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Searsucker draws in the tourists with New American dishes

The chipper Searsucker staffer chatted with a married couple visiting from Houston. She inquired as to the nature of their visit (dropping kid at college), made them promise to make the massive Warehouse District restaurant a staple on return visits, teased the possibility of Searsucker opening in the Bayou City and regaled them with facts about “our chef.”

Chef Brian Malarkey had a brief stint on ABC’s cooking-competition show “The Taste” and was a finalist in an early season of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” she said. All of that is true. But calling the reality TV veteran the restaurant’s chef may have been taking some liberties at the expense of the tourists.

Malarkey and partner James Brennan opened the Austin outpost of their San Diego-based restaurant in June 2013, but the baby-faced chef isn’t a regular fixture at the Colorado Street restaurant (he does visit Austin monthly). With the past 18 months he’s had, there’s hardly been time.

In that span, he’s opened Searsucker in Austin; closed Searsucker in Scottsdale, Ariz.; opened a location of one of his other restaurants (Herringbone) in Los Angeles; closed two other concepts, Gabardine in San Diego and Burlap in Carmel, Calif.; made plans for new Searsuckers in L.A. and Las Vegas; and eyed San Diego’s Little Italy for an unnamed restaurant. It’s more dizzying than a three-way mirror in a wobbly tailor’s shop.

The staffer who cited Malarkey’s bona fides spoke with the exuberance and punctuated attentiveness of a cruise ship social director, and the gigantic restaurant feels like it could be the dining room on an unspectacular but unoffensive cruise ship. Malarkey is based out of California, but the Searsucker chain feels like it could have come from Nashville, or Phoenix, or Charlotte, or Dallas, or Louisville. Maybe that’s the eventual idea.

The staff is obviously accustomed to dealing with tourists, and when we asked what was unique about the Searsucker Angel’s Envy bourbon used in the New Fashioned cocktail ($12), we were told it was a special blend found “only right here, in Austin, Texas.” The last qualifier was spoken with the excitable and condescending tone reserved for tourists from Fly-Over Country. What made the bourbon special? He didn’t exactly know.

The immense space, which has previously housed the restaurant Maria Maria and a Latin dance club, has the feeling of a handsome barn or warehouse with exposed beams and skylights that filter welcomed light. Despite the 200-person capacity, and the DJ playing in the lounge area up front, the festivities at Searsucker hum at a very tolerable level thanks to noise-dampening boards affixed beneath the tabletops.

Lariats dangle from overhead light fixtures, and oversized black-and-white artwork of livestock, some severed and bleeding, covers the brick walls. The image of a pig on the wall across from our table looked like it might have been inspired by “Lord of the Flies.” All that was missing was a sharp stake.

The (at times painfully) playful menu closely resembles the one at the original San Diego location. It’s broken down into eight sections, with the “Farm” section in Austin getting more attention than in California. The raw menu featured some visual disasters. Mangled strands of beef tartare ($11) appeared to have been packed together and rolled into an odd oblong twist and served with an unappetizing quail egg and noxious cream-and-caper sauce. The salmon tartare ($12) looked like it had been pushed through a broken Play-Doh grinder. A dish of poke ($13), sweetened and piqued with ponzu and jalapeno, carried better flavor balance and proved more visually appealing.

The menu does the minimalist dance, listing a few ingredients and dividing them with plus signs. I trust the vagueness at exciting and innovative restaurants, but at Searsucker the cryptic equations confounded. Shorts ribs + Shiner Bock + horseradish + fried onion = rich beer-braised beef ribs served in an anachronistic and treacly Shiner Bock reduction with horseradish mashed potatoes and topped with onion rings. The $13 small plate dipped into the salt-sugar-fat playbook that guides most of the culinary play-calling at Searsucker.

A raw dish that mentions lardo, peaches, walnuts and Parmesan ($11) fails to tell you that the lardo will be melted to an oily lacquer beneath the cheese on large crostini. The pistachio mentioned on an entree of undercooked snapper ($27) was used to make the crust, and the sauce did not qualify as the stated romesco. Ricotta gnocchi ($23) promised smoked chili oil, but all I tasted was brown butter, which confused me slightly less than the server’s butchering of the pronunciation of “gnocchi.”

If some of the dishes were accurately described, diners probably wouldn’t order them: A side of crispy-on-the-outside, undercooked-on-the-inside fried Brussels sprouts with boring raw walnuts ($7). Corn and undetectable chorizo in an overly rich and scalding sauce that felt like it was kept warm by the Earth’s core ($7). Bacon-and-cheddar grits that tasted of melted plastic ($7). A stringy filet greyed at the edges and faded pink in the middle ($32). I’d pass.

A flat iron steak ($25), with its seasoned char and bitter arugula, helped amend for the sins of the filet. But even our favorite entrée couldn’t stay on its best behavior all the way through the meal. The peach-sweetened pork butt ($26) fell apart with ease under the fork, but the third hunk was a fatty, gelatinous mess that had to be discarded.

The elegant take on a campfire s’mores bar with a soft graham cake and buttery salted caramel ganache topped with smoked, willowy waves of marshmallow ($8) felt like a fitting end for dinner at the restaurant that prides itself on a “social dining” concept. I’m not sure if that moniker refers to a few of the big communal tables at the back of the restaurant, the clubby scene at the front of the space, or the counter-lever that pumped up the volume and dimmed the lights simultaneously as the sun set one night.

Searsucker’s ample space, private room and ability to accommodate large parties (two bachelorette dinners one night I was there) make it an attractive place for groups, and its central location (and apparent boost from hotel concierges) make it a draw for tourists. That volume of diners also means it can be hard to control what’s coming out of the kitchen (at an admittedly fast pace), which can lead to some sloppy dishes and indelicate food that feels suited for an upscale banquet.

The restaurant’s website suggests that Searsucker puts an Austin spin on fine dining. But on my two visits, menus featured quotes from Napoleon Bonaparte and Ronald Reagan (alongside a silhouette of Malarkey’s profile). Those two might not resonate with your average Austinite, but tourists probably know who they are.

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