La Sombra Bar & Grill
Two new eateries border on the extravagant
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., Nov. 19, 2010
La Sombra Bar & Grill4800 Burnet Rd. #200, 458-1100
Sunday, Tuesday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm; closed Monday; happy hour, Tuesday-Friday, 3-7pm
Veteran restaurateurs Eddie Bernal and Cameron Lockley have the magic touch these days. They are partners in the venerable 34th Street Cafe, the always-popular Santa Rita Cantina, and Blue Star Cafeteria, and their newest venture, situated just a block south of Blue Star, is also poised to make an impact on Austin's dining landscape. The latest addition to their dining empire is La Sombra, a restaurant inspired by the hospitality and cuisines of South America. To run the show, Bernal and Lockley hired Chilean-born Raul Escobar to manage the front of the house and Peruvian-born Julio-Cesar Florez to oversee kitchen operations. "It was like love at first sight," says Escobar of their collaboration. "It was clear from the beginning that we all had the same vision for the restaurant."
That shared vision is one of bamboo, neutral tones, billowy canvas, and burlap, all of which are accented by warm interior lighting, a contemporary evocation of colonial style. Likewise, Florez's cuisine is an elegant riff on regional South American specialties. Ceviches like the tiradito de atún ($9), for instance, are clean and lightly dressed, more like sushi than marinated bits of fish, and empanadas, those normally homey filled pastries, are dainty compositions of color and taste. The bar- and waitstaff at La Sombra are worldly, smart, and stylish: friendly without being overly familiar and helpful without being overly solicitous. In short, the restaurant is a thoroughly modern jaunt into the hybrid dining traditions of South America.
Do start with one of La Sombra's signature pisco sours or some other specialty cocktail, because, according to general manager Escobar, "in Latin America there is no such thing as dining without drinking." La Sombra's clientele seems to embrace that attitude. Happy hour generally draws a sizable crowd of urban warriors who nibble on half-price appetizers and sip two-dollar-off wines and cocktails.
I've discovered I am a sucker for the crisp home-fried plantains called chifles that La Sombra serves with a Venezuelan avocado salsa known as guasacaca ($7). A bit like guacamole only with vinegar and peppers instead of lime, the guasacaca is surprisingly mild yet adds just the right flavor to the chifles. I also loved the skewered grilled quail ($11), marinated in a rub of red chile and served with a knockout, fiery chile paste for dipping.
Meat lovers will croon over the parrilla gaucha ($19 for one, $32 for two), a heaping plate of three meats showcasing steak, garlic sausage, and pork ribs. The steak and sausage are good, but the ribs are among the tastiest I've ever sampled. Fall-off-the-bone meat meets crisp cumin- and coriander-laced spice rub; I could have eaten a whole plate of just these.
I also enjoyed La Sombra's feijoada completa ($14), which is a loose but enticing interpretation of Brazil's national dish. Pigs' feet and ears are absent in this stewy specialty. La Sombra's version is a bit more elegant, featuring a pilaf of white rice, shredded dried meat, and black beans attractively flanked by crisp pork belly, blood sausage, farofa (toasted shredded yucca), and pureed black beans. The whole thing is crowned with tangy braised kale. Authentic? Well, maybe not quite. But compulsively eatable? Yes and, quite frankly, more than ample enough to feed two.
La Sombra is still tinkering with its menu, and adjustments are warranted. The first time I ate there, a month after it opened, I was quite disappointed by a beet fettuccine which was, in fact, an average-tasting fettuccine with cream sauce. It's now off the menu, replaced by a mushroom ravioli that the women at a neighboring table raved about during our last visit. Likewise, the kitchen still has to iron out some consistency issues. We ordered a steak ($23) medium rare that I found to be closer to medium. The yucca and potato gratin that accompanied it should have been delicious, but the bottom layer of potatoes was still quite raw. And I confess I found the blood sausage in the feijoada much too salty.
OK, so not perfect. But I like La Sombra nonetheless for its reasonably priced yet adventurous menu that invites diners to sink into a world aglow with taste and warmth.