Tuesday, September 9, 2008

PI critic raves about many Spur dishes and drinks. Read it:

Spur is a stylish ride of drinks and dishes


Spur Gastropub isn't exactly a pub. It's more a stylish cocktail lounge serving signature drinks and high-concept eats.

That was never more clear than when the server carded my kid. The place is 21-and-over, he very diplomatically explained. The sign says so on the door (though not on the Web site, which I checked before coming in).

I guess I just assumed that like Seattle's other gastropub -- the crazy-busy Quinn's on Capitol Hill -- it was an all-ages venue, at least until a certain hour. My mistake.

As I looked around the room, it made perfect sense, though. The crowd was a mix of Belltown cuties getting their drink on, couples sharing small plates, large parties mixing it up after work. The place has a very grown-up vibe.

The Spotted Pig in New York gets a lot of credit for launching the gastropub concept in this country, but this culinary revolution began at The Eagle in London, where pub grub was elevated to upscale dining heights. (Not to belabor the point, but both Spotted Pig and The Eagle allow minors.)

A more recent, and most welcome development has been the arrival of the nouveau speak-easy. These are exclusive venues with unlisted numbers -- again, mostly in New York. I'm glad Spur didn't go that direction because it's too good to be kept a secret.

Spur is a collaboration of chefs Brian McCracken and Dana Tough, who have turned the former Mistral into a sophisticated setting with a Western accent. Don't think "Urban Cowboy." The accent is subtle -- more like Brad Pitt in "A River Runs Through It" than John Travolta in a 10-gallon hat. To make the point, Spur's long, tall banquette looks vaguely like a saddle and an ongoing slideshow features black-and-white images of chickens and tractors and old-time Seattle. John Wayne movies play on a TV above the bar.

What do you say we belly up to that bar, partner? It's manned by the congenial David Nelson, who has created a long list of signature cocktails. A few are updates of old-fashioned favorites. I just loved the West Coast Pimm's, a refreshing combination of Pimm's No. 1 (a gin-based liquor infused with spices and fruit flavors), lemon, cuke, mint, basil and a splash of ginger ale. Why, that's practically a health food bev.

Much of the rest of the list sounded too sweet, but Nelson also did a fine job shaking up a gin gimlet even Philip Marlowe would have to admire. A resounding tang came from fresh-squeezed lime juice -- I was offered the choice between fresh and sticky-sweet Rose's -- mixing it up with the decent house gin, Gordon's. It was shaken and served up in a martini glass, the tiniest shards of ice floating on top. Very nice.

You know what would go great with that? An order of pork rinds. In a city that can't seem to get its fill of pork belly, the chicheron is the next logical obsession. Spur's magnificent rendering of this fried pork skin sits on top of a pile of mussels and clams simmered in a fantastic slightly spicy, saffron-y broth. Drop a piece of the golden, crunchy chicheron into the broth and it becomes the best baconlike cracker you've ever tasted. I am afraid I made a pig out of myself doing just that.

Of course, there's pork belly, too. The fatty little squares were sandwiched between a pillowy soft brioche to create a pair of sliders. The smoked orange marmalade came just to the brink of overshadowing the pork, but it managed to stay in balance.

The chef duo certainly isn't timid about seasoning, which is great. Except when it goes one toke over the line. The absolutely gorgeous presentation of a pan-seared trout -- a mustard foam lapping at the filet -- wasn't the perfect 10 it could have been because it was a shade too salty. And the accompanying mizuna was overdressed in vinaigrette that was out of balance -- too acidic.

I had no complaints about the exceptionally tender flat-iron steak and the ultrabuttery butterfish, also known as black cod. Both those showstoppers were cooked sous-vide, the food vacuum-sealed and simmered at a very low temperature. This results in incredibly concentrated flavor and a texture that's beyond tender. It barely requires chewing.

Those two dishes are the most entreelike offering on the fairly short menu. And, at $24 for a smallish portion, some might find them too precious. But they were practically flawless, the steak sliced and laid out like a beefy fan, a dollop of shallot marmalade on top. The fried potato on the side was the size of a hockey puck and that sucker went straight into the net, instantly making my Top 10 spud dishes of all time. I loved it because it was like a cross between mashed potatoes and French fries, like an outsize croquette.

The butterfish was perched on a pool of green, English peas and sauteed morels. Simple, elegant, but the lack of a starch left me wanting more. A basket of bread might have filled the void, but they don't serve bread at Spur. (I wonder what The Duke would make of that.)

Wait a minute. I take that back. The buns that hold the terrific bison burger are as good as the brioche used to showcase the pork belly sliders. The slightly gamey -- but like duck and lamb, gamey in a good way -- bison burger is cooked medium rare, the server said. Is that OK? she wondered. (Spur's staff was very solicitous; I was so impressed how servers worked as a polished team, especially when greeting diners at the door. Even the buser jumped in to seat people.) In reality, the burger was more along the lines of a medium, which worked even better. A thick slice of heirloom tomato added to the glorious, juicy mess of a sandwich. The pile of shoestring potatoes on the side provided a crunchy counterpoint to the savory burger in the soft bun.

During my last two meals, I was happy to see the kitchen had gotten over the idea of sending out dishes piecemeal. The first time I wandered in, our "two top" was served one salad -- a nicely dressed tangle of heirloom lettuce topped with ricotta salata -- and, later, a baby beets salad accompanied by a squiggle of creamy chevre, arugula and a pistachio wafer on top. I had some doubts about a kitchen that couldn't even get two salads out at the same time. Maybe they were just trying to build drama.

If you're in the mood for something sweet, Spur definitely delivers drama.

The bar offers a daily dessert cocktail. Nearly every table sporting a post-savory treat was ogling the pistachio financier, a tea cake paired with a slightly salty foie ice cream. I preferred the summer fruit tartlet, the beautiful berries at their sweet peak. Both were absolutely gorgeous. The local cheese plate also is impeccably presented.

I liked most everything I tried at Spur -- the lone disappointment was a tarted-up take on Buffalo wings the menu called chicken confit, which, unlike the appendages from upstate New York, lacked any kind of zing. But for this gastro-minded watering hole to truly succeed, the kitchen has to change things more often. (And when they update the menu, I sincerely hope McCracken and Tough add a vegetarian option beyond the salads.)

The gastropub's Web site promises updates, but the menu hasn't changed since it opened in early July. Surely, those creative wheels will start turning as Spur goes from a loping canter to a full-out gallop. I have no doubt this culinary duo can take this savory saloon to the next level.

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