Encountering the tantalizing complexity of a Washington state Shigoku oyster in a brick strip mall a few miles south of Williamson County felt like a hallucination. Kind of like the first time I bought an overflowing lobster roll from a food truck in Austin. Makes sense that both unexpected offerings came from the same person.
Connecticut native Heidi Garbo opened the first of her two lobster roll trucks, Garbo’s, in March 2013, and last year she expanded her business to include a brick-and-mortar restaurant of the same name. Not bad for the Florida transplant who originally figured she’d be the food truck’s sole employee.
The same Connecticut lobster rolls ($24) that first made me pledge allegiance to Garbo’s anchor both lunch and dinner menus at the restaurant. A crunchy, toasty hot dog-style bun recently replaced the puffed sweetness of Sweetish Hill rolls. Otherwise the lobster roll allure remains the same — sweet crimson knuckle and claw meat sheened with butter tumbling from the top of the roll. The Maine version comes with mayonnaise-tossed lobster flecked with celery and spritzed with lemon.
Garbo’s will always be known for their lobster, which it receives on an almost daily basis from Heidi Garbo’s father and uncle, who run one of the most successful lobster wholesaling operations in the world out of Groten, Conn. But that Shigoku oyster ($3.25), its teardrop splash of cucumber and salt an enlivening elixir, speaks to the seafood restaurant’s larger ambitions.
The restaurant serves traditional New England fare, such as chowder ($8) and supple baked clams topped with breadcrumbs ($12), but Garbo’s also advertises an “Austin twist.” You can find that spin on a very good dish of smoky grilled octopus with jalapenos and a chili-spiced butternut squash puree ($14), and with a coarse-grind juicy cheeseburger ($14) slathered with funky Gorgonzola cheese and served with golden, crunchy hand-cut fries.
The burger appears on a lunch menu served weekday afternoons when Garbo’s operates as a counter-service restaurant. The quaint space, decorated with a modest amount of nautical-themed art and colored in cream, brick and the blue-greys of a threatening Atlantic sky, switches gears to amiable and informed table service in the evening.
In addition to appetizers like a creamy, smoked fish dip dotted with celery’s snap, the lunch menu includes a roster of sandwiches like a plump fried redfish ($12) with a delicate coating served on a sweet bun with rich aioli and cherry tomatoes. The menu promised pancetta. I found little. A shame, as the bland sandwich needed the pork’s salty influence. A soft mash of sea and minerality sandwiched between griddled bread, the crab and egg melt ($16) also lacked complexity and would have benefited from the elevating effects of acid.
The Jonah crab at dinner came in the form of a tasty (though stringy) cake ($21) accented nicely with the licorice breath of shaved fennel and the sweet acid of blood orange. The texture was forgivable on the crab cake, but other dishes could not overcome such a flaw. Salt cod dumplings ($14) floundered in the no-man’s land between gummy and crispy, and the pitchfork tendrils of fried artichokes were more dangerous than appetizing. Garbo’s serves a fish of the day at dinner. One night’s catch, a meaty red snapper in a floral saffron stew, came draped with a rubbery skin, though I found no fault with the accompanying mussels. Execution problems arose again with a spaghetti and calamari dish splattered in a sloppy pesto ($17).
Desserts righted the ship on the strength of a lush panna cotta with grapefruit sorbet and coffee granita, and a tangy lemon tart as bright as the seaside sun.
The missteps reveal Garbo’s has work to do if it wants its entire menu to match the strength of its signature lobster rolls, but hits like the octopus, crab cake, burger and a small but well-curated oyster program prove they have the building blocks in place.
And, speaking of building, Garbo’s will open an adjacent wine and oyster bar in the strip center next month, something I never expected to see in the northern suburbs of town.
14735 Bratton Lane. 512-350-9814, garboslobsteratx.com
Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Prices: Small plates and appetizers, $8-$14. Sandwiches, $12-$16. Lobster rolls, $24. Entrees, $17-$27.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: The lobster rolls are worthy of drawing crowds to suburban Garbo’s, but some of the other dishes need to improve if they want to stand up to the trademark dish’s standards.