Saba Blue Water Cafe
Venturing Into Uncharted Territory at Saba Blue Water Cafe
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Oct. 1, 1999
Saba Blue Water Cafe208-D West Fourth, 478-7222
Mon, 11am-midnight; Tue-Fri, 11am-2am; Sat, 5pm-2am; Happy Hour, 3-7pm daily
The island of Saba is a rainforest-topped volcanic peak in the Caribbean Sea where the deep sea fishing is good and the scuba diving is spectacular. Restaurant partners Chuck Smith and chef Larry Perdido chose to name their land-locked downtown Austin restaurant after the little tropical paradise because the name evoked the same island themes as the decor and the eclectic seafood menu of their eatery. Patrons who enter Saba Blue Water Cafe are gently whisked away from the hustle and bustle of downtown life and transported to a relaxing island getaway by the lovely saltwater fish tank behind the long bar and the cool azure glass wall that divides the dining room from the kitchen. Once the illusion is complete, festive island dishes begin to arrive at the table in portions perfect for sharing. Sail away to Saba with a group of friends and you won't be disappointed. The design elements of Saba Blue Water Cafe were an inspiring impetus behind a recent Chronicle photo essay ("The Fine Art of Dining," Sept. 10, 1999). We were fascinated with everything, from Dale Whistler's blue aluminum sign and matching door handles, to the delicate, handblown Fire Island Hot Glass light fixtures above the bar, to Jeri Moore's evocative island paintings adorning the brick walls. In fact, we'd be hard-pressed to name a restaurant that does a better job of creating such a distinctive atmosphere with expertly chosen works of art. The bar menu's extensive selection of island libations, such as a Frozen Lemon Grass Margarita ($4), the Ginger-Hibiscus Rum Rummer ($4), and a refreshing Mojito ($5), makes a big contribution to the Saba mystique, as well. However, if patrons are only going to Saba to drink away their stress in a comfortable island paradise, they're missing the best Saba has to offer. As enchanting as the bar can be, we found the food to be even better.
The eclectic Saba menu features an inviting selection of "Bites" and "Sides," generous appetizer servings of creative dishes from the Caribbean, the Yucatan, and the Pacific Rim. Each plate offers three or four items, making them perfect for sharing with a group. Dining recently with friends who are avid Saba fans, a quick search of the menu revealed several attractive choices. The Tempura Tuna ($8) presents three large pieces of gently seared rosy tuna on a plate painted with a silken honey soy sauce, bright wasabi, and gleaming red chile oil for dipping. While the fresh tuna melted on the tongue like butter, the condiments offered complementary spikes of flavor. Plantain Crusted Shrimp ($8) are dusted with a delicate, flavorful coating and swim in a pool of spicy habañero papaya mojo. Perfectly fried, the shrimp were plump and sweet.
Venturing into uncharted territory with new menu items, we chose Chicken in Lettuce Wraps ($7), a toothsome Asian stir-fry of chicken and still-crunchy vegetables in a light brown sauce with cool iceberg lettuce leaves as a contrasting wrapping. Vegetable Spring Rolls ($7) were cut on the bias, revealing bundles of crisp, aromatic vegetables lightly fried in whisper-thin wonton papers. The mild flavor of the Conch Corn Fritters with Spicy Mango Ketchup and Scotch Bonnet Tartar ($6) would have been better served by dipping sauces that packed just a little more fire power. As a side dish, we opted for the Garlic Roasted Potatoes ($2) and found them to be addictive chunks of garlic-dusted potato, moist and fluffy inside their golden crusts.
After sharing all these plates among the three diners at our table, we were pleasantly sated but still found room for a taste of each of the three desserts on the menu that evening. Due to limited kitchen space, Saba buys custom desserts from local dessert purveyor Scott Calvert of Countryside Baking. For Saba, Calvert has created a small, stylish Key Lime Pie ($5) in a delicate cookie crust crowned with a swirling cloud of meringue. Lovely as it is, it needs lots more lime zest and juice to cut the cloying sweetness of the Eagle Brand milk. The most dynamic-looking of Calvert's desserts is the Chocolate Volcano ($5), decorated chocolate panels molded around alternating layers of liqueur-soaked chocolate cake and chocolate mousse with shards of bittersweet chocolate erupting out the top. By far our favorite dessert choice of the evening was the Tres Leches Cake ($4.50), a traditional celebration cake all over Mexico. The Saba version arrives at the table warm and moist, the dainty sponge cake soaked with Mexican cajeta and garnished with chopped mango and a caramel sauce. Simply divine and definitely worth celebrating.
We found the service at Saba to be pleasant and attentive, with servers willing to make patrons feel at home in paradise. A happy hour visit to Saba, where you can enjoy $3 specialty drinks and selected Saba Bites, would be a just reward after a hard day trapped in the office. Lunch and early dinner visits are highly recommended, as well. While the late-night Saba is surely a happening place to be on weekend nights with blaring music, a packed house, and a line out the door, we prefer to dine at quieter hours. We'll take the soothing azure wall and a great selection of tasty little meals over a raucous bar crowd any day.