I found myself back on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for several days recently. Though I grew up in Gulfport, this was the longest trip back in many years, and the first one of note, post-K. Obviously, much has changed. We managed to have several dinners and lunches, and the following is a very brief reflection on those meals.
Mary Mahoney’s, Biloxi. This was a “special occasion” restaurant, but I had only dined there maybe three times, after Hurricane Camille, and this was the first dinner there, post-K. Things have changed a bit, since I was last there, and I was a bit lost, finding my way around the development. Maybe it was the direction that I was entering from (South), or maybe construction/reconstruction, since my last visit. Inside, things looked more familiar.
Though early, the wait-staff seemed overworked, but they managed to rate a good + from us. We started with the Seafood Gumbo, which was good, but was a bit on the thin and light side. I requested a Fried Flounder (none was offered - only stuffed), and I was quickly accommodated. Wife went with Fried Shrimp. The flounder was a tad overdone, and the batter was a bit too thick, but still pretty good, and remember, it was not on the menu, so was done especially for me. That aspect probably garnered a few extra points. The shrimp were nearly perfect, and if the batter, plus frying, had been the same for the flounder, it would have gotten into the very, very good category. As it was, things could have been a bit better. Salads were OK, but nothing special. Now, the wine service was better than most, but more on that later. I had hoped for Fried Flounder, as was once available at the old Benny's in Handsboro, but that too, has been gone for many decades - you can "never go home again."
We did Vrazel’s, Gulfport, and this was the one place, that we had visited on our only, and brief trip to the Coast, post-K. Then, it was very good for lunch, and I did a full review at that time, about 1 year, post-K. This dining experience was not up to par, with that earlier lunch. The restaurant filled (thought we were dining early), and we shut it down. The service was very good, though there were a few lags, due to the number of tables. Again, we did the Seafood Gumbo, Trout Almondine (choose your spelling) and Fried Shrimp, plus a bunch of sides. I actually did their Trio of Soups, and nothing struck me as inviting. The gumbo was very light, with no soul. The French Onion was overly salty, and I cut a lot of slack for good French onion. The Bisque was mostly corn starch, and totally forgettable. The Fried Shrimp and Trout Almondine were OK, but nothing special, and none of the sides had any character. It felt like the kitchen was doing a “paint by numbers” thing, but maybe I was expecting something with character. Wines to be discussed later. In all, beyond the service team’s efforts, we were less than impressed.
We were very happy that The Chimneys had reopened, and were looking so forward to dining there. The new building is nice, and the service was very good. We did Seafood Gumbo, Fried Shrimp and Trout Almondine. Again, nothing to get excited about, anywhere. The gumbo lacked any real defining characteristics, and the fried/sauteed seafood, while OK, was nothing special. The salads were totally forgettable. More on the wines later.
Pre-K, we had dined at the 27th Ave Bistro, Gulfport, and were impressed by both the food and the wine list. Now, it’s Bacchus, and has a different menu. We stopped in, looking for something light, as we were dining early that night. We went with the Filé Gumbo, which was better than some others, but still on the light side. The wine list has changed greatly, but more later. Our server was excellent, and I only wish that level of performance had translated to the gumbo.
I knew the Whitecap, Gulfport, from way, way back. I dined there in at least two other, totally different locations, and enjoyed those times, even at the old Gulfport Yacht Club site out at the end of Jones Park. This is a totally new restaurant, as are most buildings on Hwy 90. The new version looks a bit “touristy,” but I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, especially considering that much of the economy of the Gulf Coast IS tourism. However, there are many archival photos, and old ads, from previous iterations of the restaurant, including some nostalgic graphics on their menus, so something to bring back old memories. Well, it was Seafood Gumbo, Fried Catfish and Fried Shrimp for lunch. At last, we found a gumbo that had some soul and some character, plus the danged cup was half-filled with tasty shrimp! The Fried Shrimp were perfectly done, as were the Fried Catfish, and the best of the trip. The service was very good, efficient, and fun, though they were rather full. The wines - well more on them later.
The Blowfly Inn, Gulfport. Again, I knew previous iterations of this restaurant, even going back to before the memories of our servers, but then I had them by a good 20 years. I had eaten at two previous incarnations of the Blowfly, and enjoyed each visit. On this day, we had a lovely lunch, on their deck, overlooking Bayou Bernard. The service was extra friendly, and very good, though the Seafood Gumbo, Fried Catfish and Fried Shrimp were not the best of the trip. Nothing wrong with either, but they just fell back behind the Whitecap, and by several degrees. Again, the salads were totally unmemorable. Wine comments to come.
Latitude 30, Gulfport. This was for an event, so not quite fair to list them in this group, at least not in my book. We had passed by and “scouted” the location, and did not hold out much hope for either the food, or the wine, just because of the type of venue - party. However, we were blind-sided on both counts, as their hot appetizers were very good, and across the board. They also had the best wine list on the Coast, though one did have to hunt a bit. The bartender was great, and most accommodating. This was a big, and pleasant surprise to us.
OK, it is now time to talk about the wines on the MS Gulf Coast. I grew up there, in a time when wines and liquors were plentiful, though there were laws on the books, that conflicted greatly concerning any alcoholic beverages. I lived thought the “county option” votes of the 60's, and the advent of the ABC bureaucracy. Going back pre-K, it seemed that there WERE actually some decent wine lists on the Coast, such as the old 27th Ave Bistro, and then some of the casino steakhouses (do casinos get special dispensation regarding ABC wine lists?). However, now it appears that almost all wine lists are almost identical - they feature the wines of E & J Gallo, with several different labels, some few French wines from minor négociants (and from the “cellar” of their portfolios), some entry-level Kendall-Jackson wines, a few lesser Mondavi wines, and then Barefoot Cellars. The exceptions were Mary Mahoney’s, where there WERE a few wines, that were not “the usual suspects,” Latitude 30, that did have some more interesting Chards, and a few higher-end Cabs, and then Vintage Station*, Gulfport, a wine bar. Otherwise, the list was almost exactly the same, with little in the upper reaches to choose from. I was totally disappointed, but do have to admit that the Gulf Coast was never known as a big wine market, however now, it is bleak and that should be in capital letters, as it’s so very bad. Then, when one considers that even higher-end restaurants do not even use decent wine glasses, problems are magnified. Now, there were exceptions, like Latitude 30, and Vintage Station, that did use good stemware, but they were the exception. Considering that BYOW is not allowed, if a restaurant has a liquor license, things were tough. I cannot imagine how others get by, except by dining in their own homes and with wines that they bought in New Orleans, and transported to their own cellars. I think that one would have more wine choices in Amish communities! On this aspect, I was really disappointed. Not sure if places, like the Beau Rivage have better wines, but mostly, these were just flat horrible, with but a few exceptions.
In all, we were mostly disappointed, though there were some bright spots, and I have to state that the service, at all restaurants, was very good. Even going back many years, I thought of much of the food on the Coast as just OK, and with some exceptions, usually found things better in New Orleans.
* Vintage Station does offer some small plates, but we had just finished a big meal, and did not sample any. Neat venue, though I will admit that four of my wine choices were not available that night!
PS - one surprise was the little bar/restaurant at GPT. We ended up having a longer wait there, than anticipated, and as our connection at IAH were very tight, grabbed some Seafood Gumbo, Shrimp Creole and a Fried Shrimp Sandwich, plus a Fried Catfish Sandwich. Those dishes were actually pretty good, and above some of the fare at better known restaurants. The wines were from Barefoot, so I opted for a Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan Ale, which was MUCH better, than wife’s Barefoot Chard.
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