Restaurant Reviews

Buffett Dining

Nothing says family dining like a tawdry tune about love at last call. Jimmy Buffett might agree with that, but Saltwater Willy's Seafood and Steakhouse, well, not so much. Allow us to tell you a story:

During a long-ish wait for a late-arriving friend, the wannabe pirate's greatest hits played one after the other. It seemed fitting for the nautical décor and the bar to the side of the dining room, but what, oh, what would happen when the CD spun its way to "Why Don't We Get Drunk (and Screw)"? With hungry kids to the left and neon signs to the right, what would Saltwater Willy's do?

The 1-year-old restaurant in front of Grapevine Mills Mall prides itself on providing "great food and great service in a family environment," so it was more amusing than surprising that shortly after the song began, the music abruptly stopped, just before the familiar chorus. There was brief silence, followed by snickering from the hostess stand, but the quiet didn't last long. Soon, generic Cajun music filled the air. Saltwater Willy's may have missed a beat, giving us a giggle in the process, but it was able to regroup and carry on--albeit with an acceptable yet unintriguing replacement. Could it be that a Jimmy Buffett best-of is an apt metaphor for Saltwater Willy's?

A dinnertime visit to the still-young eatery (July 1 was its birthday) starts out promising. Skillet corn bread with whole-kernel corn greets each table, a fresh alternative to the usual basket of buns. Then, when iced tea is ordered, comes an unexpected question: "Sweet or unsweet?" Sweet tea? Bring it! An appetizer of spinach and artichoke dip maintains the momentum. The dip itself is pleasant, but the nicest touch is the toasted Parmesan pita bread that accompanies it, much better than the salty tortilla chips many restaurants serve. When the entrées arrive, though, Saltwater Willy's stumbles--its second Jimmy Buffett moment of the night. While the scallops on The Captain's Broiled Platter are juicy and flavorful, the shrimp are only so-so, and the mahi-mahi is dry and unexciting. Even more disappointing are the sides: The dirty rice tastes like it's been steam-cleaned, and the fresh veggies are drizzled with a buttery sauce that distracts more than it enhances.

The lump crab cake plate features the same uninspired vegetables, but "cheesy smashed potatoes" take the place of the dirty rice. They look good, but the spuds are missing that fluffiness that makes mashed potatoes such a comfortable comfort food. The Port Isabel crab cakes are big and meaty, though, unlike the overprocessed patties that often pass themselves off as crab cakes. And the rémoulade on the side only helps matters. Nice job. Jimmy Buffett moment averted.

The desserts, for the most part, are good: the foodstuff equivalent of the plain-Jane Cajun music that replaced Buffett's PG-13 ditty. But there was one exception: the pecan pie. The pecans were overcooked and bitter, rendering the pie chewy, and the only saving grace was the ice cream piled on top. Not a good sign when you have to double-scoop the topping to mask the flavor and texture of the dish. But we're willing to give Willy's a second chance; the place seems to have a knack for redeeming itself.

We had high hopes for lunch. The restaurant has a casual feel that seems fitting for early-afternoon dining. After all, a bright red, bug-eyed crawdad graces its logo, and the menu boasts that it's "where busy people come for lunch." To back up that claim, Saltwater Willy's offers lunch specials guaranteed to arrive in 15 minutes or they're free. The promise must be working, because the dining room during a weekday lunch was much more bustling than it was for Sunday dinner. Mall workers and hourly employees from nearby offices surely recognize the importance of fast service. That clock back at work ain't gonna punch itself.

As it turns out, our lunchtime hopes were only partially fulfilled. The same Cajun music from the previous evening was playing again, yet with the busier room, it didn't grasp our attention. But bam! Right off the bat, a Jimmy Buffett moment. The crab-stuffed mushrooms we ordered as an appetizer tasted fine. The homemade stuffing with melted cheese and scampi butter had excellent flavor and could have been wonderful. Unfortunately, the 'shrooms were cold. The serving bowl was hot, the dish the bowl rested on was hot, but the star of the show could have come straight from the cooler. Is it possible Buffett's ghost from the other night blew its icy breath over our stuffed mushrooms? Unlikely, yes, but it would be a better excuse for the misstep than any the kitchen staff could have given us.

We began to worry. And it didn't comfort us at all that, from our table, we had a crystal-clear view of the sales floor of the Discount Tire next door. Closing the blinds would be a solution, but maybe it doesn't matter. Those quickie-lunch patrons probably don't have time to scope out their surroundings. But on the off-chance that they do, it's a safe bet that steel-belted radials aren't gonna prep anyone's palate.

When the server brought our meals, it got our minds off the tires. But all that tread-watching distracted us from clocking our plates' delivery time. We're guessing it was in the 15-minute ballpark, though, because unlike the mushrooms, these dishes were plenty warm. We knew Willy's would make a comeback.

The fried seafood medley on Willy's Jumbo Platter was much better than its broiled counterpart. And the fries and coleslaw were a just-right combination of sides. No repeat of the dirty rice and veggie boredom here. Mississippi fried catfish, crawfish tails, Galveston Bay oysters, jumbo shrimp--all good, all plentiful.

The blackened chicken pasta from the specials list didn't elicit similar excitement. The dieting tablemate who ordered the dish said it wasn't worth the calories, but you could chalk that up to cheater's remorse. Supposedly nothing tastes as good as thin feels. But the bread pudding sure did make a fine showing. It's a little heavy for such an early meal but still definitely a crowd pleaser.

Along with the varying degrees of quality that Willy's exhibits in its food, another confusing tidbit is the steak house label. The non-seafood portion of the menu seems more like an afterthought, a tiny selection among a smorgasbord of sea treats. In fact, during one visit, a large group arrived and asked to look over the menu. There were some non-seafood eaters in the bunch, and they needed to be sure everyone had options. After a few minutes, they thanked the greeters for their time and said they'd come back when all they wanted was seafood. The couple that showed up next, however, was super-excited to discover there was a smoking section. Go figure. Just when you think Willy's will lose, it somehow comes out on top. We're not totally sure about this, but we think Jimmy Buffett would be proud. 2455 E. Grapevine Mills Circle, Grapevine, 972-691-2659. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$

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Rhonda Reinhart

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