Seafood Restaurant Bill’s Oyster Brings New Orleans to Downtown Austin
This delightful restaurant feels like a slice of the Big Easy right here in Austin
New Orleans is my siren song. It lures me back often, seducing me with its indulgent food and copious hospitality. When I’m there, I feel nourished, nurtured and nostalgic. But I can’t visit as often as I’d like, so my new stopgap is Bill’s Oyster, a delightful new restaurant that feels like a slice of the Big Easy right here in Austin.
Bill’s Oyster specializes in New Orleans-inspired seafood and cocktails. It’s a tiny sliver of a place, wedged between a dry cleaner and a trendy new Chinese restaurant — and brazenly positioned across from another seafood restaurant, the glitzy multi-level Truluck’s. It takes a lot of chutzpah to plant your flag across from one of Austin’s most celebrated seafood destinations. And while I’m a big fan of Truluck’s, Bill’s is everything Truluck’s isn’t: understated and cozy.
Located in downtown’s 2nd Street District, Bill’s looks and feels like one of those unassuming little joints you might stumble upon in the French Quarter or Garden District. After passing through its archetypal transom door, you enter a long, narrow dining room, reminiscent of a New Orleans shotgun house. A backlit marble bar lines one wall while a handful of banquette tables hug the other. Tucked in the back is a compact open kitchen. And outside, a few tables occupy the sidewalk for al fresco dining.
The restaurant’s decór is an ode to old New Orleans. The intimate room feels elegant yet relaxed, with crisp white butcher paper covering each table and bentwood chairs upholstered in supple green leather. Retro lighting moodily illuminates whitewashed walls adorned with vintage photos and floors covered in antique tile. Food is served on heritage china or slightly tarnished silver platters, giving things a shabby-chic vibe.
The menu is modest but crammed full of tasty classics. For starters, the raw bar features fresh oysters from throughout North America, shrimp and crab cocktail, seafood towers, and caviar service. There’s also Clams Michelada — raw littleneck clams with a dash of vinaigrette and Mexican Tajín spices. And scallop ceviche, which takes a delicious spin around the globe: sweet, finely diced scallops mixed with minced Mexican arbol chiles and pineapple, tossed with Japanese yuzu and spicy, citrusy Peruvian Leche de Tigre sauce, then dusted with chopped Thai basil and chives.
Non-raw sharables include fried green tomatoes, fried oysters and decadent homemade mozzarella sticks garnished with caviar and freshly grated horseradish, served with vodka creme fraiche for dipping. There’s both fish and beef tartare on the menu. And while the yellowfin tuna tartare is very nice, go for the fantastic steak version, made with Prime Chateaubriand, black truffle and crunchy hazelnuts, then topped with a quail egg. It’s some of the best I’ve ever had and still haunts me months later.
For main dishes, there are jumbo lump crab cakes, fried Grouper fingers and a fantastic seared scallop. The lobster roll is sensational. It takes a deft touch to get a lobster roll right and Bill’s gets it right. Fresh, sweet, succulent Maine lobster is lightly dressed with a subtle tarragon aioli and served on the quintessential toasted brioche bun. It ain’t cheap, but it’s worth every penny. And although you’re in a seafood place, don’t dismiss the terrific burger. Made with brisket short ribs, this double-patty smashburger is gilded with melted cheese, topped with sliced tomato, onion and slivered pickled okra, then served on a brioche bun slathered in special sauce. With a side of piping hot fries, it’s a gourmet all-American classic.
Take my advice and save room for dessert. Bill’s offers just one dessert but it’s the only one you need: New York style cheesecake shipped in from the famous S&S Bakery in the Bronx. Simple and sublime, it’s served straight up without any unnecessary garnish, fruit or sauce.
Being New Orleans inspired, Bill’s showcases drinks as much as food. It offers outstanding versions of NoLa classics like the Pimm’s Cup, Vieux Carre, French 75 and Hurricane. It also offers a variety of martinis, including the Siberia made with Ford’s gin, Carpano Bianco vermouth, basil eau de vie, black pepper mist, saline and a lemon twist.
There are creative signature cocktails with intriguing names like Igor’s Laundromat, a rift on a mint julep made with Wild Turkey 101, Rye, apricot liqueur, mint and absinthe mist. Beers include local, domestic and imported options and the wonderful little wine list features unexpected gems like a Sicilian Alcesti Bianco and a Spanish Lasalde Elkartea Txakoli, both perfect pairings with seafood.
There’s no substitute for New Orleans, a magical place that can’t be replicated. But Bill’s Oyster does a darn good job of capturing a Big Easy vibe with its marvelous food, drink, ambiance and hospitality. So if I can’t make the next flight to NoLa, I’ll take the next Uber to Bill’s.