Food & Drink Go fish

Three hours from the ocean, Andrew Weissman serves seafood so fresh some of it tries to escape

"We don't have the Kumamotos yet," chef Andrew Weissman says by way of greeting as we enter the Sandbar for our second meal in as many days. As if we might choose to dine elsewhere upon learning that the Pacific oysters whose praises he was singing the day before are temporarily unavailable.

Diffuse white daylight glows through Sandbar's four picture windows, which front the intersection of Pecan and North St. Mary's, catty-corner from the Greyhound bus station. The windows are frosted halfway up, giving diners a measure of privacy from the busy street while conveying a sense of inner-city immediacy that, I've always thought, stokes appetites. There's nothing quite like hearing the Darwinian hoi polloi just outside to make one dig into a lobster salad with gusto.

Employees prepare for the lunch rush at The Sandbar. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Sandbar's space is small; it holds a mere eight tables augmented by eight more cheek-to-jowl seats at the bar. But the ceiling is high and the space - laminated in stainless steel, white paint and tile - seems infinite and intimate at once. Weissman is a yellow-aproned whirlwind behind the counter, slicing tuna for the sashimi, weighing gargantuan crab claws on a small scale, apprehending an errant lobster making a break for the floor.

This visit, we take stools at the counter, a cinema-worthy replica of a fish-market café on either coast, where we're eye to eye with the lobster in the glass display case who will make no less than three credible attempts at escape during our lunch. We christen him Houdini as one of the assistant chefs buries him in a blanket of ice for the second time.

Local artist and gourmand Harold Wood is seated at a nearby table; Wood might be described by Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell as both an early adopter and a connector. Foodies, running into each other dining out, will breathlessly exhange news of Wood's latest haunt. He says he's eaten at Sandbar an average of four times a week since it opened. "That's how I lost all this weight," he laughs, patting his trimmed-down belly. Designer Jill Giles, who offices next door, is another frequent customer. We all greet each other with giddy joy, thrilled to be sharing in an event that feels like a coming-out party for the proprietor of San Antonio's critically acclaimed contemporary French restaurant Le Rêve, and his charming wife and business partner Maureen. No longer the fearsome chef who is rumored to have turned away a prominent local businessman who blew his reservation by 15 minutes, Weissman is suddenly a gracious debutante and we all adore him. A fellow diner at the bar invokes Bouchon, the French Laundry's Yountville, California cousin, and New York's brasserie-inspired Balthazar. We nod our heads in agreement, our tongues happily seized up around the salt-cured scallops, which are served in delicate quarter-inch slices accented with bursts of pungent micro greens - coriander, basil, parsley - and a drizzle of intense passionfruit sauce that sets the brain's synapses firing: Is it like grapefruit? Peaches? Mango? All of the above, but better.

Sandbar's menu is stocked primarily with fresh seafood, all at prices that go down as easily as any one of its 16 varieties of oysters. On our first visit, the oysters, $2 apiece, comprised the majority of our meal. We supped on fat, salty Winter points, creamy Pacific Skookums, and most delectable of all, the tiny Atlantic Raspberry Points, which present a perfect balance between brininess and the taste of sea air. The three dipping sauces were superfluous, but those diners who consider oysters a condiment-delivery system will be pleased with Sandbar's selection: an Asian-style vinegar spiked with micro greens, shallots macerated in red-wine vinegar, and a dry cocktail sauce made with cooked, mashed tomatoes and horseradish.

Sixteen slurps later, we dug into Weissman's crab salad, which sits appropriately like a crown atop a bed of romaine. Lightly dressed in a classic King Louis dressing Weissman punches up with a little Sarache and fish sauce, the crab was fresh and succulent without a hint of processed saltiness. Fortunately, seafood, barely adorned as it is at Sandbar, is not especially filling, and we had room for the key lime pie, a thin, tart custard atop a graham-cracker crust, topped with a little whipped cream and lime zest. If you've spelunked your way through one of those dyed, poufed, minty-green confections, Weissman's version will convince you that not only is key lime pie the most brilliantly simple dessert since divinity, it's the perfect accompaniment to fish, cleansing the palate and placating the small, greedy child inside.

152 E. Pecan
11am-1am Tue-Sat
Price Range: $4-24
Major credit cards
Wheelchair accessible
Kumamotos being unavailable today, we lock eyes with Houdini and order the enormous king crab legs followed by a lobster salad. The meat from both melts in our mouths; the crab is sweet, tender, and copious, the rich lobster classically complemented with crisp romaine and hardboiled eggs. On a later trip, a companion's crab isn't as tender, but we comfort ourselves with Sandbar's tuna sashimi, which benefits from the Asian touches Weissman distributes lightly throughout the menu: Topped sparingly with shredded daikon, salmon roe, wasabi-infused flying-fish roe, and micro greens, and drizzled with soy sauce, the fish shines through, mild, firm to the bite, but meltingly soft on the tongue. Our four-top was passing plates quickly at this point, purring our way through scallops, sashimi, and lobster knuckle, everyone's eyes crinkled with the pleasure of communal eating. The seviche, we agreed, was the only disappointment, tasting more of the acidic citrus marinade than of fresh fish.

This week, the Weissmans are on a one-week vacation. When the Sandbar reopens August 9, it will resume its carryout service and the restaurant, previously serving only lunch, will be open until 1 a.m., which may encourage more diners to sample the well-matched white-wine list (beer and sake also are available). The 2002 Vocoret Chablis, in particular, hits the palate like a cool slab of Pedernales limestone, a perfect match for oysters. We've yet to sample the limited hot menu, which includes New England clam chowder, a roasted lobster bisque, and shrimp and lobster rolls, but we're saving a few treats for those cool fall months that are surely just around the corner. We're used to waiting: Sip, Weissman's downtown coffee shop, opened months after the projected date; Sandbar, which opened in June, was promised for October 2004. But Weissman is a perfectionist, and if it takes a little extra time to achieve his vision (a family burger joint on Loop 1604 is next), so be it. This catch is worth the wait.

By Elaine Wolff

Scroll to read more Flavor articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.