Just the idea of the ocean can salve the land-locked Austinite. We live a couple hundred miles from the coast, but there resides in many of us the thirst for the sea and its bounty.
Maybe it’s our childhood memories of the Gulf Coast, vacations spent with toes in the sand, or the fact that Austin long felt like it ran on island time. Or, maybe it’s just that seafood’s real good. Whatever the reason, Austinites have an affinity for and connection to seafood that belies our geography.
But seafood remains an underserved niche in town. That usually means when a new seafood restaurant pops up, it can play it fairly safe, delivering scallops and sauteed redfish or fried shrimp baskets. People in this market have such a hunger for the cuisine that the risk of getting creative and ambitious doesn’t really serve a seafood-centric restaurant. If people are hungry for something, you don’t have to lure them into eating it.
Guild, the latest restaurant from the Chameleon Group, which operates Swift’s Attic and Wu Chow, opened in early March with a challenge to that old way of thinking. Executive chef Sterling Ridings decided to take chances. He tossed aside simple preparations and expected presentations in favor of creativity, utilizing vegetables and flavor profiles not often seen at Austin seafood restaurants. The results have been exciting and confounding, with some dishes needing more focus, clarity and editing.
Ridings previously served as executive chef at Uchiko, so the raw menu automatically entices. The promise of his pedigree is fulfilled in a dish of black bass crudo ($23) bathed in a tingling smoky tomato water popped with acidic tomatillos and rounded out by walnuts. The ceviche ($18), however — even in its clever terrarium-like bowl that shakes up conventional service aesthetics — points to one of Guild’s overarching problems: The pieces for a great dish are in place, but the calibration is slightly off. Here, there’s not enough of zip from the cucumber and Thai lime soup, and too much avocado puree.
I loved the interplay of woodsy roasted oyster mushrooms with the sweetness of king crab in a dish spotted with purple hulled peas, but an abundance of sabayon with a mayonnaisey texture muted the conversation between the other ingredients. When you’re paying $27 for what one assumes are great ingredients, you want clear and full expression of them.
Minor missteps in execution haunted some dishes. The acid of finger lime made an unsuccessful attempt to pierce the briney and salty juices pooled beneath supple octopus cooked sous vide and finished on the grill ($20), and a beautiful slab of amberjack seared to an auburn finish and paired thoughtfully with a bittersweet and aromatic mixture of Asian greens, kiwi and cardamom tofu ($29) was simply overcooked.
The dish that might best represent the creativity, ambition and marriage of flavors and aesthetic at Guild was the trout. Cooked to a velvety finish, the pink fish sat on a plate with an orb of smoked beet pudding and dollop of dill buttermilk that played perfectly with one another, along with a row of pickled beets and cucumber and the rippled crunch of fish skin ($23).
The deconstructed and bright, vibrant dish also reflected the modern space. Shades of blues and browns, as well as an abstract painting that evoked a sunset, conjure a sense of the ocean without resorting to kitsch or tired tropes. And despite its setting in a mixed-use development, Guild nestles nicely into its corner of the large building, hiding from the generic aspects of its home.
The space, which coaxes the sensation of a hip Santa Monica restaurant, is more elegant and mature than Chameleon’s other restaurants, so the soundtrack featuring Mike Taylor doing a slightly funked-up version of MGMT’s “Electric Feel” doesn’t hit the appropriate note. And while Poolside’s electro-pop cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” inches closer to capturing the lively coastal vibe, it still feels like Guild is trying too hard to mimic its more clubbish siblings.
It’s exciting to see seafood dishes get the consideration often reserved in Austin for vegetable dishes or those centered around land animal proteins. An imaginative hamachi tart dotted with dollops of romesco and bone marrow yogurt ($12) was rich and brilliant, and could be an artistic and savory take on dessert, and confit broccoli and deviled black trumpet mushrooms matched the meatiness of ivory halibut with their richness ($38).
While the exploration of flavors and ingredients is admirable, sometimes good intentions lead to disaster at Guild, as with the overextension of sunchokes in a sunflower porridge dish studded with fried sunchokes and shrimp that got lost in a mush of scrambled eggs and a foam of aerated sunchoke that looked like it was applied with a firehose. I love those flavors, but that $31 dish was a study in unbridled excess.
If it is comfort you’re after, head for the puffed balls of Parisienne gnocchi and coconut shrimp dusted with nutmeg ($15), or vanilla-coriander ice cream atop an architectural banana pudding layered between vadouvan curry cookie and loosely rooted in a pool of yuzu caramel ($11). And, if it’s pure decadence you want, then you’ll have no trouble finding the mac and cheese tanged with duck yolk confit and a blend of comte and gouda cheese ($16).
Considering my admiration of the ambitious seafood dishes, I almost felt guilty when I realized the wagyu teres major ($42), striped from the grill, juicy pink in the middle and finished with a dusting of flaky salt, might have been my favorite dish at Guild. Of course, you can find a perfectly cooked steak at a number of places around town. What you will find at fewer places in Austin is a kitchen making such aspirant swings. Those cuts may foul some back or miss altogether, but they’re a sign of a team with a serious game plan.
3800 N. Lamar Blvd. Suite 170. 512-975-2626, guildaustin.com
Rating: 7 out of 10
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Raw bar, $12-$23. Appetizers and small plates, $12-$27. Entrees, $28-$66. Desserts, $10-$12.
The order: Black bass, trout (or salmon), wagyu teres major.
Expect to pay: $75 (price per one person, does not include alcohol, tax or tip)
Notes: Complimentary valet parking is available on 39th Street.
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: Guild has the building blocks to be something special, but it still requires editing.