Which is why it’s great.
O suspicious diners, I am not one of you. In fact, let me tell you about one of the first moments I fell in love with a restaurant that tries hard—and just hard enough: the moment my friend ordered a Manhattan.
"What kind of bourbon would you like?" asked the waitress. Prodded for a recommendation, she suggested Bulleit, an artisanally produced bourbon from Kentucky. Then she pried further: "How would you like it? Regular, dry, perfect?" My friend was taken aback by the question. Waiters never offer these kinds of variations on a Manhattan. Was she just trying to impress us with her precision? No, the sincere look said that this was something that mattered to her, and, she was assuming, to him as well.
The second moment I fell in love with Spur: The arrival of my first dish. Spur's menu lists about a dozen items, mostly small plates in the $8–$14 range as well as a $13 burger and two $24 entrées. It's in keeping with Brian McCracken and Dana Tough's declaration that Spur is a New American gastropub, a place where you're there to drink as well as dine. My friends and I had ordered four or five plates, then tacked on a beet salad with pistachios and goat-cheese mousse to make sure we ate enough vegetables. Beet salad with goat cheese is the great cliché of the past half-century, a pairing so common that even the great versions taste lazy. But there was nothing lazy about the plate that arrived, my first glimpse of McCracken and Tough's mad skills: a neat row of evenly sliced wedges of roasted chiogga beets, coated in chopped pistachio nuts, perfectly aligned on an even white rope of mousse, punctuated with a pile of baby arugula leaves, and topped with a precariously balanced savory tuile cookie. (Again, if the words tuile and baby arugula set you off, chances are good Spur will annoy you.) Even more impressive: The salad tasted fantastic, a perfect calibration of nutty-sugary-earthy-tart-goaty-peppery.
I had a holy-shit response to much of Spur's food, both in terms of presentation and flavors. McCracken, the owner, met up with Tough working under Maria Hines at Earth & Ocean, and the two have worked in a number of Seattle restaurants. But here they're looking to New York and Spain as well as local farms and waters for inspiration, and trying food that Tough calls "risky." They keep the menu small, they play hard, and they're not afraid of diving into trends.
Which is why it's perfect that Spur is just off design-friendly Second Avenue, in the old Mistral space. The restaurant only seemed to be closed for the flicker of an eyelid, but in that time the owners stripped away all Mistral's gauzy formality and replaced it with West Elm Western. They painted the walls a deep, manly gray, and project black-and-white stills of the West (Wild and New) in a giant framed screen. Industrial lights overhead look like they were built to stage cage fights for hamsters inside. The owners populated the room with dark wood tables of varying heights; some have a just-hewn quality underneath the varnish. A quarter of the dining room is taken up by the bar, with its impressive roster of microdistillery spirits and other arcana. There's a self-conscious urbanity to the decor, but it's no Veil (which is so precious that even I feel uncomfortable).
And like Shannon Galusha at Veil, McCracken and Tough aren't afraid to play with foams, gels, and powders. Unlike at Veil, a meal at Spur, including a couple of glasses, will set you back only $50. In general, there's a significant A.F.—asshole factor—associated with all these novelties. Thank Marcel Vigneron, the Top Chef contestant who introduced most of America to the wonders of "molecular gastronomy," a concept that gets assholier the more I think about it. But in Spur's casual environment, the calcium lactate gluconate is slipped in: Scattered among a "summer vegetable salad" with the skinniest of haricots verts, quarters of baby patty-pan squash, microgreens, peeled cherry tomatoes, snapdragon flowers, and parmesan shavings was a vegetable I couldn't identify. Round and shiny, with a slight teardrop shape, the pale-yellow ball seemed soft to the touch when I poked it with a fork. Was it a ground cherry? A roasted baby pepper? I put the ball in my mouth, where it popped, flooding my mouth with the aroma of sweet corn. (McCracken later told me he turns a sweet-corn cream into these gel-enclosed drops using a process called "reverse spherification.")
Most of the big cities across the nation now support a handful of restaurants specializing in molecular gastronomy, but they usually amp up the A.F. with an arch theatricality, whereas Spur's chefs and servers seem more focused on the quality of their ingredients. When the trout salad arrived, for instance, our waiter identified the elements of the dish with little fanfare—here's the pan-seared fillet, these greens are mizuna mixed with faro (whole spelt grains) and almonds, and oh, that's an almond foam.
Every dish on the menu impressed me, not just because of the chefs' techniques but for the results they produced. Crackly crostini were topped with house-made mascarpone cheese, pink pickled shallots, and chunks of "smoked salmon," basically sashimi with smoke blown over its surface long enough to scent the tender pink flesh. Butterfish poached sous vide (vacuum-packed in a low-temp water bath), served with morels and peas, had the most amazing flake to it, moist and satiny. There was a foie ice cream, with just the faintest whiff of duck-liver fat, set on top of powdered pistachios blended with a little salt, as well as a buttery pistachio financier (ground-nut cake) and a smear of tangy elderflower syrup; adding the savory to the sweet only enhanced its richness. I'd need double my normal space to write up each of the dozen items. Instead I'll just say this re the pork-belly sliders: Order them.
There were a few dings—including with the servers. Having performed marvelously during my first meal, they were overwhelmed by two loud business parties on my second visit and always arrived five minutes after we'd started craning our necks to look for them. It's clearly time to hire a busser, at least. But overall, I had two inventive meals with very few flaws.
As for you who distrust ambition or anything that reminds you that Seattle is bigger than your neighborhood association, you'll probably be outraged by the hard tables, the $100 ties on the crowd around the bar, the oddly shaped plates, and David Nelson's $12 cocktails (personally, I'd recommend the Foreigner). Feel free to come up with any number of additional reasons to turn your back on Spur. Because then I might get a table.