Restaurant Reviews

Okra Shock

Norman Abdallah says it's narcotic. He says it more than once during a short conversation, so it must be something he really believes. He has another restaurant concept with Fired Up Inc., the company he founded with fellow Brinker International alumnus Creed Ford, and he doesn't say this about its food. "It's one of the few concepts you ever find that you don't have to do a lot of work on to roll it out," he insists.

Abdallah and Ford stumbled upon Gumbo's in Round Rock a few years ago. It was run by chef Mike Amr and his wife in a 108-year-old stone house. It had just 12 tables. Despite its modest demeanor, Abdallah and Ford bought Gumbo's in 1999 virtually on the performance of its food alone. Abdallah says they were scouting for a restaurant concept to lodge in the Brown Building, a historic structure in downtown Austin that once housed the office space of Lyndon Johnson and is currently owned by LBJ Holding Co. And being that the food was somewhat of an opiate, they decided to expand it to get others addicted.

Fired Up Inc. propaganda describes the cuisine as a mongrel breed of Creole and Cajun fused with French sauces. It is all of these things, specifically showcasing the robustness of Cajun (without the pork fat) and the poise of Creole girded with ample butter and cream.

Gumbo's also showcases another thing: sautéed crabmeat. Acres of it. By my count there are at least 11 dishes carpeted with the sweet crustacean flesh. In fact, everything seems to have sautéed crabmeat except the cheesecake, which substitutes fresh strawberry sauce for shellfish. Abdallah claims it takes the Gumbo's kitchen a full two days to create the cheesecake, and it's a motley thing with rough edges instead of the squeaky-clean cleaved lines most other cheesecakes flaunt. The custard is light and fluffy, and the crust is thick and moist in a most ugly way. It's hard to fathom what these kitchen hands could possibly be doing to this cheesecake for a full two days, but narcotics have a funny way of expanding reality--and cooking time. And this cheesecake sure is good no matter the legal status of its preparation.

So, incidentally, were the dishes loaded with sautéed crabmeat. They even spread it over artichoke bottoms, a part of the thistle-like flower that seems more useful as a plumbing gasket than it does served with sautéed crabmeat. Gumbo's crab St. Helen is a virtually seamless merging of crab and grilled 'choke bottom bathed in a buttery garlic sauce flecked with scallions. The interplay between the meaty artichoke sharpness and the delicate crab sweetness is stunning. Yet while excavating forkfuls you have to make sure you include an ample heap of crab, or the artichoke will knock it out of balance and overwhelm it with sharpness.

Gumbo's even puts sautéed crab on daily specials. Pan-fried sea bass is an iceberg-sized pie wedge of juicy tender fish with a golden crust and a crown of sautéed crab bobbing in a creamy tomato basil sauce. The spicy sauce was dotted with six fried artichoke hearts that were crispy and tangy without being slithery.

Gumbo's drops its blackened salmon fillet on a sheet of roasted portobello soaking in a caper-garlic sauce. The mushroom floods each flaky fillet bite with a rush of earthy dampness. But the mushroom plays more off the sweetness of the sautéed crab toupee than it does the salmon.

Still more sautéed crabmeat is found surrounding the chicken Dixie, a moist tender breast stuffed with creamed spinach and wrapped with glistening strips of apple-wood bacon. The cream sauce imbruing the whole thing was rich without being overbearing--because you wouldn't want anything to cloud that sautéed crab.

Despite the name and the black hat-topped crawdad logo, Gumbo's doesn't hold a jumbled, cobbled together ambiance. It's clean and understated, perhaps even majestic in a hushed sort of way. Banquettes are upholstered and paneled in black, long lush emerald-green draperies frame the windows and a flamboyantly vivid mural of a Dixieland band is brushed on the back wall. Liquor bottles crowded together on the wall behind the dining-room service counter are topped with what looks like little paper dunce caps. They aren't dressed this way to represent what they do to mental acuity (although the Gumbo hurricanes make you feel as though your awareness has been drop-kicked through traffic-chopper blades); the white paper cones are there to protect Gumbo spirits from fruit flies.

Though the service can be slow, with long waits for menus and introductory drinks, it is unusually deft and thorough. On one visit, our server asked for our valet ticket as he dropped off the check, offering that the valet was running some 20 minutes behind. Abdallah says the managers undertake a grueling 16-week training program, 10 of those in the kitchen, before they're allowed to sink their managerial teeth into Gumbo's.

And it shows. Every dish is clean, robust and meshed with exquisite balance. Even the pedestrian red beans and rice has a certain elegance. The top is tightly tiled with succulent chunks of sausage that rumble with spice in a restrained manner. Rice is separate with distinct grains, and the large beans sloughed off an alluring smokiness. Shrimp étoufée doles out the same finesse, with distinct ingredients that never merge into a mass of culinary fog.

Escargot arrived piping hot in a ceramic plate smudged with bubbling butter holding clusters of diced garlic and parsley. The snails were as fat and plump as they were tender.

Gumbo's dishes are vivid and rich in color. Sea bass was crusted in a saturated mustard gold. Red beans and rice shows off a crown of burnt reds. Grilled shrimp salad was as colorful and eye-popping as the mural on Gumbo's back wall. It's a rough-around-the-edges, layered compilation of greens, rice, grilled shrimp, cold tomato and potato wedges, slices of cucumber topped with pepperoncini and kalamata olives. The warm rice slipped between the greens on the bottom, and the grilled shrimp on top acted as a kind of temperate buffer, shielding the cool from the hot.

Gumbo's even has pastas, a collection that ranges from shrimp to crawfish to chicken to more shrimp and crawfish. The shrimp and crawfish pasta in lemon tarragon cream sauce was flecked with shriveled slivers of sun-dried tomato that lent a faint sweetness to foil the spiciness. There were also specks of apple-smoked bacon that were doing God knows what. Still, it didn't distract. This pasta dish is lazily zesty, revealing its raciness only when the right combination of fresh meat, drooling strands of linguini and pepper fury reach your mouth.

Fired Up is a modest company with modest plans. In addition to Gumbo's, Fired Up operates or franchises some 32 Johnny Carino's Country Italian restaurants scattered across Arkansas, Colorado, Texas and Idaho. There are also Johnny Carino's in Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait--odd geographical sites for Americanized Italian restaurants. But perhaps not when you consider Fired Up has a post called Middle East Master Developer held by Abdulghani Khalid Alghunaim.

The company has three Gumbo's--Round Rock, Austin and Dallas--with a fourth set to open in Denver's Great Western Sugar Building later this month. "The plan is to open two or three a year and go very slow with it," says Abdallah of Gumbo's, "but do one in almost every major urban area. We try and choose special buildings." Hence the Gumbo's locations in the Sugar Building in Denver, the Brown Building in Austin and the Crescent in Dallas.

The go-slow approach seems apropos for a restaurant that burns up two days just to make a cheesecake. But refining narcotics is never a breezy task. The good news is there are plenty of other restaurants in town that could serve as methadone if Gumbo's grub proves too addicting.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz