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At Parkside, a Sixth Street hybrid carves its own path

High-low trendsetter balances the raw, the cooked and the perils of having it both ways

Mike Sutter

Austin hadn't seen a lot of places like Parkside before it opened in 2007, a fusion of city-style bar, market-fresh oyster saloon and technique-rich brasserie. It was a precursor to the new wave of high-low hybrids spinning out smart food in self-consciously understated settings.

Working without a template, Parkside nailed the food part. But hitting a consistent balance of casual and formal outside the kitchen has been trickier.

Chef and owner Shawn Cirkiel has a lot on his plate. The summer's social-media tsunami over a hot-dog cart in front of the restaurant has ebbed for now, but Cirkiel also added a balcony at Parkside and is set to open a pizza place called the Backspace in the next couple of weeks (see story, page 2).

Through all that, the food has been stunning, from a creamy blond pâté ($10) with subtle whiskey notes to a dish of raw fluke ($11) with almonds and lemon that's nothing shy of the perfect bite: toasted crunch, citrus sizzle, salty-sweet fish and oil. Neither has changed in three years. The same eye-rolling bite comes from raw salmon ($9.50) like oiled satin with matchsticks of green apple invigorated by herbs and mustard seed.

And it's the rare breed who gambles with marrow bones ($13.50). But here they are at Parkside, with grilled bread and mounds of green herbs to hide the fact that you're going caveman on bones as big as a pit bull's chew toy. It's like umami marmalade, some of it loose, some like butter that's just started to soften. Pile on too many herbs, and mostly what you'll taste is the bitter edge of carnivoral guilt. Use the salt, but go easy on the green. Own your primordial urges.

On that note, Parkside's duo of lamb ($24), with a loin chop and a shoulder cut, was the best lamb dish I've had this year. Radiant like a split pomegranate, the chop was cooked to a silky grain with grassy backnotes in a pan sauce with just enough salt to wake up the flavors, especially in the more tightly grained shoulder meat. It was the most fully realized of the entrees we tried, finished with a neat circular gratin made from earthy sunchoke crusted with minced herbs, a visual salute to the flavor-masking mint jelly we ate with lamb growing up.

Also from the hot side, roasted chicken ($19) with crispy skin, sweet-potato stuffing and tart little huckleberries is like a rustic field dinner, fresh from the hunt (ah, the wily yardbird). It's an amber-hued dish for the fall, just like the parsnip ravioli ($11), firm pasta pockets piled with root vegetables, apples and pecans. Not a generous plate, but every bite works hard. Seasonal hues of orange, gold and amber also pull together a dish of scallops ($24) with butternut squash puree.

With brasserie plates this good, you might skip Parkside's raw side. Don't do that. Aside from Perla's, Parkside has few peers for raw oysters, a dozen varieties on any given night at $14-$16 for six. All of the types I tried were as fresh and salty as a chartered dive. An abundant dish of ceviche ($11) combines bass, salmon, tomato, onion and herbs with oil and citrus, flanked by a precise line of scalpel-thin avocado slices.

The only dish I didn't like sharing a metaphorical seat at the raw bar with was an overly sweet king crab ($12.50) with grapes and a lemony verjus. In the company of the raw bar's other e-Harmonius matchups, the crab was overpriced and unbalanced.

Happy hours are ecstatic here, with beer, cocktails and the bar menu half-price from 5 to 7 p.m. every day. Nowhere else will you get a better $5 cheeseburger (normally $10) on a brioche roll with crisp, carefully salted thin fries. Same with air-fluffed crab fritters ($5.50/normally $11) with a sauce ravigote like creamy citrus mustard. At $19, I'd balk at a bar steak of rosy-red slices of seared Wagyu flatiron with fries. But for $9.50, I'm in.

But with all the food euphoria, there's something out of balance about the Parkside experience. Is it because the food is so beyond-category better than the atmosphere?

I mean, from the Parkside balcony we could see a couple making out on the street corner below, a shaggy man bellowing at everyone and no one, see the girls in micro-mini dresses trying to master the art of walking without flashing the boys in black tees straight out of ‘Jersey Shore.' It's East Sixth Street, but we knew that when we walked up to the door.

The disconnect isn't outside; it's inside. The exposed-brick walls, the cold wood veneers, the bare mirrors and exposed ductwork in the downstairs dining room amplify the crashing sounds of a clientele that falls somewhere between urban cool and excessive celebration, and the all-night jangle creates a dichotomy between bread and circus.

The two hours you need to navigate a multicourse dinner with wine feel more like three in a nightclub lounge. In that context, the service is fine. But in this place with progressive food and the bill to match, the waiters' aprons make them look like dishwashers, especially when they wear street clothes underneath. It fosters an informality that bleeds into the service.

More than I need to know that my waitress is a vegetarian, I need help pacing out disparate appetizers, entrees and dishes from the raw bar. Our waiter shouldn't share with us that he gets tired of explaining the food — something he wouldn't have to do if most of the menu weren't just five or six words with commas, followed by a price (‘marrow bones, herb salad $13.50'). I'm not asking for a double-rainbow disquisition on what it all means, but what will my salmon, apple and mustard be doing besides just showing up together?

And those dishcloth-style napkins with red stripes that imitate the interior paint, they shed white fuzz on anything they touch. Black jeans with dandruff on your thighs? You just came from Parkside.

But let's finish on a high note. The desserts by Steven Cak bring to mind two of my favorite pastry chefs: Callie Speer, who floured the Parkside path with doughnut holes as its first pastry chef, and her husband, Philip Speer, with his Bob the Builder plates for Uchi and Uchiko.

Cirkiel brought on Cak from Compass in New York this fall to fill the void left by Callie Speer's departure to start a cake business. He delivers with a sweet passionfruit custard on a crisp, delicate base ($8) plated with coconut sorbet and diced pineapple poached in vanilla and topped with toasted basil seeds.

The last dish I had at Parkside looked a little like Parkside. A square plank of chocolate mousse ($8) echoed the dark floorboards with an aged wood-grain veneer like it had been chipped from a chocolate maple tree. With hazelnut crunch, brandy ice cream and a tiny poached pear with the soft, nutty taste of port, the dish gave evidence — like so much at Parkside — of talent constantly in motion.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Parkside

301 E. Sixth St. 474-9898, www.parkside-austin.com .

Hours:5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. daily

Prices:Starters $8.50-$13.50. Soups and salads $7-$7.50. Oysters $14-$16 for six. Raw bar $9.50 -$12.50. Entrees $18-$25. Desserts $8. Bar menu $5.50-$11.

Payment:All major cards

Alcohol:Full bar. The wine list carries 20 whites by the bottle ($35-$114), 39 reds ($38-$115) and 12 sparklers ($34-$280), plus dessert wines. Twenty-one by the glass ($8-$18). The menu tic of using as few words as possible extends to wine by the glass, identified only by style and country of origin. It will make label-shoppers crazy; others might appreciate the possibility for adventure on a list that can change with the wine buyer's next great score.

Eighteen beers by the bottle, including six from Austin's Independence Brewing Co.

Specialty cocktails include a Oaxacan Dreamsicle ($8, with tequila, jalapeno and orange juice) and a Strawberry Sunshine ($8, with strawberry Stoli and cava). Most of these are not girly-man drinks, especially the Tex and the City ($9), smoldering with whiskey. But the Aperol Spritz ($8) with prosecco and that blushing orange Italian aperitif? That's a little bit girly-man.

Happy hour:From 5 to 7 p.m. daily, cocktails, beer and food from the bar menu are half-price. Speaking of half-price, oysters and sparkling wine by the glass and bottle are half-price all night on Wednesdays.

Wheelchair access:Call ahead

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