Restaurant Reviews

Delighting in the details

All day, plaza shoppers and shop proprietors had been asking Don Lindsley and Angus MacKay, "What time are you going to open?" All day, 6 o'clock was the answer given, but at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday two weeks ago, Angus quietly unlocked the door and flipped the "open" sign on for the first time at Picardys Shrimp Shop in Snider Plaza. By 5:50 p.m., the place was full and people were waiting for tables. By 6 p.m., there was a line down the block. By 6:05, we were in it.

Not fair for a critic to visit the very first night? I've never done it before, but I don't think it's out of line. When Osteria del Circo, the very hottest restaurant in New York, was opened early this fall by people who ought to know best (the children of Sirio Macchioni, the owner of Le Cirque), menu prices were discounted during the first few weeks while the wait staff and kitchen perfected their performance with the diners. Barring that kind of smart marketing ploy, if a restaurant's open for business and taking people's money, it's fair game for a critic. I am the public. So, along with the rest of the neighborhood, we waited for a table on Wednesday evening.

Our waiter's name was "Brew" (a sobriquet one can only assume he earned in a frat house--and one can only imagine how--unless he actually grew up in the Park Cities and Brew is short for some fancy family middle name his mother saddled him with to avoid calling him something low-rent like "Bob" or "Ray"). I generally object to knowing a waiter's name--I mistrust those TGI Friday's touches--but Brew was so efficient, so cheerfully helpful, that I didn't mind. Anyway, thankfully, he did not attempt to bond so closely with us that we learned any personal details about him, such as how he came to be called "Brew."

Wednesday, of course, was a challenge at Picardys, even for someone, like Brew, professionally cheerful. The owners would have preferred the house half full, but the crowds did not let up all night, the kitchen was in the weeds (that's restaurant slang for "in big trouble"), and food was slow getting to the dining room. The members of one family we know, and who came in after and left before we did, came over to our table and whispered as they left, "The food's good, but the service gets an F."

I didn't think so.
Put that kind of pressure on an untried team and some difficulties are unavoidable. Restaurants depend first on their kitchen's performance, and the kitchen is always an ensemble act. One player doesn't show up, a couple of cues are missed, and the whole line's pace is thrown off; that can happen whether a place has been open five months or five minutes. The only line of defense for any restaurant, any time--but especially for a restaurant whose kitchen is under the gun--is its wait staff. And how well a restaurant handles tough times is a measure of how good it really is. Don and Angus are not prima-donna owners; they were working the floor both times we visited Picardys, pitching in wherever they saw a detail unattended to, a plate that needed to be cleared, or a place that needed to be set. And fortunately for us, fortunately for Picardys, Brew turned out to be an expert waiter. He frequently came by our table bringing whatever he could bring us when he came, and when there was nothing to bring, he brought us idle promises--as any politician should--that the food was just about ready or that we'd be served in just a minute. He knew the food on the menu and could answer any question about any dish. He remembered our orders and delivered them correctly, special requests honored, without writing anything down. He made sure we were on his side.

There had been considerable preopening publicity about the Mansion-quality training the wait staff at Picardys would receive, and that alleged degree and quality of professionalism at the head of this restaurant was one reason I wanted to check it out on day one. These owners should know how to pull this off without too much trial and error: Picardys is the creation of Angus MacKay, formerly food and beverage director of The Mansion on Turtle Creek, and Don Lindsley, a limited partner (and the one working partner) in Red, Hot and Blue. It's a team that sounded threateningly upscale for the as yet unpretentiously peaceful Snider Plaza, which after all, doesn't even have a Gap. I was a little nervous about the big guys opening up in one of Dallas' few unspoiled places; it sounded sadly like The Mansion was moving in on Mayberry. But Picardys actually blends in nicely, and certainly the neighborhood has received it enthusiastically; on the first Saturday night, Lindsley points out proudly, Picardys served 210 covers in three hours without a hitch.

The restaurant's modern setting is low key, but far trendier than the potpourri decor of most of the plaza's shops and cafes. Don Blanton, king of Deep Ellum (or at least its landlord), who was in Picardys one evening when we were, called it "my kind of place," as he glanced around at the old tin ceiling, concrete floors, metro light fixtures, and black-grouted white tile walls. (The noise level should have made Blanton feel right at home, too.) Picardys is anything but quaint, and even the exterior of the corner near the fountain, marked by a tall clock tower, is more self-consciously "designed" than its serendipitously attractive neighbors.

During the course of a few visits, we ate our way through most of Picardys menu. I wanted to avoid the Forrest Gump reference; it's too easy, but it is accurate. Picardys Shrimp Shop does serve eight different shrimp specialties, not even including the shrimp gumbo and shrimp pasta salad, as well as its short list of other seafood. Randall Warder, formerly chef de cuisine at The Mansion, was menu consultant at Picardys, and you can see those Rosewood details in the food. The tortilla soup we tried the first night was not ceremonially assembled and garnished table-side, like it is on Turtle Creek, but it had five-star flavor. Like all soups, tortilla soup depends entirely on the quality of the stock it's made with; the mouth-filling satisfaction of this chile-red soup--the fresh tortilla strips, the bits of chicken and avocado--was built on a strong flavor foundation of sturdy broth. The grilled shrimp taco--warm flour tortillas folded around firm pieces of grilled shrimp, creamy chunks of avocado, and a mango-laced salsa--is reminiscent of Fearing's famous lobster taco, though I actually liked the more accessible and casual shrimp version better. Most dishes at Picardys are less concept than cooking--crabcakes, oyster loaf, catfish; boiled, fried, and raw--but this is not just another fish house. An understanding of the ingredients is evident in the cooking, and the high standard of quality makes this seafood special.

Take the gumbo, for instance. It's one of those dishes that's inevitable on any Dallas seafood-house menu, just because we're next to Louisiana, and Cajun culture leaks a little into the southeast part of Texas. It seems like such an easy dish, and restaurants should be able to take a nice markup on it, too, so it's served everywhere. Face it, whether you call it soup or stew, all you have to do is make a roux, add some vegetables and seafood...The truth is, most restaurant gumbo is just an idea of gumbo, a version of gumbo, a gumbo dream. It's rarely--I'd like to say never, but my memory could be at fault--as good as gumbo should be. We passed the cup of Picardys gumbo around the table as if it were the chalice, marveled at this gumbo and admired its deep-brown roux, rolled the dark taste around in our mouths, savored the sweet shrimp, and we all agreed: We've never had better gumbo in a restaurant. A spoonful followed by a sip of cold Sam Adams (there's a brief wine list, too) from a glass so chilled that ice slid down its side in curved chunks, and we were inclined to like Picardys.

And we did. Fried shrimp that was crumb-coated, crunchy and fresh, served with hot fried potatoes; shrimp with cheddar grits ("an Old South favorite," shrimp sauteed and slathered in a deliciously messy Manales-style sauce of New Orleans fame that leaked into the pile of cheesy grits); fried catfish that was sweet and creamy within its brown jacket of crust--it was all remarkably good. The only things we didn't like were the odd hush puppies--eggy, almost dumplinglike fried balls seasoned with thyme--and the crabcakes that were a thrifty, housewifely recipe with too many crumbs and not enough crabmeat. I might also mention that the tartar sauce we were served was just pure, pickle-free mayonnaise.

So for those of you who expect the critic to quibble, I'm not saying Picardys was perfect, just that it was promising enough for me to pleasantly anticipate my next meal there. And on my next visit, we were savvy; we arrived at Picardys just before 6 and snagged a table before the restaurant filled on a Monday night. Again, Brew was our waiter, and he not only remembered serving us before, but where we sat and what we ate. This time, we ordered corn chowder, resonant with onion, celery, and sage; a platter of cold oysters, small but fresh and briny; a lovely fillet of simple broiled trout enriched with a warm new-potato salad, barely beefed up with bacon and scallion; and a plate of unfortunately tepid nachos, each chip precisely topped with black beans, grilled shrimp, cheese, and a fresh jalapeno slice. The catch of the day was tuna with a sweetish tropical sauce, according to Brew, and we declined, but we did order Long John Silver-quality fish and chips (that were not only greasy, but came without the promised vinegar) and, for the child, a hot dog and a Caesar salad. Don't ask. I suppose it's natural for seafood to be an acquired taste for a landlocked kid. The special kids' menu offers entrees at $2.95, and ice-cream sundaes for 99 cents. We tried all the adult desserts--a chocolate peanut-butter pie that puts Gennie's to shame; banana bread pudding drizzled with hot chocolate sauce; a soup plate of warm peach cobbler; and a wedge of ethereal lemon pie (made by Vice Versa).

Picardys is a concept with "legs"--I suspect that Angus and Don, like every other Dallas restaurateur, want to take their show on the road and open Picardys Addison, Picardys Plano, Picardys Deep Ellum. And if they stick to simplicity and keep their eye on the details, Picardys should take off running. Leave it to the French, who always have le mot juste when it comes to food or love: The word "picardys," McKay says, means the way the sunlight dances on shrimp just under the water. It's a pretty word for a pretty phenomenon, but before anyone ever came up with the word, he had to take a minute and really notice the way the sunlight dances on shrimp just under the water. It's all about attention to detail.

Picardys Shrimp Shop, 6800 Snider Plaza (at the fountain), (214) 373-4099. Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Picardys Shrimp Shop:
Shrimp Gumbo (cup) $3.50
Shrimp with Cheddar Grits $12
Grilled Shrimp Taco $6.75
Grilled Shrimp Nachos (plate) $7.25
Charbroiled Freshwater Trout $10.50
"Mississippi Delta" Fried Catfish $8.50
Chocolate Peanut-Butter Pie $3.25

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Mary Brown Malouf