Restaurant Review: Alcomar
Fresh seafood and an instant vacation
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., June 12, 2015
Sun.-Mon., 11am-9pm; Tue.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm; Happy Hour, 3-6pm daily
Even though Austin is a couple hundred miles from sandy beaches, a visit to Alcomar is sure to evoke the memories of a seaside sojourn with ocean breezes. The Latin-inspired eatery from Carlos Rivero's El Chile Group offers fresh seafood from Gulf Coast and West Coast waters in a variety of enticing preparations. The recently refurbished old South Austin restaurant building now has a clean and airy feel to it with polished concrete floors, basket light fixtures, and sun streaming in through windows draped with nautical macramé. A large bar dominates the dining room, the furniture is comfortable, and the graceful octopus logo adorns both the interior and exterior whitewashed walls. Everything about this place says vacation at the beach.
Alcomar is the realization of several inspirations. Maribel Rivero, Carlos Rivero's sister, is a graduate of the Latin Flavors program at the Culinary Institute of America's San Antonio campus, and she spent time traveling and researching cuisines in Central and South America after graduation. Her travels are reflected in some of the dishes and cocktails. While Alcomar takes its name from a mash-up of the last names of El Chile Group chefs Alma Alcocer-Thomas and Jeff Martinez, the restaurant bears much more than their names. These longtime collaborators, both alumni of the kitchens at Jeffrey's and Fonda San Miguel, bring both style and substance to the approachable menu.
Our group of six stopped in for a brunch to benefit the culinary grant program of the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, and we ate our way through the entrées on the almuerzo (lunch) menu, sharing appetizers and desserts. We chose to start with mushroom gorditas ($10) for our shared appetizer – pillowy masa boats topped with white bean purée, Manchego cheese, and meaty roasted mushrooms in a chipotle sauce, with a gilding of avocado. The gorditas offered an appealing mélange of flavors and textures while being both vegetarian and gluten-free. Our entrée choices were uniformly satisfying, and all the colorful plates were as attractive to the eye as to the palate, without a hint of that overly tortured, tweezered application style that some chefs resort to lately.
The seasonal soft-shell crab torta ($14) presents two crisply fried crabs on a bolillo accented by a tangy grilled lemon aioli and pickled onions, with rich, buttery slices of avocado to smooth things out. The poblano, goat cheese, and spinach quiche ($13) has a winning combination of flavors encased in a tender, butter crust, paired with a salad of delicate local lettuces. The omelet with mojo lobster ($16) features the same good poblano and goat cheese combo matched with dainty spring asparagus, napped with a voluptuous mantle of toothsome lobster in a pale pink mojo sauce. If there's a better omelet in town right now, I'd be hard-pressed to name it. Like the omelet, the Manchego shrimp ($19) is a menu item that would draw me back to Alcomar on my own dime – plump Gulf shrimp are arranged on a luxurious pool of silken atole corn sauce, topped with a crunchy crown of Manchego cheese and herbed bread crumbs, and enlivened by a piquant chile arbol aioli and flavor bombs of grilled cherry tomatoes. The most visually stunning plate on the table that day had to be the butternut poblano relleno ($19), a roasted pepper stuffed with seasoned squash purée sitting on a bed of sautéed Swiss chard, goat cheese, and pistachio cream sauce under a tangle of marinated onions. This work of culinary art is officially in the running for the most impressive vegetarian dish in town this year.
After reviewing restaurants for more than 20 years, I've learned that the upside of sharing desserts is that six people can usually eat through an entire dessert menu after a substantial meal without feeling too stuffed. The downside, of course, is having to share sweets that are sometimes good enough to hoard. We had all four dessert offerings and were left wanting more. The crème brûlée of the day ($7) was a Meyer lemon custard under a crackling crust of caramelized sugar, each spoonful potentially addictive. The chocolate tart ($8) is the most substantial of the desserts, with a truffle-like ganache filling under a sprinkling of flaked salt. The creamy, comforting rice pudding ($8) comes with a light fruit syrup and fresh berries, while the hot, cinnamon sugar-dusted buñuelos ($7) arrived with a pot of sliced strawberries in sweetened whipped cream for dipping.
Our return visit for happy hour allowed the drinkers at the table to sample cocktails while we shared some reduced-price appetizer plates. The Te Amo ($10), made with Tito's vodka, St. Germain, macerated berries, lemon, agave syrup, and crushed mint was a lovely and refreshing choice, and the well-made margarita de la casa ($8, $5) can be ordered frozen or on the rocks. The cebiche Peruano ($12, $9) delivers blushing pink slivers of ahi tuna marinated in an astringent liquid seasoned with aji chile amarillo and ginger, garnished with homemade corn nuts and perfect cubes of sweet potato and yucca. The crab & guac ($13, $10) presents a cylinder of guacamole, lump crab, and grilled cubes of pineapple with crisp tostadas, but unfortunately, any essence of crab was missing in action on that particular plate.
Neither meat eaters nor vegetarians should shy away from Alcomar simply because the main focus is on seafood – there are impressive vegetarian options and worthwhile meat dishes for carnivores. The Texas Wagyu hanger steak ($35) pairs wood-grilled steak with poblano, goat cheese, and lobster mojo enchiladas, while the half chicken in mole xico ($21) features juicy, wood-grilled chicken enrobed in dark, complex mole matched with saffron rice and fat slices of sweet fried plantain. We found plenty to like on the menu at Alcomar and, while the servers were friendly and very well-informed about the food they're serving, there were a couple of noticeable glitches. On both visits, we experienced long waits between the clearing of our entrée plates and the arrival of desserts, and then another long wait for our check. Both times, we were told the time gaps had something to do with having to wait to get on the computer, so perhaps another POS terminal would be helpful for the staff. That being said, I'd go back to Alcomar in a heartbeat. It will probably be as close as I'll come to a beach vacation this year.
Alcomar1816 S. First, 512/401-3161
Sun.-Mon., 11am-9pm; Tue.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm
Happy Hour, 3-6pm daily