Austin Restaurants Serve Raw Bar Seafood This Summer
There's been a trend surfacing among Austin's new restaurants over the past year, resulting in what will truly be a raw bar summer. Restaurants across the city are leaning on raw seafood — dressed up in three-tier towers and as fresh shrimp cocktail set-ups — to entice and refresh diners.
Austin is a land-locked city, but its residents love seafood, especially when the fish and shellfish are cooked well, presented prettily, sourced responsibly, and — most importantly — served when it's really hot outside (which, to be fair, is most of the year). The dishes, available at new restaurants like Bill's Oyster, Holiday, and Uptown Sports Club, represent a range of preparations and price points. Seafood towers are decadent, often lavish treats for dining groups or couples out on the town; shrimp cocktails, on the other hand, are classics, those steakhouse staples that can be either deceptively simple or over-the-top.
The two embody the high-low spirit of extravagant foods served in casual atmospheres, a best-of-both-worlds situation. Seemingly every single Austin restaurant opening has one or the other, making it that much easier for Austinites to bask in the seafood glory in whatever setting they choose and for however much they’re willing to pay.
Fancy-pants seafood towers make sense because it's a three-fold dish. First, there are the actual food items, typically a cross-section of raw bar offerings that include shrimp, oysters, crab, and sometimes even lobster. The tower at the Cherrywood Mexican seafood restaurant Este kicks it up a notch by infusing its seafood with chile and spices, including shrimp in a red chile marinade and lobster poached in morita-drawn butter. And to make things even better, it's accompanied by handmade tortillas, all for $160.
Towers make for ideal group meals because everyone at the table can get a little of everything without feeling wasteful. The new downtown lounge Estelle's seafood tower is available at market prices (typically in the higher $100 range). It comes with a shrimp cocktail, oysters, lobsters, and condiments including a spicy tomato marmalade. At Aaron Franklin and James Moody's New Orleans bar and restaurant Uptown Sports Club, the grand plateaux (French for "tray") is also available at market price with shrimp, oysters, crab Louie, smoked trout dip, and optional caviar.
Don't overlook the presentation, either. Uptown's platters make use of old-school beer-branded trays. Este's makes use of smooth pebbles for plated foods on its tower for a mix of background textures. Estelle's triple-decker is held together with a fancy pole through the middle. In these towers, chilled seafood is placed in aesthetically pleasing ways and accompanied by highly Instagrammable little forks and spoons.
Compared to seafood towers, shrimp cocktails might seem quaint, but the appetizer staple is going strong as a snack. Shrimp cocktails are a simple dish: just-cooked-enough plump large, a side of cocktail sauce, and a slice of lemon. And because it's Texas, the shrimp should ideally be from the Gulf. South Congress Hotel restaurant Maie Day — which is meant to feel like a throwback steakhouse by way of the Midwest — features extra plump shrimp paired with cocktail sauce and lemon for $18.
Taking the Texas coast to heart, fanciful East Austin cocktail lounge Holiday uses six ample Gulf shrimp for its shrimp cocktail at $18, paired with a lemon slice and sauces.
While, yes, the humble dish has been getting more expensive, it's still not as pricey as ordering a triple-level seafood tower for triple-digit costs. Uptown Sports Club lets people add additional shrimp to its six-piece $14 cocktail for $2.50 a pop.
Go forth and enjoy all of the bountiful seafood towers and shrimp cocktails Austin has to offer for the perfect high-low seafood summer.
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