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Taking the Plunge with a New Seafood Restaurant and Market on Austin’s East Side

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Last week Austin fishmonger Roberto San Miguel called out of the blue to say that he and Shane Stark, the current executive chef at Kenichi and previously with Paggi House, are opening a fish market and seafood restaurant in East Austin, at 2401 Cesar Chavez, at Clara. They sign the lease this week and hope to be open by February.

TM: I can’t really think of another Austin restaurant and fish market except Quality Seafood.

SS: Yeah, it will be similar to a Quality Seafood but on a much smaller basis—the existing building has 1,200 square feet, although a lot of it will be extensively redone (the ceilings are only about, oh, seven feet tall). We kind of stumbled across this place—heard about it from a real estate broker. Somebody had already had plans in place, stamped by the City and ready to go. They were going to put in a beer pub, but then things fell through. So we’re getting a sweetheart deal on it. We’re going to basically utilize those same plans because it will save us time and a lot of money, not having to start from scratch with the City.

TM: Twelve hundred square feet is fairly small.

SS: Yeah, we’re only looking at 70 seats, but it’s versatile. They had a bar in the plans, so we’ll keep that. Half of the bar is going to be a seafood and fish display, and the other half is going to have eight or nine bar seats on the side. Besides the inside space, we’ll have two outdoor dining areas. One’s going to be covered but open on the sides, just with tables and umbrellas, and the other one is actually going to have a cover with those drop-down flaps.

TM: Will you just have the restaurant or do you have other ideas?

SS: There’s a cool little spot in the back of the parking lot, with a stage, with a big cement barrier around it. We were sitting around wondering, “What can we do with it?” And we came up with the idea of Saturday afternoon shrimp or crab or crawfish boils, with tap beer and wine, maybe music too.

TM: Where will be you getting the fish?

RSM: We will be doing primarily Gulf fish. I’ve got suppliers. One is Capt. Mark’s Seafood out of Freeport. We’ll be focusing on snapper, yellowfin tuna, mako shark. We might get 100-pound groupers and big tunas. And we’ll have some special things. For instance, right now we have access to the only swordfish and tuna boat in the gulf. We’ll have boat prices [in other words, they won’t be paying a middleman].

TM: Is the seafood only local?

SS: I do have some contacts back in New Jersey for things such as scallops and hard-shell clams. I’m actually going to be in New York after Labor Day. I’ll to go meet with a friend of mine at Fulton Fish Market and see what they can provide.

TM: I’ve been reading about several Houston restaurants that serve oysters that come from specific reefs and bays, like Pepper Grove and Lavaca Bay—they have place names just like oysters from the Northeast and other parts of the world. And they taste subtly different from each other. Will you have anything like that?

SS: Yeah, definitely, it’s a trend that’s becoming popular elsewhere around the Gulf of Mexico. When you go to the Florida panhandle area, for instance, these little bars and little fish markets have oysters from right across the bay. On down the line, we’re gonna buy a refrigerated truck for shrimp. We’ll drive to the coast, and our goal is to have fresh shrimp at the restaurant that day and the day after— no shrimp over two days old.

TM: So, what sort of menu are you planning?

SS: I’m just thinking keep it simple. Probably have a chalk board menu. Grilling, sautéing, boiling, stews. Some of the best seafood stew I’ve ever had is at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York. I go there every time I’m in the city, just for the chaos [laughs]. It’s always slammed. They make Manhattan clam chowder and New England clam chowder right behind the counter. They have these big kettles that they pour it out of, sometimes it slops all over the plate—“Here you go. Here’s some bread too. Eight bucks.” I’m like, perfect, that’s all I want.

TM: When is the deal finalized and what’s your projected opening date?

RSM: We’re signing the lease this week.

SS: We’re looking at a February 2014 opening; that’s our best guess.

TM: How are you funding it?

SS: Investors. We have a couple guys in mind. And some money out of our own pockets, no doubt.

TM: Tell me more about the name.

RSM: It’ll be Pelagic. Or Pelagic Fish Market. “Pelagic” refers to the open ocean, although there are different pelagic zones, depending on how deep the water is. Let’s just say it gets technical. 

TM: What is the neighborhood like?

SS: It’s a cool area. Juan in a Million and Counter Culture are across the street. Behind us is a beautiful little old East Austin neighborhood. Hopefully the long-time residents will come eat here. That’s our goal, plus everybody else on their little hipster bicycles. 

TM: Will you stay with Kenichi?

SS: Yeah, I intend to. I can do this on the side because my days are mostly free. Eventually we’ll find somebody to run it on a day-to-day basis. 

TM: Is this a sudden thing or has it been in the works for a while?

SS: Well, this project is fairly sudden, but I’ve known Roberto for six years. It started off with him talking about opening a fish market, and I said, Hey, if you ever want to put a grill next to it, I’ll help you out with that. And now it blossomed into this.

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