September 19, 1997 in Seven

Feeding Trendy The Emerald City’s Restaurant Scene Is Getting Crowded With Haute Cuisine

By The Spokesman-Review
 

When a restaurant opens in Seattle, it’s a happening for hipsters. The place throws a wild party with enough food to feed a small country and a steady stream of champagne.

At least that’s how Sazarac made its spectacular debut in August.

On a Wednesday after work, the spacious, spiffy dining room was packed with perfectly coiffed, Armani-clad businessmen who mingled and munched. Stylish women searched in vain for an open table to set down their plates loaded with Sazarac’s Southern comfort food: hominy cakes, hush puppies, fried frogs legs and oysters on the half-shell.

While more than 500 folks at this invitation-only bash gobbled gourmet goodies, the crew worked up a sweat in the dazzling display kitchen at the back of the room. There was no mystery about how your meal was prepared, with rotisseries turning juicy roasts and wood-fired ovens roaring while gorgonzola bubbled on pizzas.

As if all that free food and booze wasn’t enough to make a big impression, Portland bluesman extraordinaire Curtis Salgado played from a makeshift stage near the busy bar. Salgado and his band were fresh off an appearance on “Conan O’Brien” the previous week.

This shindig was an absolute blast, a real hoot. And, oh yeah, the food was pretty darned good, too.

For the past year, the Seattle restaurant scene has been beyond hot. It’s been on fire. A red-hot supernova for trendy tastebuds.

It seems as though hardly a week goes by without a new place opening. Most of them are incredibly flashy. The dining rooms are pleasantly noisy, sprawling spaces where no expense has been spared. Heck, California restaurant magnate Wolfgang Puck has just opened his second Seattle location.

Still, it seems impossible that the city could sustain so many expensive eating establishments.

“If Wolfgang Puck really wanted to make some money, he would build a parking garage in Belltown,” joked Nancy Leson, who writes about restaurants for The Seattle Times. That gentrified area a few blocks from the Pike Street Market has become Seattle’s official dining mecca.

“There is a concern that some of the small places, the locally owned restaurants with a renowned chef, a place like Theoz, might get lost,” Leson said.

That’s exactly what happened at Pirosmani, a lovely neighborhood restaurant that has received reams of acclaim in local and national publications. It’s closing at the end of the year.

“There’s a trend in Seattle toward large, bustling places that offer more casual dining and a high-energy environment,” said Piromani’s chef-owner Laura Dewell. “We’re just not taken as seriously as the big, flashy places. It’s so frustrating.”

Yet, others believe the current feeding frenzy just means more business.

“This is really starting to become a food town,” said Abby McCune, the original chef at Spokane’s Luna, who now has her own place called Ventana in the Fremont neighborhood. “There are just so many choices. It makes people think about going out to eat more often.”

It has taken me a few trips to check out the fabulous new joints in Seattle. But what glorious research. Here are my tasting notes:

Of all the new places I visited, El Gaucho made the deepest impression. It was like stepping into a time machine.

The elegant dining room looked like the set of an old film noir flick. It was dark and romantic. Plush booths line the walls a half level above the main group of tables. Handsome waiters (one was a silver-haired Tom Selleck lookalike) sport smart tuxedos.

The crowd sipped martinis and listened to a pianist playing old standards. (I can’t remember the last time I heard “The Girl From Ipanema.”)

It should come as no surprise that El Gaucho existed before, in another era. It was a legendary steakhouse and watering hole in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but ran out of gas and closed in the ‘80s. In the belief that everything old is new again, it was resurrected last fall by its former general manager, Paul Mackay.

My dining partner had enjoyed a few three-martini lunches at the original El Gaucho way back when and she assured me this version was truly new and improved.

The menu is chockfull of old-fashioned favorites, though. Everything from Dungeness crab cocktails and oysters Rockefeller to Caesar salads tossed tableside.

Steaks are monstrous in size and taste, but if you want a real show, try the tenderloin brochette. It’s delivered dramatically to your plate off a flaming sword.

At El Gaucho, I enjoyed one of those magical meals where everything was perfect. My ostrich filet was tender and was surrounded by a heavenly demiglace. It tasted exactly like a filet mignon. Even the baked potatoes were top-notch, fluffy spuds the size of a small football.

Dessert was like the final act of this theatrical meal, with cherries jubilee or bananas foster prepared at your table with more pyrotechnics.

And when you’re so stuffed you can barely reach for the check, the waiter will drop off a tray loaded with fruit and nuts and roquefort cheese.

I certainly couldn’t eat like this every night, but it was a giddy splurge.

It helps to have deep pockets here. Entrees at El Gaucho range from $14.50 for cornish game hen to $54 for chateaubriand for two.

At the other end of the food chain is Blowfish, an Asian cafe on the ground floor of the new Paramount Hotel, where most of the dishes are under $10.

The casual dining room is filled with natural light and the menu is naturally light, with dishes that excite the eye and the palate without leaving you feeling bloated.

Diners are encouraged to make a meal out of a selection of appetizers or “plates for sharing.” Offering sharable meals has become de rigueur at the new breed of restaurants. (It’s hardly a revolutionary practice, though. At my house and at every Chinese restaurant in the universe, it’s called eating family-style.)

That kind of nibbling allows you hit to a few spots in one evening for a fun progressive dinner.

The appetizers I sampled in the bar were wonderful.

I scooped into lettuce leaves a fragrant mixture of stir-fried minced chicken and exotic mushrooms. Drizzled that with some spicy-sweet soy sauce mixture and rolled it up like a crunchy burrito. These lettuce cups were the best use of iceberg I’ve ever come across. Only wish it came with a finger bowl.

Flavorful duck roasted in Chinese five spice was tucked inside flaky wrappers for some knockout spring rolls. The rolls tasted rich and light at the same time.

Potstickers were stuffed with chicken and served with a hot-spicy dipping sauce.

There are also some skewers, a few interesting meatless noodle dishes, salads and soups.

Next time, I’ll dive into the bigger bites - maybe the prawns and scallops stir-fried with baby bok choy in oyster sauce, Korean bulgogi or green curry pork with string beans.

Obachine is another Asian bistro, this one with a lively sake bar and a high-profile owner in Wolfgang Puck.

Of course, Wolfgang - the man famous for feeding Hollywood’s elite at his Spago - is not in the house.

But it’s his menu and his wife’s decor.

I had heard lots of good things about this place, so brought high expectations to the table. And I was disappointed.

First, the way the place was set up was annoying. We had to get in an elevator with the hostess and ride to the second level dining room. She didn’t feel compelled to make elevator small talk, but I did. (“So, what’s good here?” “I don’t know, it’s my first day.”)

Then, the wide-open room was nearly empty on a weeknight. Without the energy of a crowd, the place seemed dead.

After sitting down, I noticed the mammoth Buddha perched on one wall, like maybe this was some kind of high temple of gastronomy. Oh, please.

The food was fine, but not particularly memorable. On a plate of potstickers, a few had an off-taste.

The seared tuna entree was a skimpy portion for $22 and the fish was perched atop a confusing mess of sauces.

Dessert sounded tempting, especially the tropical fruit Napoleon. But it just didn’t work on the plate. The pastry also tasted stale.

Maybe it was just an off-night for the kitchen, but I’m not particularly compelled to return to Obachine.

At Axis, folks lined up on a Friday night, waiting for a spot in the bar. Just to hang and quaff cocktails and to people-watch.

One of the newest additions to the Belltown scene is definitely the place to be seen these days.

On that Friday night, the tables in the dining room were packed. And it’s a big place, with space available upstairs, too.

The decor has a kind of Mediterranean feel, with sunny yellow walls and blond wood floors. The display kitchen is done up in gorgeous tile. There are a few stools at the counter near the cooking if you want to feel the heat and be close to the action.

I was thoroughly amused by our server, a very opiniated young man with dreadlocks who gave us a rundown on his personal favorites on the eclectic menu.

OK, but what if we really had wanted that roast chicken, a dish he dissed?

Not that it really mattered, but he seemed pleased with the choices we made.

The daily special pizza made a tasty appetizer with carmelized onions and tender-crisp asparagus.

This is one of the few restaurants I’ve ever been to where the starters nearly outnumbered the entrees. And the starches and veggies are ordered separately, which is a fun way to mix and match. Of course, it all adds up quickly. Plan on spending at least $20 a person.

I opted for wok-seared egg noodles with oyster sauce to accompany my crispy Szechwan chicken. It was a good match along with a side of excellent grilled asparagus.

Seafood includes the ubiquitous salmon, but veers toward exotic waters with whole roasted snapper in a yellow bean sauce, oven-roasted crab with Cajun seasonings, seared ahi (everybody’s doing tuna that way) and sea bass smothered in a puttanesca.

By the way, Axis has a couple of Eastern Washington connections. It serves a macaroni and cheese made with Cougar Gold. And, Richard Malia, one of the owners, grew up in Spokane.

Roy’s is a chain and it’s located in a hotel that’s a dated ‘70s dinosaur, The Westin.

But now for the good news: The food tastes as good as it looks and the plates that come out of the kitchen are awfully pretty.

This “chain” started in the Hawaiian islands by Roy Yamaguchi, a pioneer of Pacific Rim cuisine who showcases the great ingredients available in his home state.

I’ve eaten at Roy’s a few times on vacation and really loved it, especially his new place on The Big Island where they have a three-course kid’s meal that kept the little one entertained for more than an hour.

His Seattle restaurant has a bit of a cold hotel feel, but is warmed by its dark wood interior, the pretty atrium area and its army of friendly servers.

I was having dinner there with my cousin, Suzie, a self-confessed sweet freak, and as soon as we opened the menu, she zeroed in on the chocolate souffle. (It’s listed with the entrees because it takes 25 minutes to prepare.)

We asked the waiter about it and he said it was the best thing on the menu. Sold!

Because we had to kill some time while the souffle baked, we shared a mixed plate off the nightly fresh sheet. The unusual fish including ono (a white, firm-fleshed member of the mackerel family), shutome and opakapaka (Hawaiian pink snapper) is always masterfully prepared and beautifully presented.

Pale pink steelhead was paired with ono. The flavors played off each other nicely and a pair of inventive sauces enhanced each delicate, wonderfully fresh bite.

The kitchen also turns out a fine pizza and offers an ever-changing selection of roasted meat - duck, pork and steaks.

And, yes, the souffle was sublime. Deep, dark chocolate flavors arrived in a still warm, featherlight form. It was served on a brilliant white plate dusted with cocoa powder and drizzled with bittersweet sauce.

The souffle’s center was ooey-gooey. It took real restraint to keep from licking the plate.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SEATTLE’S NEW HOT PLATES Axis, 2214 First Ave., (206) 441-9600 Blowfish Asian Cafe, 722 Pine St., (206) 467-7777 El Gaucho, 2505 First Ave., (206) 728-1337 Obachine, 1518 Sixth Ave., (206) 749-9653 Roy’s, 1900 Fifth Ave., (206) 256-7697 Sazerac, 1101 Fourth Ave., (206) 624-7755

This sidebar appeared with the story: SEATTLE’S NEW HOT PLATES Axis, 2214 First Ave., (206) 441-9600 Blowfish Asian Cafe, 722 Pine St., (206) 467-7777 El Gaucho, 2505 First Ave., (206) 728-1337 Obachine, 1518 Sixth Ave., (206) 749-9653 Roy’s, 1900 Fifth Ave., (206) 256-7697 Sazerac, 1101 Fourth Ave., (206) 624-7755


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email