Travel Report: Galveston, Not Just Fried Fish Dinners Any More

galvestonby Andrew Chalk

We can accept that Galveston is a great place to get a fish-fry, run on the beach, visit the impressive Moody Gardens with aquarium and rain forest, or even just board a cruise ship. What may not as well-known is that Galveston is undergoing change that makes it a quite satisfying long weekend destination for the gourmet traveler.

By ‘gourmet’ I mean not just restaurants, but also food purveyors, hotels, breweries, wineries and distillers. Gourmet as a whole lifestyle of fine eating, drinking and travelling. All other versions of these things fit under the description of ‘work’. Recently, the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau (the organization responsible for galvanizing for Galveston), tiring of their prime catchment market (the rest of Texas) not knowing the truth about them, gathered some media and showed us what the Galveston of today has to offer. As a first-time visitor, I was intrigued but had little idea of what to expect.    

The focus of our long weekend was new gourmet destinations in town, so old standbys like Rudy & Paco’s, Leon’s BBQ, Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant were passed by, but that isn’t to say you shouldn’t include them on your itinerary. Also, I don’t repeat things that I covered elsewhere. Specifically, Haak Vineyards and Winery in Sante Fe, TX is less than 30 minutes drive and the quirky Gilhooly’s about the same distance. Both are worth a diversion. And visit Lt. Blender’s margarita-in-a-bag factory before he hits Shark Tank.

There can’t be a destination with easier directions from Dallas than Galveston: get on I-45 at the start of I-45 and get off I-45 at the end of I-45 (I managed to get that 80% right). The near 300-mile journey took a comfortable four and a half hours. As you pull over the causeway between the mainland and the island, the freeway ends and the road becomes Broadway, the main drag. I recommend taking Broadway at a leisurely pace. You are now driving the island along its long axis, west to east. Put the convertible top down (there is so much to see that it is worth paying the extra for one if you have a rental car). You get to see the huge range of attractions and many things that you will want to return to later on your trip.

Most impressive to me is the increasing number of majestic wooden Victorian homes that line this main boulevard as I travel east. A way to learn about these is the Galveston Island Historic Tours (led by a history faculty member from a nearby junior college). The trip, unless you pepper the guide with questions, is an gattling gun delivery of the minutest details on just about every significant building and statue that you pass. The other historical must-do is the 30 minute film at Pier 21 on the great flood of 1900 that was the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States (measured by the death toll) and which led to major grade changes in the city.

Our stay is at the Wyndham Tremont House Hotel, a significant piece of history in its own right. The building was originally a dry goods warehouse. As a result, it has a Portman-style atrium through the center that looks as though it was squashed across one dimension, until it was only 20-feet across. The central shaft is dramatic, and in a very intimate sense. One casualty of being in old building is that it was not designed with a pool in mind (nobody in the nineteenth century swam — ever). The Tremont has a sharing arrangement with the Wyndham Hotel Galvez and Spa, a mile away on the south coast of the island.

The restoration has decorated the rooms in a functional, formal and historic style. There is a traditional dresser, a compact bathroom that reflects the era when the hotel conversion was done, a flat-screen TV with satellite service and free Wi-Fi. The beds are first rate in the comfort department. My original room has no desk, which is odd since I am here to write. The hotel moves me to another room without a hitch. You can also ask the hotel to bring you a complimentary refrigerator if you have items that need to be kept cool during your stay. I had some wine bottles so took advantage of this.

The other advantage of the Tremont Hotel emerges as our visit unfolds. It is in the heart of downtown. The Strand Historic District to be exact. This National Historic Landmark District is not only the location of dozens of architecturally significant buildings but they are now repositories of art galleries, bars, restaurants and even a significant ice cream factory (more later).

The Big City Surf and Turf Experience

Action stations as we head out for dinner, chauffeured almost back to the foot of the causeway and Pelican Rest Marina. Here is Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood, a multimillion dollar investment of the RK Group, a San Antonio catering and events company. It is an attempt to create a steakhouse that would fit right into Houston or Dallas. There is USDA prime grade steak, a publicly visible dry aging room (steak is in there 28 days), lots of polished wood and metal and dramatic mood lighting.

Number 13 PorterhouseNumber 13 Porterhouse

On the menu, an extensive raw selection is highlighted this day by Winter Point Maine oysters ($3 each) served at that time in only four restaurants, one of the others being Daniel Boulud. If the lottery cash is burning a hole in your pocket, consider the caviar selection by Petrossian ($80-$300).

Among the appetizers, the Wagyu steak tartare ($19) is not just an salivation provocateur, it is also a spectacle because it is prepared tableside with an old-fashioned hand grinder. Classic garnishes are presented as well.

IMG_3001Wagyu steak tartare at Number 13

Choose dry or wet-aged steak. A dry-aged 18 oz ribeye will set you back $50 and its wet-aged 14 oz counterpart from 44 Farms Ranch (Cameron, TX) $39. 44 Farms is Angus beef but you can also order Wagyu from Akaushi cattle reared by Heartbrand Beef in Harwood, Texas. This richly marbled steak is for those who prize quality over quantity. A 6 oz filet is $60. As is often the case, steaks come with a choice of sauces but sides are à la carte, each $9 or $12 split. Kudos to Number 13 for including choices like forager wild mushrooms instead of the bland button mushrooms (and still ubiquitous in steak houses nationally).

An oddly-named menu section ‘Composed’ contains the non-steak full-meal choices. We liked the grouper which came on a bed of creamy melted leeks accompanied by a crispy potato galette. The mild flavors of grouper were brought out by the leak crème while the galette contributed a contrasting texture component. Axis venison has thrived in the Texas Hill Country and Number 13’s preparation is a real showcase of medium-rare slices. The confit potato and brussels sprouts provide solid accompaniment, and the juniper salt is an unusual variant of the traditional fruit and game synergy. If you want to eat down, this section of the menu is where you can find a darned good burger – the Deluxe 13 Burger. It is huge, made from premium beef, and served on brioche accompanied by pommes frites.

Where would I fault this impressive restaurant? Well, the local focus could be pursued further. Gulf oysters for example, are at their peak in the first quarter of the year. Just that day I had twelve magnificent examples for lunch at Gilhooly’s. Yet Number 13 highlighted east coast oysters. Nice though they were, the gulf ones were better.

Also, the wine list does not have a single Texas wine. That situation is almost impossible to find in a major Dallas steakhouse. Management put that down to a rushed opening a few weeks earlier and the inability to find acceptable examples from distributor representatives. That problem is real for restaurateurs, so here is the official cheat sheet to choose an example of the state’s best grape, Viognier. Here is the equivalent for Tempranillo, the best red grape, and here is a useful ranking of Roussanne.

Saturday Morning

IMG_3092Scenery for a morning jog

Seven am on Saturday morning and we don’t have to board the bus until 9am, so I decide to explore. The other Wyndham Grand Hotel on the Island is the Hotel Galvez and Spa which is on the south side, the best side for the beach. We were originally due to stay there and, on arrival yesterday, I comically tried to check-in there, having not read my revised schedule. Dah! That experience at least showed me that it looks like an Iberian palace, and I wanted to know more. Today, I jog down 25th street (the Galveston Grand Connector) past city hall, gingerbread houses and offices until it dead ends at the beach on Galveston Bay. It is a pleasant high sixties January day so ideal weather for me and the numerous walkers and cyclists also about. A few blocks north, along the seafront, and I am at the Galvez (named after Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, Count of Gálvez). Its long circular drive and period architecture make it look like a  European mansion.

18122_x1The Wyndham Hotel Galvez and Spa truly deserves the word grand To describe its frontage

This is by far the grandest hotel on the island and in the same league as other grand hotels in Texas like the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas or The Houstonian in Houston. Expansive, manicured grounds lead to an impressive porte-cochere and imposing doors opened by doormen that lead to to a welcoming and warm ochre-walled lobby. I take a quick trip through to gauge the feel and realize that, when I return for dinner tonight, this is going to be a very buzzy see-and-be-seen place.

Best For Breakfast

IMG_3003Farley Girls Café

Farley Girls Café is, as they say, my kind of brunch place. This tile-floored, brick-walled turn of the century establishment, a short distance from the University of Texas Medical Branch, offers all of the staples of the classic southwestern American brunch. Eggs Benedict, Huevos Rancheros, omelettes, pancakes and waffles. However, Farley’s executes them so well. I tried the usual morning culinary tripwire (due to the hollandaise sauce) Eggs Benedict ($11). The kitchen proved unruffled. Dishes came out expeditiously to our pernickety group “not this, more of that”, all prepared to a tee.

IMG_3008Eggs Benedict at Farley Girls Café

Farley Girls Café, which also does a thriving lunch and dinner business, is the work of sisters Rosmond Duzich Thormahlen and Ryanne Duzich, and ‘Farley’ is their mother’s maiden name. The family has a long history in the restaurant business, which may explain why Farley Girls Café, while homey and hokey in appearance, is one smooth-running operation.

Best For Hippies

No food scene can be considered truly diverse until it has ingested the vegetable smoothie craze of the hippy era, nowadays re-amped by yoga mums. Galveston’s entry is Oasis Juice Bar & Market  on 25th St. where the thoughtful and attractive Kathleen DiNatale doubles as cafe owner and instructor at the Yoga Haven. The menu comprises a column of juices squeezed from some 20 fruits, vegetables and even garlic and parsley. Pride of place goes to wheatgrass, which is accorded something of a first-among-equals status. To my palate, I wonder what the fuss is about. We also tried some of the list of creative smoothies. Monkey N Around (banana, almond butter, apple, chocolate almond milk) satisfies the inner bananaholic and Berry Good (blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, banana and almond milk) is a fruit hit. The remaining repertoire at Oasis is a large selection of teas, fresh-made coffee, soup and sandwiches. It’s a quirky, unusual space that adds oozes authenticity. People come and dwell here, partly thanks to the free Wi-Fi.

IMG_3012Breakfast of champions. Wheatgrass shot with wheatgrass

Right behind Oasis is the fledgling Galveston’s Own Farmer’s Market. Currently about eight vendors strong, it is opne each Sunday morning between 9am and 1pm.

IMG_3013Andrea Hunting, owner of eatcetera serves food at the pass

Opposite Oasis, the minimalist eatcetera quality sandwich shop turns out choices like Black Angus Roast Beef with Blue Cheese Cream ($10) Served with cured onions, bell peppers and baby greens means an interesting lunch or early dinner for not much money. Either eat in, at the counter or one of the tables and chairs made by the owner’s husband, or take out. If I was owner Andrea Hunting, I would give the minimal wine list to a sommelier friend and say “in return for a sandwich, replace each of these wines with one at the same price point that delivers more to my customer”.

IMG_3021Beachtown, seen from Porch Café

At the east end of the island is Beachtown, a vacation home development. There, Porch Café serves lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Chef Stephen Griffith already had a reputation before he opened Porch. He now offers a New American take in a seafood-leaning menu with choices like Lobster Crepes Mornay ($40), Pumpkin Seed Crusted Snapper ($36) and Wagyu 16 oz Chili-Rubbed Sirloin ($48). There is a range of good flatbreads and straightforward sandwiches. The best way to go here may be to choose two appetizers (small plates, in the menu’s idiom) such as bloody mary ceviche ($12), fried oysters ($15) or lollipop lamb chops ($10). It would be helpful to see the provenance of the ingredients on the menu.

[IMG_3032.JPG. Caption:Bloody Mary Ceviche at Porch Café]

Best Brewer

IMG_3046

With the law changing to allow brewpubs to make off-premise sales, Beerfoot Beach Bar is set to become more of a micro-brewery. Micro will be the operative word unless they expand the diminutive side room that functions as the 2-3 barrel brewery right now. They release a new beer each week and when it’s gone, it’s gone. That accompanies a carefully crafted selection of about 100 brought-in beers from all over the world. Brewmaster Mark Dell’Osso even hands the reins over to a guest Brewmaster of the Month who brews their own beer and has it sold in the pub.

IMG_3051Beerfoot’s Beer Production capacity Is tiny

Pier 21’s position near the cruise ship departure point means that it sees a lot of cruise passenger business. Nonno Tony’s World Kitchen is there to take advantage of that. A concept of the Galveston Restaurant Group, the menu features familiar steak and seafood dishes plus pizza and oysters in a casual environment. Nothing scary on the menu and no Texas wines on the wine list.

Best For Ice Cream

On the walk back to the hotel, check out The Strand, the major restaurant and shopping area in town. Stop at La King’s (an institution) for first-rate homemade ice cream.

Best For Formal Dining

Galvez Bar 3 Galvez Bar and Grill

The best formal dining in town is at the Galvez Bar and Grill in the Galvez Hotel and Spa. The luxurious setting provides comfortable seating with enough room for private conversation. The restaurant just had a seven-figure makeover and the attached pictures reflect new, more modern furnishings. In fact, at the time of writing, the web site still showed the old decor and chairs. It is quite a difference.

IMG_3065Locally caught grouper at the Galvez Bar and Grill

The menu wisely puts locally caught seafood front and center of the dining experience. A stipulation on the lunch/dinner menu reads “We proudly offer the freshest fish available. These items were caught today, cleaned today and cooked today….”. The shrimp, grouper and red snapper that we enjoyed was uniformly tasty and succulent. For the landlubbers, there are Angus steaks, pork chops and free-range chicken. Desserts are sinful pleasures like bread pudding, house cheesecake and chocolate walnut brownie.

What I would like Galvez chef Patrick Havard to look into is “appellated gulf oysters”. They are virtually unheard of at present, but I expect them to become ubiquitous in the next few years. The ‘Galvez’ location in Galveston and its worldly customer demographic make it an obvious pathfinder in this area.

I am betting that the bar here some some pretty good cocktails too, but we have to return to the Tremont before I can find out. Fortunately, the Tremont has a rooftop bar with spectacular views of downtown and, when we get back, it is hopping.

Where to have Sunday brunch? The Galvez is recommended by Southern Living. Farley Girl’s blew me away and was named ‘Best Sunday Brunch’ in the 2013 Galveston Daily News’ Reader’s Choice Poll. And Number 13, Oasis, Porch Café and Nonno Tony’s are all open. But I have to choose somewhere new on my last day.

Best Gumbo

IMG_20140112_103840Seafood gumbo at The Gumbo Diner

It has to be Gumbo Diner, an unpretentious gumbo and American breakfast place situated in an old fast food franchise building. It’s hopping, and sinking into a large bowl of gumbo I see why. Tasty, intense, piquant shrimp, crab and oyster make the seafood gumbo ($9.99/$14.99) an original comfort food. The non gumbo items are less winning. An omelette has a Denny’s-esque leatheriness to it that you would not find at Farley Girls Café.

We have done a lightning tour of some recent additions to Galveston Island’s culinary landscape. I hope I conveyed that we have only scratched the surface. The trend is greater culinary diversity, a greater emphasis on quality, while keeping a strong focus on the seafood-led cuisine for which the island is known.. It is worth a visit now and I would expect the enhancements to continue.

3 Comments

Filed under Andrew Chalk

3 responses to “Travel Report: Galveston, Not Just Fried Fish Dinners Any More

  1. Thanks Andrew Your thoughts on Island fresh seafood and Texas wines are needed. You will love the Black Pearl next visit.

  2. Now, how about a Customized Tour of our historic city with Galveston’s most experienced (doing tours since 1982) 5th Generation BOI Tour Guide and author, your Galveston Island Gal — Jan Johnson?? Check out my website for more information about both my walking and driving guides!!!

  3. Ellen May

    Where can I get a copy of this article to leave in my rental condo in Palisade Palms?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s