A SoCo seafood joint serves up delicious oysters in land-locked Austin
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Aug. 14, 2009
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11am-3pm; Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 10:30am-2:30pm; Dinner: Daily, 5:30pm-late; Bar Opens Daily at 3pm
Perla's1400 S. Congress, 291-7300
Lunch: Monday–Friday, 11am-3pm
Brunch: Saturday-Sunday, 11am-3pm
Dinner: Sunday–Wednesday, 5:30-10:30pm; Thursday–Saturday, 5:30-11pm
Bar: Daily, 5:30pm till close
Happy hour: Daily, 3-6pm ($2 off drinks and 50 cents off each oyster)
In land-locked Austin, a dark Martian outpost on South Congress has been transformed into an airy, sun-splashed beachside cafe. The decor at Perla's – sunny-yellow and ocean-blue accents, distressed wood, lazy ceiling fans, screened porches, sturdy canvas deck furniture, and an aquarium stocked with brilliant exotic fish – all combine to suggest a casual beach resort right in the heart of the city. (Friends at both my visits said it evoked memories of Martha's Vineyard or Cape Cod.) In addition to the sunny dining room, patrons can relax on the shady deck, at an outside bar, or at a raw bar stocked with an impressive selection of briny bivalves and peel-your-own shrimp. The service is pleasant and knowledgeable. Fresh seafood arrives daily from a variety of sources, and accomplished food preparation seals the deal.
Meals begin with complimentary bowls of hot, savory hush puppies with a tangy homemade tartar sauce for dipping. These beauties are addictive, so be careful not to fill up on them, as they are simply a harbinger of more good things to come. At Sunday brunch, two of my friends started the meal with eye-opening cocktails: a bracing oyster shooter ($6) and the spicy house Caesar Bloody Mary ($8), garnished with tangy pickled green beans. The soft-shell crab BLT ($14) has had my name on it ever since the Perla's menu was first posted online in the spring, and it did not disappoint – a tender crustacean fried in a light, crisp batter and paired with excellent slices of crunchy house-cured bacon and dressed with the house tartar sauce, fresh lettuce, and tomatoes on lightly toasted white sandwich bread from Moonlight Bakery. It's a stellar sandwich. Another brunch standout is the Big Blue ($12), one platter-sized pancake that still manages to be ethereally light and fluffy, topped with whipped butter and fresh blueberries. The various ice cream flavors on the dessert menu elicited moans of delight around our table. Do not miss the caramel ice cream, currently paired with the Coconut Fried Pies ($8). It's worth a trip here all on its own.
On a subsequent dinner visit, we sat on banquettes in the small bar and enjoyed a true summer feast that started with a simply marvelous Crab Louie ($14), a big mound of sweet, tender lump crab tossed in a light dressing, nestled atop hot slices of fried green tomatoes in a whisper-thin cornmeal crust, resting in a pool of Russian dressing. My friend couldn't choose between the wood-grilled oysters Rockefeller ($12) and the scallop pozole ($8), so he tried both and pronounced them very fine. Perla's version of pozole is a surprisingly light rendition of the hearty Southwestern stew with tiny scallops and hominy swimming in a bright-green broth redolent of poblano chile and cilantro.
Our entrées and the à la carte side dishes we chose continued the positive trend. Texas Bouillabaisse ($24) is a richly flavored tomato broth chock-full of a variety of the day's fresh catch. Mine offered huge, head-on Gulf shrimp; firm chunks of halibut; and tender clams with an elegant saffron rouille and a slice of wood-grilled flat bread. My friend chose the oak-grilled whole loup de mer ($28) with two simple, fresh house sauces – one with olive oil and herbs, the other with smoky roasted tomatoes. While we busied ourselves with the messy peeling of shrimp and boning of whole fish, our server arrived with extra bowls for shells and bones and another bowl with hot, wet towels for cleaning our hands.
As much as we enjoyed the entrées, the side dishes really were a memorable element to this meal. We ordered wood-grilled asparagus with hollandaise ($6) and creamed wood-grilled corn off the cob ($6) and were enchanted with the flavors that emerged when the garden met the grill: sweet, mellow corn in the lightest cream and tender, pencil-thin asparagus with a smoky char that matched perfectly with the voluptuous sauce. The treatment of these vegetables goes a long way to explaining what impressed me most about Perla's: The kitchen here finds the best possible seasonal ingredients and deftly allows them to shine, leaving me curious about how it will distinguish itself in the other three seasons. And if I have to pay the airfare on fresh seafood or summer corn in order to enjoy them in land-locked, drought-parched Austin, that's a price I'm willing to pay once in a while