Fed Man 55: Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar (31)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
Perla’s Seafood & Oyster Bar
1400 S. Congress Ave. 512-291-7300, www.perlasaustin.com.
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner 5:30 p.m. to close daily. Brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Bar menu starts at 3 p.m. daily.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.19.12
I’ve always seen cooked oysters as oysters for people who don’t like oysters. But I had to try grilled oysters ($12) with breadcrumbs and housemade bacon from Perla’s, knowing that this restaurant from the same smoky demi-empire as Lamberts Downtown Barbecue and Fresa’s Chicken Al Carbon can handle a wood-fueled fire. Those five encrusted half-shells were a microcosm of this place, a seafood grill and raw oyster bar. And while the garlic breadcrumbs and salty bacon wiped out the overmatched oysters this time, Perla’s shucks some of the best raw oysters in the city, served simply in their shells with mignonette on the side for $15-$18 a half-dozen. That’s $30 and up for a dozen, plus another $7 for a pint of beer, if you’re keeping track.
Co-founder Larry McGuire has called Perla’s “fine-dining-caliber food for the masses.” If that means eating on picnic tables under beach umbrellas, then yes. But other than the nets-and-fish-tank decor, let’s not pretend this is anything but fine dining for a higher class of masses. That’s OK, up to a point. In fact, six months after Perla’s opened in 2009, I called it Newcomer of the Year in the American-Statesman’s Dining Guide on the strength of dishes like a whole grilled red snapper ($26), a delicate crabcake ($15) and a robust grilled octopus with Spanish-style potatoes ($12). A visit this summer reinforced Perla’s credentials with a pan-roasted Texas Gulf grouper ($28), with an amber shell as if it had caramelized under fire, but the interior hit the sweet spot between firm flake and resilient opalescence, with clean flavors accentuated by a bitter herb salad with shaved fennel stalk, arugula and flat-leaf parsley and the drench-on-command juiciness of a grilled lemon.
The deck is the showcase seating here, fronting South Congress Avenue under towering trees and a subtropical misting network. The bar might throw down something adventurous, like a straightforward caipirinha ($10) with sweet cachaca energized by a touch of Bloody Mary vegetable swagger from red bell pepper and cucumber. Or an adults-only lemonade with Aviation gin and pine liqueur.
With a robust bar scene, a staff that stays smooth under pressure, a command of raw oysters from both coasts and some solid work with grilled fish, Perla’s would rank higher if the prices were more in line with the beach bar-and-grill atmosphere it cultivates. The formula seems to be working, so well in fact that the Perla’s team has exported the concept to the new Clark’s Oyster Bar on West Sixth Street.
(TOP: Oak-grilled oysters with bacon. INSET: A caipirinha with bell pepper and cucumber; pan-roasted grouper. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants