For a landlocked city, Austin boasts a surprising number of good seafood restaurants. So is there room for another fish in this already crowded sea? Yes, if it offers something different like Mongers Market + Kitchen, whose menu sails around the country riffing on regional classics like Louisiana barbecue shrimp, Nantucket fish dip and Baja fish tacos.
At the helm is the dream team of Roberto San Miguel and Shane Stark. San Miguel made a name for himself as one of Austin’s top fishmongers, procuring fresh seafood for some of Austin’s best restaurants and farmers’ markets. And Stark came from Kenichi, bringing with him an Asian background that deliciously infuses the menu at Mongers.
Mongers is both a seafood market and restaurant. Up front, a display case and raw bar sells a small but fresh selection of seafood to take home. But the main draw is the charming restaurant. Upon arrival, we sat down and started with a sampling from the rotating oyster selection: four different East Coast beauties that were succulently fresh. Ceviche is ubiquitous on Austin menus, but Mongers’ is a showstopper: silky cubes of sweet, fresh yellowfin tuna tossed with citrusy kabosu, ginger and sesame. Scooped onto a crispy, tangy housemade salt and vinegar potato chip, this is one of the tastiest treats in town.
Next came a steaming bowl of PEI mussels bathed in an aromatic broth of fennel and tomatoes, and dotted with slivers of housemade andouille sausage. The mussels were small, but fresh, and we sopped up every last drop of the dish with a chunk of toasted bread. We hit the jackpot one night with a special offering of soft shell crab: plump, meaty crab dipped in light batter — reminiscent of a funnel cake — and served with zesty Asian dipping sauce and a tangle of peppery arugula. We rounded out our order with a side of tasty apple-jalapeño cole slaw.
Tempting menu staples include spins on Southern favorites including fish and cheddar grits, and Gulf red snapper served with earthy morels and spring peas in a chervil cream sauce. We’ll be back for Sunday brunch to try the crab cake and biscuit Benedict and the buttermilk oyster chilaquiles. For non-seafood fans, there’s a short rib sandwich, braised pork cheeks, and locally sourced chuck steak.
Desserts are simple and homey. I especially enjoyed the toasted pound cake and my companion liked the creamy chocolate and coffee pot de cream. There’s an intriguing wine list and our helpful waiter steered us towards starting with a couple of bubblies: a funky but delicious Australian Taltarni Tache Brut Rose and a more classical Spanish Naveran Dama Cava. Next, he recommended a terrific Fillaboa Albarino that was delightfully different. If wine isn’t your thing, the restaurant also offers a nice beer menu.
Mongers is as quaint as it is tasty. Seashells, driftwood and splashes of turquoise accent the nautical whitewashed walls. Charming — but not kitschy — it beckons ocean breezes and glowing sunsets. And there’s always room for a place like that.