Listen to Austin 360 Radio

La Sombra: When love at first bite starts to lose its flavor, it's time to have 'The Relationship Talk'

Mike Sutter

La Sombra, we need to talk.

First of all, I really like you as a restaurant, and I'd like to think we have a future. But for this relationship to have a prayer for the long-term, we need more spice. We need something fresher. We need to decide whether we're just chasing the lounge life or planning to have family dinners together. We can't spark along forever on the Yankee-Latina frisson of our first date.

And what a great first date it was, back in September. Just a casual brunch with a Cubano sandwich ($9) and a bowl of linen-colored soup with yuca and tangy plantains ($5). I said things like "raised to crescendo with buttery pulled pork" and even "instant cinnamon serenity" to talk about rice pudding with a sauce of port wine and chai ($6).

It was easy to find common ground on that canvas-shaded patio outside the sun-washed building that reminds me of an Incan temple in Peru, where your chef, Julio-Cesar Florez, is from. But now things are more complicated.

Let's talk about your drinking. With that lounge dressed in animal prints and rough-sawn lacquered wood and that proscenium arch of a bar, I understand why it feels like a night club at happy hour. I mean, the bamboo divider bulges into the dining room and aesthetically crowds it into the back wall. It looks like that's where your priorities lie.

Rightly so, at least with those pisco sours ($7), both frothy with egg whites, one in a short glass with lime and the savory-sour bite of Angostura bitters (the Peruano), the other all bright and lemony, refreshing in its champagne flute (the Chileno). Both are flirty and light, a solid match for an empanada tasting ($8): one with chicken and ginger, one with potato and caper-cream sauce, one with ground beef and powdered sugar, all of them in light-textured pastry shells.

And that white sangria ($6) with peach nectar really sets off skewers of tender and salty grilled quail ($11). I like the red sangria ($6) even more, with rum and the sweet purple corn juice you call chicha morada. But nothing could have saved your version of cochinita pibil ($8), which besides the banana-leaf wrapper, pickled onions and tortillas was unrecognizable as the orange-scented shredded pork dish the name usually implies.

And it might be how your family does it, but we'll have to disagree on making guacamole with vinegar instead of lime juice. Fine, call it guasacaca ($7); just please don't change the little plantain chips and crunchy corn cakes you serve with it.

It's hard to find the right drink for the ceviches on your menu. They're all strong with vinegar and citrus in a manic battle for acidic control. A sampler of three ($14) included a ceviche of the day with red snapper, thick-hulled white corn and teardrops of crunchy puffed corn called cancha. I stopped after a few bites, so strong was the taste of fish gone over to the dark side. I tried that ceviche by itself for $9 on another visit, and the fishy taste was gone, allowing the concentrated blast of lime to work its magic.

Only one of the ceviches in that original trio worked, the one with squid and mussels. Not the one with mushrooms, onions and corn, with portobello mushrooms cut in long, thick ribbons, like they'd been peeled rather than sliced. The ribbons were too tough to cut, and I ate them in big, leathery tangles.

Another raw-fish preparation called tiradito de atun ($9) also spun out unpleasant flavors from two of the half-dozen butterflied slices of blood-red tuna, the ones laced with a tight string of connective tissue. Otherwise, I liked the dish's fiery garnish of yuca with hot aji amarillo pepper sauce and an underlying tart leche de tigre (tiger's milk) made with blood orange.

I worry that the feijoada ($14) is a bad omen for us. The elements of the traditional black-bean stew were there in various forms — beans, rice, a slab of pork belly, a mushy link of blood sausage, raspy green kale — but they pulled in separate directions as if they were just living together with no intention of getting married. And the creamy-crunchy texture was right for a chicken risotto with walnuts and tiny potatoes ($13), but the flavor canvas moved in a faded arc from beige to ecru to pearl.

I needed more from a seafood stew of striped bass, mussels and clams called moqueca baiani ($19). More than just that little piece of fish, more from the tomato-coconut broth than just a blushy impression of tomato soup, more thought on how to present the polenta than just sinking it to the bottom of the bowl.

I noticed that even a few of your petite girlfriends ordered the parrilla gaucha ($19). Like them, no doubt, when I think of South America, I think of grilled meat. You brought it on a sizzle platter full of sliced hanger steak with a perfect sear and a rosy center and a chile-rubbed pork rib that was by turns tender and chewy. That link of sausage was nothing out of the ordinary, but the rest of the plate was: seared spring onions and tender potatoes, roasted squash and a pair of oily, herbal chimichurri sauces.

I know you have options. The match-dot-coms filled the tables to noisy capacity every night I was with you, and two times they had already cleaned you out of that seductive pastel de chocolate ($8), layered with chocolate in three strengths and textures with a lightly salted pistachio crust that amplified them all.

But I need some time to think about us. It's not you, it's me. Unless it really is you.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

La Sombra Bar & Grill

4800 Burnet Road. 458-1100, www.lasombra-austin.com .

Rating:

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays-Thursdays. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Mondays.

Prices: Appetizers $3.50 (empanada) to $11 (grilled quail). Ceviches $9-$14. Soups and salads $5 (side salad or plantain soup) to $13 (entree salad with ahi tuna). Sandwiches $9-$11 ($7-$11 at lunch). Main courses $13 (mushroom ravioli) to $23 (New York strip steak). Desserts $6-$8.

Payment: All major cards

Alcohol: Beer, wine and cocktails. Four beers on draft, six bottled. The wine list specializes in wines from South America and Spain, with 11 whites by the bottle ($21-$42) and 13 reds ($20-$59), plus three sparklers and a rosé ($23-$62). Eleven wines by the glass, $7-$9. Cocktails include pisco sours and sangrias (see review for description, plus caipirinhas, mojitos, martinis and margaritas ($6-$9). Happy hours run 3 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays with half-price appetizers, $2 off cocktails and wine and $3 beers.

Valentine's dinner special: A dinner for two for $69 Saturday-Monday (open Monday for the holiday). Shared scallop and duck appetizer, main courses of lamb chops or red snapper, a shared dessert and two glasses of sparkling wine. Call for reservations.

Wheelchair access: Yes

What the star ratings for fine dining mean: