- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Landlocked Austin tends to take two approaches to the seafood game. At one end you have the domain of extensive bi-coastal oyster programs, white tablecloths, and a yacht-club vibe, at the other, elbows-on-the-table fried-fish emporiums where a specialty drink means you get a cold mug with your beer.
A few places navigate the spaces between, but there remains a large need for fresh, quality seafood in a relaxed neighborhood environment. Gulf Coast fish specialist Roberto San Miguel and former Kenichi and Paggi House chef Shane Stark joined forces in March to bring Mongers Market + Kitchen to the exploding East Austin dining scene.
As the name implies, Mongers offers a retail operation, sourcing much of its fish from San Miguel’s long-established Gulf ties, and a restaurant that serves lunch and dinner. Aesthetic touches like a partition comprised of seashells and light fixtures resembling oyster baskets give the bright space a nautical theme that sails up to the edge of gimmickry.
Raw bar and starter sections, along with hefty sandwiches, make for easy sampling of multiple dishes from a menu that stays the same throughout the day. Mongers supplements its entrees and starters sections with several daily specials inspired by regular hauls from the Gulf.
Pickled Fresno chilies, moons of radish and curled cucumber added crunchy texture to a creamy and smoky amberjack fish dip ($8) that made for a popular point of entry to one dinner. I recommend adding a few hearty dashes of Crystal Hot Sauce.
The starters section, which includes Mongers’ rich tarragon-and-mornay play on Oysters Rockefeller, dips into the Gulf with a New Orleans-inspired barbecue shrimp ($14) dish that leaned mostly on Worcestershire sauce and black pepper. The viscous sauce, flecked with fragrant tasso, required more of lemon’s acidic edge, and the large thin-shelled shrimp were cooked just past done.
Stark’s time at the now-shuttered sushi restaurant Kenichi is apparent in the menu’s raw bar offerings. It may be foolish to complain about receiving too much food, but the slabs of Hamachi crudo ($15), spiced and sweetened with espelette peppers, bites of pear and a wave of agave, were sliced too thick, leading us to mangle some of the pieces as we tried to make them more manageable.
The beautiful tuna ceviche ($14) lent no such trouble. The deep pink cubed jewels of yellowtail were awash in a medley of familiar Asian flavors: woodsy sesame, piquant ginger and bright citrus. And two dozen crab fingers ($12) made for a refreshing summer starter, but the sweet meat stubbornly clung to some of the translucent feathers.
Mongers won’t throw a $40 T-bone at you like some upmarket seafood operations, but red meat can be found in more modest options like a chuck steak ($24) from nearby 44 Farms and a stellar short rib sandwich ($14). I ordered the sandwich with a bit of trepidation, worried it may arrive a fat-riddled piece of lip service to meat eaters. Instead I got a savory, meaty blast with perfect fat balance sandwiched between golden toasted bread and layered with the bitter slice of arugula and sweet edge of caramelized onion. I just wish the sandwich had more of a pungent blast from the unevenly spread bleu cheese.
The short rib sandwich headlined a trio of sandwiches that included a solid crab cake sandwich ($15) spread with housemade tartar sauce and topped with a crunchy — but over-breaded — fried green tomato. The sandwich’s apple-jalapeno slaw, also sold separately as a side, lacked the sweetness of the former and the sting of the latter.
The more ambitious plates section of the menu gives the kitchen wider range with presentation and flavor layering, with an eye toward finer dining. Not all of Mongers seafood is from the Gulf coast, and one of the best entrees came courtesy of the Northeast. A seasoned auburn sear capped plump Barnegat Bay scallops ($25) sitting atop the slippery licorice tang of braised fennel on a plate colored with sections of tart grapefruit. Firm and mild halibut absorbed the acidic kiss of tomato vinaigrette in a Southern-accented dish centered by fluffy grits and vinegar-braced collard greens ($24).
The early summer dish of Gulf red snapper ($25) embodied the synergy of San Miguel and Stark at its finest. Spring peas and morels balanced vegetal lightness and loamy depth on the dish of recently arrived fish draped with a floral chervil cream. It was a dish with ambition but not pretense, fitting for a place attempting to take a fresh approach to the neighbor seafood restaurant.