Crushed ice cradled five wild-caught Gulf shrimp, their pink-and-ivory surfaces gleaming, their crimson tails hoisted aloft. One shrimp in, it struck me that this cold platter at the new Little’s Oyster Bar, the Pappas family’s brave reconfiguration of the late Little Pappas Seafood, might be the best shrimp cocktail I would ever eat. I didn’t want it to end.
The shellfish were cooked just to the point of slick, glassy softness. That’s no easy trick. Their surfaces shone with the lightest swab of olive oil brightened with lemon zest and dotted with teeny-tiny cylinders of chive. That little detail brought the shrimp alive, their sweetness tempered by that diagnostic Gulf hint of iodine and brine, so they taste like home.
A bowl of lump crabmeat sharing the bed of ice had much the same effect, being dewy of texture, glossed with that same ingenious olive oil bath that sparkled with lemon. A little cup of pink Louie sauce — a nod to chef Jason Ryczek’s years working in San Francisco, where he presided over seafood classic Farallon until it closed during the pandemic — put the crab over the top.
Both items were perfect. As were many of the dishes I sampled in three heady visits to this brilliant new restaurant. I kept waiting for Ryczek and his kitchen to put a foot wrong, and finally they did: sending out an order of french fries that had been insufficiently fried, although they had been wildly good the first time I sampled them. That, plus my puzzlement over the forbiddingly dry, thin slabs of house-made saltines, was the sum total of my misgivings.
Well, besides the fact that Ryczek chose to add some form of truffle oil to the otherwise ingenious black-peppered crème fraîche that comes with his glorious cold-lobster platter. That’s a personal dislike, and mileages vary. But wow, the soft, juicy slide of the lobster meat — another seafood cookery trick that is not easy to achieve — is something I will remember for a long time.
Another of the stellar cold items here is the half-shell oyster service. The bivalves are well-sourced (many from cold East Coast and Canadian waters), and the skill with which they are opened ranks with the best in the city. Not a speck of grit. Not a semi-detached adductor muscle. And, uniformly, the briny liquor preserved to make a heady chaser.
The oyster bar that gives the restaurant its name is right up front in the sleek, airy dining room, with its cooling white tones and its constellation of spiky ceiling lamps. You’ll have to reserve to sit there — the better to observe the oyster-opening skills on display — but the adjoining counter, set before two big-screen TVs running old Hollywood classics, takes walk-ins. You’ll want to arrive early for those, because at 3 months old, Little’s seems perpetually crowded. There’s lots of expensive sportswear and summery dresses on display, which suits the relaxed, vintage glamour of the room.
I noticed many arriving guests greeting staff like old family members, and vice versa, which puzzled me at first. Could all these folks have been regulars at the unprepossessing Little Pappas of yore? But soon enough I snapped to the dynamic: Much of the staff at Little’s Oyster Bar has been drawn from the distinguished Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. It shows in the level of attention and solicitude dispensed as if it were Christmas morning. The service is terrific, except for the initial service script that walks guests through the entire menu at great, great length.
It all feels very smart and well thought-out. Perhaps the smartest Pappas decision of all was to recruit Ryczek, a game-changer for the family that built their empire on concepts rather than chefs. Ryczek comes to the Gulf Coast with solid seafood knowledge and connections gained in the northwest, and the kind of enthusiasm for his new fishing grounds that I wish I could bottle and sell.
The beauty of Ryczek’s work is that he does both simple things and more complex dishes well. I am often dismayed by fish preparations in Houston seafood restaurants, where overcooking and trite embellishments tend to intrude. Not so at Little’s. A crisp-skinned filet of Texas redfish wore a lively Castelvetrano olive salsa verde that was so well-balanced it didn’t tromp on the wonderful, mineral tang of the fish itself. The redfish tasted like the wild-caught specimens I remember from happier, unregulated times, although Ryczek was quick to point out it was Texas-farmed.
That’s because he and the Pappas family make a big point of sourcing and serving sustainable seafood. (A Pappas boat actually trawls the Gulf for the stone crab claws served on Little’s cold platters.)
Yellowedge grouper, a firm, large-flaked fish from the sea bass family, here came with an arresting radish brown butter that neatly added a delicate bitterness to what might otherwise have been a rich Meuniere-type sauce, then jumped it all up with a touch of capers. Just as good — perhaps surprisingly — was a so-called “chicken fried red snapper” that sounded like a joke and tasted like a crunchy-fluffy-coated dream, right down to its captivating sauce ravigote, an old-timey cold sauce that kicks tartar sauce to the curb.
One could dine just as well on one or two of Little’s smaller plates, augmented by good wines by the glass (ask for ebullient sommelier Omar Velasquez to recommend something) or a well-made cocktail (the memorable chamomile-infused martini, perhaps). I particularly enjoyed broiled oysters topped with crumbs, nutty Gruyere, sweet garlic soubise and a touch of absinthe, like high-concept Rockefellers minus the greens; and a stirring, cognac-laced Creole bisque swimming with sweet, silky scallops, an unexpected touch.
I chortled when I spotted “potato skins” as an ingredient in Little’s Lobster & Gnocchi dish, but in concert with blistered cherry tomatoes, the effect was gangbusters. So, too, was a side of broccolini gigged with red chile, garlic and a manzanilla sherry gastrique; and the ethereal surprise of crisply fried eggplant puffs with nuoc cham, chile and herbs. These are not your basic seafood sides.
Do not economize by skipping the $7 bread service, my current favorite in town. Whomping slices of house-made sourdough levain are crusty without, dreamy-soft and moist within. The house-cultured butter brings the right tinge of funk, and the big blue crystals of spirulina-tinted salt summon up the ocean in an amusing way.
Yes, there are good desserts, from pristine Key lime tart with a house-made graham cracker crust to excellent gelati and sorbetti made by Sweet Cup, the Montrose scoop shop. But I am tempted to go for broke by ordering caviar service for dessert — partly because it’s big fun with a glass of suitable champagne; partly because I love leaving this estimable seafood house on a briny, brisk note; and partly because Ryczek puts his heart and his palate on the line with the least expensive choice, the $95-per-ounce white sturgeon caviar farmed in the Sacramento Delta.
I’m not sure what I enjoyed more, the salty pop of the eggs; the clever little fried potato dumplings on the side, some made with grated potato, some with pureed; or the tale of how Ryczek selects his own sturgeon each year by biopsying the fish with a surgical straw to taste the eggs, after which the ones he likes are tagged before release.
That’s the level of slightly maniacal dedication I sensed in much of the food at this surprising new restaurant. With Little’s, and its exacting chef, the Pappas family has created the jewel in their crown. The sparkle is real.