Restaurant Review: Ready to Roll
Garbo's brings the yeehaw to New England
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., Oct. 24, 2014
Tue.-Thu., 11am-9pm; Fri., 11am-10pm; Sat., 3-10pm; Sun., 10:30am-3pm
There are few concepts more vexing in gastronomy than that of authenticity. Influenced by travels or heritage, we settle on a set of rules for cuisine – as if, once established, regional cookery should be locked behind a vitrine like a rare, but useless tchotchke. In our zeal for culinary realness, we get a strange sort of simulacrum, a very good lithograph Renoir or a hi-fi recording. It's just like being there, we say. Trouble is, good food is about being here.
At Garbo's Restaurant, the brick-and-mortar iteration of the popular food trucks, you'll never once experience the crispness of a New England autumn or the salt-worn patina of its many seaside eateries. Sure, there are nods in the interior – an anchor here, an oversized sand dollar there – but it all is faded and minimal, a mere suggestion. Despite the many affirmations of Yelpers who have spent "some time" trawling the Atlantic coast, Garbo's is really not authentic at all. That's not to say that the lobster rolls (save the self-mocking Hamptons Roll – more on that later) are Nu England aberrations piled with micro celery and lemon froth, but it is to say that Garbo's never forgets it's in Austin.
Working within that vernacular serves Garbo's best dishes well. The fish and chips ($13), for instance, dredges Texas black drum in Austin Beerworks Black Thunder. The schwarzbier, used in place of more commonplace porters and stouts, gives the batter a subtle lift. The workaday steamer clams ($17) are perfectly fine in a rich broth, but the cherrystone clams shine with an Austin twist: a smoked chili oil broth ($14) mimicking the flavors, if not the grease, of chorizo. The seasonal pickles ($4) could have been a lazily ticked ATX box, but the brine serves as a nice counterpoint to all the butter and aioli.
You'll want to order it as part of the "Set Up" ($18), Garbo's essential starter. Along with the pickles, you get lightly salted shishitos and a smoked fish dip chunked generously with redfish. The dip is given an awkward dipper of saltines, but that very slight misstep is quickly forgotten at the first taste of clam fritter. Baby clams are puffed in a weightless pâte à choux. There's still a faint slick of oil, but fried foods were made for napkins. A successful fried calamari ($10) can be found, too, although we found it a bit less inspired than the other snacks. Sometimes tradition can be a bit perfunctory.
Elsewhere, tradition is a measure of repeated success. The three plates that hedge most closely to the New England phenotype (listed on the menu with a punctuation wink) give Garbo's its foundation. The lobster rolls and the clam chowder, staples of the food truck, are rightfully popular. The chowder ($9) luxuriates in butter-flecked cream and imported oyster crackers (Texas can't be relied on for everything). The rolls (both $18), stuffed with claw meat tossed in either mayonnaise (the "Maine") or drawn butter (the "Connecticut"), still manage to vault. The grilled Sweetish Hill buns, while perhaps not as clapboarded as those used in the East, provide nice shelter. The accompanying hand-cut chips occasionally fall limp, but we give them points for trying.
The semi-famous $45 Hamptons Roll was not available on any of our visits, but nonetheless demands some discussion. The occasional special is surely the most expensive sandwich in Austin, but it seems like a lark. The ingredients seem plucked more from a bourgeois idea of excess (truffles! caviar! fancy French sauces!) than culinary wanderlust. We can't imagine they sell many, but every menu should include a dare. It's another great example of how the restaurant isn't looking to re-create a travelog.
Case in point: Despite the surfeit of brewmasters up North, the beer selection at Garbo's is fiercely local. The soft drinks may be from Maine Root, but the sweet tea is from Austin's Moonshine. The pecan pie ($7) is a neat distillation of owner Heidi Garbo's new home. On our first visit however, the blueberry pie ($6) was pretending to be a cobbler. It has since been corrected, but we tend to be doctrinaire around these parts. Mess with New England all you like, but please, don't mess with Texas.