Every Missed Bite a Heartbreak
Why Pacific Blue is one of the best new resturants in Austin
3500 Jefferson #201, 465-9999
Monday-Friday, 11am-2pm, 5-10pm; Saturday, 5-10pm
At the soft opening of Pacific Blue in October, I waited among a throng of pierced and tattooed guests for a table to open. Nursing my rapidly vanishing cocktail for an eternity, I enviously eyed the seated guests in front of me as they dug into their nori rolls, lettuce wraps, and fried rice. Then, once seated, I waited for what seemed like a second eternity for the servers to bring out a few meager sampler platters that were supposed to signify dinner. The scene that night seemed a little frenzied, the service harried, the cuisine mediocre, and I was never gladder that the party was on the house. Since that tsunami of an evening, an eerie quiet has descended; and there has been hardly a fly buzz over the becalmed seas of Pacific Blue. Curious about what had become of it, I decided to survey the scene. To my surprise, I discovered over the course of several visits that I had stumbled upon one of Austin's best new restaurants.
Pacific Blue is the newest venture by Alex Chon, owner of the popular Koreana in far Northwest Austin. Like Koreana, where the fare equally represents both Japan and Korea (and, more recently, China), Pacific Blue is a hybrid, a mix of cuisines from the Far East. At Pacific Blue, however, Chon sought to create a truer fusion of tastes. While heavily accented by the flavors of Japan and Korea, Pacific Blue reaches deeper into Asia's waters than its sister restaurant, Koreana, to also find inspiration in the cuisines of China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia.
Such dishes as Pork Bulgoki ($13.95), Sesame Chicken ($12.95), Sea-Salt-Sprinkled Edamame ($3.95), and Fish in Thai Chili ($13.95) adeptly represent the flamboyant world of flavors that make up a panorama of east Asian cuisine. These are classics within their own genre. And they are all well-prepared at Pacific Blue. Though much of Pacific Blue's food is basically traditional, the kitchen's specialties draw on fusion concepts, incorporating Western-style ingredients, preparation, and presentations.
Take the lunch format. Like many fine-dining restaurants that serve lunch, the midday meal at Pacific Blue offers much of the same fare as dinner, only at reduced prices. Lunch entrées in this case are served with a choice of soup followed by an entrée that includes a small salad and an egg roll. The Pacific Blue Salmon ($8.95) is served on a large square platter separated by four smaller plates. Each miniature plate holds a small serving of something different one holds the salmon, another a salad, another the egg roll, and the last contains fried rice. The presentation is visually impressive, a modernist collage of colorful, glistening foodstuffs juxtaposed against a clean black background. Each of them tastes as good as they look. The salmon, glazed with a sweetish pear sake and miso-inflected sauce, was perfectly cooked, with a crisp, seared surface surrounding a moist, juicy center. It was served over a ponzu-accented cabbage slaw that complemented the fish admirably. The three companion plates were each gems in their own way. The salad was particularly excellent: Made of fresh baby greens drizzled with a spicy soy-miso dressing, it's a little sweet, a little creamy, and utterly yummy. Even the tiny plate of sticky fried rice was irresistibly delicious.
The restaurant serves the other lunch entrées in the same four-plate manner. Golden Sesame Chicken ($7.95), like the salmon, is pure delight, if you like sweet flavors. The bite-sized pieces are deep-fried and crispy, well-coated in sesame seeds and sweet brown sauce. Inside, the meat is soft, tender, and without a trace of dryness.
Both lunch and dinner share the appetizer menu. Pacific Blue's Chicken Satay ($6.95), well-spiced in its turmeric marinade and served with a creamy, spicy peanut sauce, is a credit to the kitchen's Chinese-born, Malaysian-trained chef. The Fried Red Snapper Pieces ($8.95), served over fried rice noodles, is enough for a full meal. Delicately textured inside and crisp outside, accompanied by a light chili-flavored cream, this is pure comfort food with an Asian flare. The Pacific Blue Mandoo ($4.95), pan-fried beef dumplings coated in a sweet and sour sauce, are fat and delicious. In fact, having to choose from the really fantastic list of appetizers might be the most disappointing part of a meal at Pacific Blue.
Lest one be carried away by all the Pan-Asian delicacies that come out of the kitchen, Pacific Blue offers an impressive sushi menu, as well. With a full range of nigiri and sashimi, and a colorful array of postmodern maki, this is also a sushi restaurant of excellent caliber. The Red Snapper ($1.95), which can sometimes be stringy if not cut properly, is about as fresh and tender as I have tasted. The Yellowtail Nigiri ($2.50) is ample and buttery. Owner Chon basically gives his sushi chefs a free hand to experiment with new combinations and flavors, and this has become one of the trademarks of Pacific Blue's sister restaurant, Koreana.
Lox-and-cream-cheese-filled deep-fried Alaska Rolls ($8.95), colorful Rainbow Rolls ($9.95), and Pacific Blue's six house specialty rolls, made with aioli, cream cheese, or sprinkled with crabmeat, revel in the spirit of transcultural exchange. While it seems as though individual pieces of nigiri and sashimi may be a bit pricey to order a la carte, for sushi, the best bet is to go with one of the dinner combinations, which come with a respectable assortment of sushi, sashimi, and maki, as well as a choice of soup beforehand.
Leave room for the small but well-chosen dessert menu, featuring green-tea ice cream, a pastry-covered baked apple drizzled with cinnamon syrup, and a gooey chocolate volcano. These sweet endings confirm that Pacific Blue has hit its stride in terms of cuisine.
The restaurant's service follows close behind with its beautiful black-clad waiters politely taking orders. However, here I did detect a flaw when one of our servers neglected to offer us a soup promised on the menu with our meal. It's hardly worth mentioning, as the quantity of food we actually received that day far exceeded any amount we could reasonably consume. Still, it is a shame to have missed an opportunity to slurp a few bites of Pacific Blue's velvety hot and sour soup, resplendent with fresh green onion, chunks of shiitake mushroom, bamboo, and a profusion of tofu. This is one of those places where every missed bite will be a small heartbreak.