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Newcomer of the Year: Perla's Seafood & Oyster Bar

On South Congress, Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman Jr. run Austin's hottest oceanfront property

Mike Sutter
Tommy Moorman Jr., left and Larry McGuire opened Perla's in April to offer 'fresh, simple, honest seafood' and netted a place on Esquire's list of the nation's best new restaurants.

Among the more than 100 places to eat, drink and be fabulous that have opened in the Austin area in 2009, a few strong contenders have emerged.

• The French brasserie Justine's wins for Loudest Buzz.

• The East Side Show Room gets the Post-Apocalyptic Concept Prize.

• David Garrido's eponymous taqueria takes home the Say My Name Award.

• The Downtown Is Our Town Again Trophy goes to Annies Caf? & Bar.

But the honor of being Newcomer of the Year belongs to Perla's Seafood & Oyster Bar, the South Austin restaurant from chefs Larry McGuire and Tommy Moorman Jr.

With a deck full of picnic tables and beach-club umbrellas fronting South Congress Avenue, Perla's opened in April with two factors in its favor: beautiful weather and the hyperventilating foodies who had heard that the guys behind Lamberts Downtown Barbecue were planning a seafood place in the former home of Mars restaurant, which closed in December.

'It was as busy as we ever dreamed it was going to be, and we were just kind of hanging on for dear life,' McGuire said of that first month. 'And then we had the hottest summer ever. And now we're kind of having a wet fall.' For a restaurant with half its seating capacity outdoors, the first six months might have been a disaster.

Except they haven't been.

From a kitchen team that includes Parkside alumnus Ben McBride and Jeffrey's veteran Josh Sacco, Perla's turns out solid dishes like grilled octopus with fried potato and spicy a?oli, creamy lobster grits, perfectly fried oysters and razor clams and a whole grilled red snapper with spicy red chimichurri. McGuire calls it 'fine dining-caliber food for the masses.'

The bar keeps pace with a nimble wine list and fresh cocktails like Alpine lemonade made with Aviation gin, pine liqueur, crushed raspberries and lemon juice. And in this month's issue of Esquire, Perla's made the magazine's list of the best new restaurants in America.

In a sea of worthy competitors, Perla's is the Newcomer of the Year because everything works together. The blue-and-yellow color palette of the decor and the loopy lettering of the logo evoke an easy surf nostalgia without conjuring images of Jimmy Buffett. The food is by turns campfire simple (grilled Brussels sprouts, pan-roasted grouper) and high-end finessed (seared scallop with jicama and lime), but it keeps its face turned to the salty ocean spray. In short, Perla's succeeds at being new because it feels like it's not new at all.

For Moorman, the formula has been straightforward: 'It's a great location. I think people are digging what we're trying to do: fresh, simple, honest seafood.'

A big part of that is oysters. Lots of them. As an oyster shucker, Moorman says he's second only to oyster manager Jennifer Tucker. Yes, Perla's moves enough oysters that the briny bivalves need their own manager. 'You have to keep on top of inventory and ordering,' Moorman said. 'All that stuff gets flown in from probably five different sources.'

On a recent weeknight, the menu included 13 types of fresh oysters. Kumamotos from California, Olde Salts from Virginia, Malpeques from Canada, oysters from the Texas Gulf Coast, sold by the half-dozen for $10 to $15 with 'crackers and good condiments.'

McGuire said he's interested in making Perla's as strong as Lamberts, which opened to fanfare of its own in 2006.

'Any restaurant that we help with now is going to have a certain amount of buzz, just because we have, hopefully, a good reputation for doing quality places, fun places with cool interior design,' he said, an allusion to his consultation on La Condesa, the Michael Hsu-designed and Joel Mozersky-styled Mexican restaurant that opened across the street from Lamberts earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the Hot New Thing momentum has swung to Justine's and the East Side Show Room. McGuire's all right with that.

'Now we're just trying to settle into being a great restaurant with solid food and consistent service,' he said.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Perla's Seafood & Oyster Bar

1400 S. Congress Ave.

291-7300

www.perlasaustin.com