank in its entirety to see if I needed to start a lobster-rights Web site.

I was startled to find the rest of the tank nearly empty. The lobsters weren't choking for more tank real estate. It seems they had actually evacuated three-quarters of the tank so they could pile upon each other in the remaining quarter and press themselves against the glass panel with a view into the dining room. Are these things marine lemmings or what? Or are they actually shrewd Houdinis attempting to escape before they're steamed, grilled or split lengthwise and forced to slumber in pea-studded linguini?

They're good, whichever way these poor tank crawlers meet their fate. Grilled or steamed, the meat is juicy, rich and chewy. Plus, you get a swift plastic bib, a fresh white napkin and some dental tools to help you eat them. And while 18 bucks per pound doesn't compare favorably pricewise with Daddy Jacks lobster madness at roughly $10.95 per pound, the meat at the Ranch performs in a mostly premium way.

There are exceptions. The lobster and scallop kabob was mostly a disappointment, and it shouldn't have been. Scraps of lobster meat share space in a tail-shell fragment with a sweet, moist scallop. They huddle there together like little daredevils in a roller coaster car. They're impaled on a massive skewer and dressed in scampi butter touched with paprika, dried mustard and dessert wine, which gave it a taste reminiscent of sweet barbecue sauce.

But while the scallop was firm, the lobster meat was mushy, almost gelatinous, a halfway stop to a lobster shake, making it difficult to force the meat past the molars.

Lobster bisque was also strange, though not in an appetite-suppressive way. It was pumpkin-pie-filling brown with barbershop pole stripes of red and white peeking through the center--evidence of submerged lobster meat. It's thick, so thick you're tempted to eat it with the aid of a steak knife. Lobster Ranch's executive chef Tom Fleming, a chap who has crafted marvels at places such as the Riviera and Lombardi Mare, thickens his bisque with risotto, a tact that gives the soup its uncanny stiffness. He also flavors it with sherry and caramelized vegetables, which gives it a heavy nutty flavor; so much so, that the finish tasted like a bite of carrot cake.

But if lobsters scare you, try the fresh fish, whose names are scrawled daily on a bulletin board. The halibut--succulent, sweet and well-seasoned with a roma tomato relish for fiddling--was exuberantly flaky and moist.

But Lobster Ranch broadens its reach further with things like hamburgers and roasted chicken. The roasted half chicken is nearly a marvel. It's juicy, plump and sheathed with a crisp golden skin. And it was generous, more than we could eat after fooling with a plate of Ipswich steamers.

These are gritty shellfish, the kind where after the third clam you're terrified the grit might actually be pieces of your fillings. Served in a pan, these hot tasty little meat knobs were fresh and briny, and they came with a ramekin of poaching broth containing wine, olive oil and herbs. This serves as a kind of beach shower, a place where you're supposed to dip the flaccid critters to flush the sea soot. Our server described the dip as having the cleansing power of vermouth in a martini. My. What kind of martinis are people drinking these days? There's nothing more cleansing than a well-chilled splash of Tanqueray 10, except for maybe Aqua Velva. And neither of them requires a vermouth prewash, at least mine never did. Anyway, despite the grit, the steamers are killer.

Docked in the former Sam's Café space in Preston Center (a sign on Northwest Highway still harks its existence), Lobster Ranch is a casual New England shellfish haunt with kitschy design touches (such as a buckin' lobster logo). The handles on the front door are made of rope. Wood shutters cover the walls and portholes perforate those shutters. A stairwell with wooden stairs and rough-hewn timbers as railings holds an enormous tropical fish sculpture suspended by rope.

Atop those stairs is a Spartan raw bar, with bar tables and stools, wine racks in the walls, shellfish and shrimp on ice and a back bar tiled in wood panels culled from wine and liquor crates. Owner Phil Romano, creator of Macaroni Grill, Eatzi's, Fuddruckers, Cozymel's and the defunct Oui We, prowls the place, picking up on guest feedback by their comments, but mostly, it seems, by their smirks and shrugs. Yet the man stopped dead in his tracks on one of his strolls when he overheard me tell a companion the lobster in the kabob was kind of runny. This is one owner with pricked ears.

But that's mostly all he would have heard, although I think I said something about putting a birthday candle in the lobster bisque and that the peel-and-eat shrimp (11 for 11 bucks) seemed a little high. I mean, when you see those shrimp lying there on the plate, moist, firm and sweet though they are, it's hard to see 11 bucks. The oysters, on the other hand, at a dozen for 12 bucks, seemed like a better deal, even though they are the same price. Maybe it's the fact that you get a sturdier shell with the oysters, one that you can paint and epoxy to the bottom of your pool. Or maybe it's just that stuff is cheaper by the dozen, in a perception-is-reality kind of way.

Shrimp go in other things, too, like the Rockefeller dip, a thick bowl of green ooze with chunks of shrimp and shards of bacon that gave it a smoky zest. Round chips clustered around the crock were a bit stale.

That certainly wasn't the problem with the tomato and onion salad, which resembled a salad oil tanker. A serving boat is filled roughly one-third full with oil and herb dressing into which are dunked quartered tomatoes and slivered red onions. It's all rather good, but not at all deft.

The pecan pie was stiff, like axle grease thickened with cornstarch. On top was melted a sour-cream sauce. This wedge was dry and uninteresting.

What were interesting were the crab cakes. Two tiny disks, perched in a puddle of lemon-caper butter sauce, rested near a patch of greens. These cakes were not ground or minced into farina and clobbered with a buckshot blast of breadcrumbs. Rather, they were loosely adhered chunks of jumbo lump crabmeat with a barely perceptible application of panko breadcrumbs. "I just got this thing about crab cakes," Fleming says. "I don't like crab cakes all bready and kind of crackery. I want to taste the moisture of the crab."

And you do, maybe more so than any cake in the city. These are gems. But what I want to know is why there aren't more crabs on this ranch. Sure, it's hard to force a crab into a buckin' bronco logo. But you can do more with a crab than you can a lobster, like put it between a bun with the shell still on, for instance. And they go better with sausage than lobster does. Maybe it's because crabs are the swine of the sea (though some would argue that ski-dos are). And riding buckin' crabs just isn't as sexy as riding buckin' lobsters. At least not in Texas.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz