When I sat down at the bar and ordered seafood gumbo at the Gumbo Bar in Galveston, the chef turned the big red knob on the side of the steam kettle heating up the pot instantly. Then he assembled my seafood gumbo in the individual-sized stainless steel pot right before my eyes. He lifted lids and stirred the other pots along the line that held clams in butter, mussels in broth and other seafood dishes. When one of the soups or stewed shellfish concoctions was done cooking, the chef grabbed the black knob and tilted the kettle over, neatly pouring the contents into a bowl.
Little Daddy's Gumbo Bar
2107 Postoffice St., Galveston
My bowl of seafood gumbo was huge. The soup was perfectly cooked, but the dark roux was a little too intense—it overwhelmed the seafood.
Houston chefs Chris Shepherd and Ryan Lachaine were seated at the other end of the bar. (We had all been in Galveston to attend the same seafood conference.) They kindly shared a taste of their steamed clams and a concoction called Mumbo Gumbo, which contained roast beef as well as seafood. The little neck clams were tasty, and the roux seemed to suit the roast beef and seafood gumbo better than the plain seafood soup.
It's fun to watch your meal being cooked in a steam kettle, and that—along with the even heat and fast cooking time—explain their appeal. I have always associated individual steam kettles like these with the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York, where they have been used throughout the restaurant's history to make oyster stew and one of Gotham's oldest signature dishes—the oyster pan roast—milk and oysters and a touch of the spicy ketchup called "chili sauce," served over toast. Steam kettles are becoming a trend in Galveston; they're also used at the Saltwater Grill, right next door to The Gumbo Bar on Post Office Road.
"We started using steam kettles 15 years ago, when Saltwater Grill first opened," Galveston Restaurant Group partner Danny Hart told me. I asked him if steam kettles were part of Galveston restaurant history. "Not that I know of," he replied. Hart was aware of the Grand Central Oyster bar's steam kettle tradition—he told me there was a new Grand Central Oyster Bar location with steam kettles in New York's LaGuardia Airport. Hart said he and his partners first saw steam kettles in use in Las Vegas.
"Why don't more restaurants use steam kettles?" I wonder.
"Because they are outrageously expensive," Hart replies. The Galveston Restaurant Group has made steam kettle cookery their trademark. The group has installed steam kettles in six of their restaurants—and there are more on the way.