Hook, line, and sinker

In its new Pearl Brewery location, the Sandbar is still the best seafood restaurant in town, and one of the finest San Antonio restaurants, period, even though it’s suffering from a sort of identity crisis. When Chef Andrew Weissman opened the Sandbar in its original Pecan Street location, it was a casual but sparkling lunch joint. The shiny white tiles and stainless-steel fish counter were a nod to his inspiration — places like Mary’s Fish Camp in New York or Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco, where the service and the wares are first-class, but the ambience maintains an informal blue-collar edge taken from the nearby docks that provide (or used to provide, when the oceans were more bountiful and our tastes less global) the day’s catch.

It was a tall order in SA. We’re three hours from the nearest sea, and what truly pro waitstaff there is to be had was working at Weissman’s Le Rêve. But he nailed it. For a few months, there was no better meal in town than lunch at Sandbar: a glass of Chablis, a dozen East Coast oysters to start, the velvety lobster bisque, and a shrimp roll was about perfect.

Then he closed up and reopened what seemed like an eon later, for dinner only. At nighttime, the shiny white décor felt cold and clinical, and driving downtown for dinner was a production when dropping in for lunch on a workday had been an immediately gratified impulse. But for consolation we got the dynamic restaurant duo of Chris Carlson in the kitchen and James Martin running the front of the house — and the whole fried fish Asian-style.

You can still get the whole fried fish at the new Sandbar, and my trusty sidekick and I did on a recent weekday night, when the catch of the day was Red Snapper. It was perfectly firm and tender, and the flipside was even better, having soaked longer in a ponzu-like sauce, which tasted of fresh ginger, citrus, and scallions. I’d eat it again right now, the $42 or so notwithstanding (it’s enough for two — portions and pocketbooks).

Chris and James are at the new location, too, but their wit and warmth can’t fill the larger restaurant alone, and the new waitstaff is hit and miss: A couple of the hostesses seem unaware that attitude crashed with the housing market, and some of the staff pull the classic SA disappearing act just as you’re winding up your evening. This wouldn’t matter as much if Sandbar had stayed true to what seemed like its original mission. But it’s as if the lobster roll is fighting with the “skate wings on coconut curry and kaffir-lime broth” for the soul of the restaurant. This is most apparent in the décor, which is now ... shiny white with blue accents times five. It’s fine in the daytime, but at night it generates a chill that even a big crowd can’t quite dissipate. By way of consolation in the new location we get a chocolate box cake made with condensed milk to rival the restaurant’s Olympian Key lime pie. The wine list is still well matched to the menu (and if you specify your pain threshold, not too painful), and several good European beers are available on tap and in the bottle.

Complaints aside, most of the meals I’ve had at the new digs were excellent: the Red Snapper mentioned above, the poached Arctic Char, which comes delicately dressed with slivers of cucumber and sprinkles of roe, and for lunch one day a classic crab salad. The disappointments have been the skate wings, which were cooked perfectly but outdone by their sauce, and the New England Clam Chowder. My lunch date last week ordered the soup; the seasonings seemed out of balance, and the potatoes were either underdone or of the wrong variety. It was as if they’d negotiated a separation with the rest of the ingredients (who would leave those plump clams?) but were still sharing the house.

The lobster bisque is as decadent as ever, rich with roasted-shellfish flavor, and the sashimi fresher than any sushi bar I’ve tried in town, but the fish sandwich of the day at that same lunch summed up the dissonance of the new Sandbar. Made with two generous slabs of very firm fluke and served with a bowl of kettle-fried chips bathed in Old Bay Seasoning and a side of coleslaw, it was fine but less than the sum of its parts. It seemed like one of those dishes chefs create in response to a perceived demand to see the money on the plate. Getting fresh seafood inland is an expensive proposition in and of itself, but maybe extras help make the point? The coleslaw’s dressing was accented with deliciously pungent fresh cilantro, but the vegetables were sliced so thin they were a stringy lump, and the chips just made me long for the old Sandbar. I’d throw it all overboard in a second for a lobster roll at lunch. •

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