Venus on the Half Shell
There are oysters on the half shell, and then there are Big Fish’s oysters on the half shell.
Don’t ask why the Grapevine seafood grill and bar’s are fresher, tastier, and bigger. Just know that they are. Even the runts make most other area seafood joints’ supposed monsters look dainty.
And isn’t everyone in Texas partial to the big ’uns? Sure, the tiny, salmon-colored, chewy kinds from the Northeast are classy and appropriate for Beltway power lunches, and there’s nothing wrong with the extremely salty slime balls on the West Coast. But in the Lone Star State, where cheap food doesn’t mean cheap-tasting, and where “Everything’s bigger in Texas” is a guiding principle, enormous raw oysters are tailor-made for us.
Big Fish’s menu isn’t limited to oysters, but c’mon: The names of months that include the letter “R,” like this month and every other one until April, are reportedly the best (and safest) times to dine on the mollusks. So if you love raw oysters, and you don’t spend the next 90 days loading Big Fish’s leviathans with lemon juice, horseradish, and cocktail sauce — and occasionally going overboard on ’em — don’t say you haven’t been informed.
Located in Grapevine’s historic district, the restaurant has other stuff going for it too, like vibe. The décor is nautical but not tacky — more Cape Cod, less Long John Silver’s — with deep-brown wooden floors and tables, a white shelf behind the bar that seems as suitable for first editions as for the dozens of bottles of booze it holds, and tastefully restrained paintings of seafaring life all around. The service isn’t leisurely, but it’s friendly, knowledgeable, and dependable. (Mistake-free is almost always as good as speedy.)
The Big Fish Tacos were outstanding, a happy mix of originality, sophistication, and immensity. Stuffed with a savory blend of melted cheddar and jack cheese, red cabbage, ranchero cream sauce, and spicy, spongy bits of blackened tilapia, the two flour tortillas were each about the size and weight of a billy club. They were cut in half and placed on the lip of a shallow bowl like spokes on a hub of moist, superbly cooked rice pilaf speckled with tarragon. The cheese was a nice, unusual touch and may have been added to the traditional arrangement of red cabbage, dressing, and fish to please Grapevine’s preponderance of Americanized, cheeseburger-fied, pizza-tized palates.
The crab cakes looked like microwave chicken patties but were wayyy more thrilling. They had a solid kick, an appropriately mushy constitution, and while the bottoms were slightly charred and stiff, the meat was plentiful and pungent. The creamy, zesty remoulade completed the soft brown delicacies’ distinctive flavor.
The two sauces that came with the calamari appetizer were another matter: The marinara and a Thai chile glaze weren’t just tasty, they were essential. Not that the slightly overcooked, microscopic rings of fried squid were offensive; they had the requisite delectably firm texture. They were just a tad bland and unforgivably insubstantial.
The New England clam chowder was another minor let-down: Too much brothy-broth, not enough clammy-clam. For a can’t-miss app, go for the fried pickles instead. (Don’t laugh.) Perfectly done, salty as hell, and filling, they make for a solid entrée when joined by that awesome remoulade and an ice-cold beer.
Big Fish also dabbles in Cajun. The gumbo was a bit dry but loaded with baby shrimp and pieces of beef and pork, and wasn’t soupy, surely to the chagrin of N’awlins natives. The Grapevine eatery’s take on the Crescent City classic was more like red beans and dirty rice — lots and lots of rice. (Not sure about you, but a lot of us non-New Orleanians prefer more rice than broth.)
The restaurant’s disregard for authenticity also paid dividends in the blackened entrées. The rub was heavy but not overbearing, pleasing to the eye, and pleasantly spicier than expected. With the mouth-watering jumbo shrimp and flaky, fresh flounder, it played perfectly harmonious notes. Not too loud, not too soft. Just right.
For now, Wednesdays are all-you-can-eat crawfish, and Big Fish probably does ’em right. “Probably” because none were sampled on a recent visit, but the lovely aroma of boiled mud bugs with corn and new potatoes hung deliciously in the air. Still, from now until April, do the right thing. They don’t call it Big Fish for nothing. Get the raw oysters.