In a trip that began with a fortuitous encounter with The Coterie Room it only seemed appropriate to finish with Spur Gastropub, the Belltown flagship of Brian McCracken and Dana Tough. Praised by many and panned by few for their forays into modernist cuisine or “mg” I have to admit that going into the meal I was a bit skeptical about how my family would react to the food but at the same time having spent the previous three and a half days in Vancouver and returning early to Seattle that day for lunch at Salumi and bites at The Walrus and the Carpenter no one was overly hungry…and besides, all things being equal after our first experience with the duo in charge made me assume that at the very least the service and experience would be memorable.
With our reservation originally slated for 8:45pm but running well ahead of schedule with a very early flight the next morning we arrived at Spur just before 8:00 and after a bit of hunting for parking made our way into the heavily wooded space approximately ten minutes later to find it surprisingly empty – only two other tables filled as 3 Amigos projected on the wall opposite the large windows looking to the street. Greeted by the hostess who would also turn out to be our server (the only one working that evening it appeared) out reservation was confirmed and after declining a dark table near the window we were seated at a four-top big enough for six along the wall adjacent the bar. With the menu presented as an a la carte or prix-fixe style tasting we were left to decide as unmemorable music played softly overhead making my mother wonder aloud why they would show a dialogue based comedy without sound.
Clearly leaning towards the hipster sector of Seattle with a lot of ‘hot’ ingredients, gussied up cocktails, and a plethoric beer list our server would return with water approximately five minutes after we were seated and after confirming that not everyone needed to order the tasting we were ready to go – myself opting for the 5-course and each of the ladies selecting a single course plus dessert. Having noted already that our server was the only one working aside from the kitchen staff and the bartenders (who had no patrons and as such helped her to serve) I will say that compared to the Coterie Room service here was decidedly brisk and dishes were presented with rather poor pronunciation, but nothing out of the ordinary for a gastropub…just not the sort of place where you get that warm, professional, and welcoming feeling either.
With my mother opting for one of the house made sodas while the rest of us opted for water the first items to arrive at the table would be a $6 miniature loaf of piping hot fresh baked brioche so buttery that it neither came with any nor required any and my amuse for the tasting menu, a spherification titled “Smoked Apricot, Pickled Grape, Almond” that tasted surprisingly un-sweet considering the ingredients but was tasty none the less with a crisp vegetal tone behind aromatic notes permeating the sinuses.
Chatting about the trip, hopes for a timely flight (for once,) and all other things as we waited the first course of the night would be presented only to myself and my mother – for her a crisp and pleasant salad of Baby Lettuces with Avocado, Orange, Almond, and Shiso Vinaigrette that balanced sweet and vegetal with a deft hand as the crunchy almonds and creamy avocado lent their respective textures – and for myself a “Foie Gras Torchon with toasted bread” that looked nothing like Foie Gras at all. Described at length as mi cuit and liquid nitrogen frozen inside a green apple shell with Granny Smith, Rose gelee, and Pumpernickel dust I will start out by saying that overall this was one of the most attractive uses of molecular technique that I’ve seen outside of Alinea and follow that up by saying it did not just look good – it also tasted phenomenal as the creamy liver blended nicely with the fructose notes of the shell while the accoutrements lent spicy notes, textural variations, and a particularly pleasant floral note tucked just beneath the foie’s characteristic sapor. Small but intense I certainly could have eaten more but in reality my only quibble was the bread as it was so much better on the buttery brioche.
For the second course of my tasting, again served separately from the other plates, “Alaskan Spot Prawns with celery root flan, ginko nuts, Spot Prawn foam, Spot Prawn coral and brown butter” would arrive as the least modernist course of the tasting but at the same time a dazzling one none the less. Featuring two immense prawns – amongst the largest I’ve been served – each fresh crustacean was snappy and sweet overlying the vegetal flan, crunchy nuts, and a bit of greenery for added texture. Tasty and enhanced by the lightly saline foam the dish was additionally bolstered by a light dusting of prawn eggs and crispy ‘shrimp chips’ made of the same while the added brown butter seemed ever so slightly unnecessary as the prawns themselves had clearly been sautéed already.
For the third course of my tasting the rest of the group would also receive their main courses and I was pleased to realize that the “tasting” portions were no smaller than the regular plates thus signifying the tasting a tremendous bargain for those who have the appetite. As a follow-up to my prawns, “Veal Sweetbreads, Butternut Squash” would arrive with a unique bit of modernist trickery as a seemingly solid ball housed in a little nest slowly began to melt giving way to a sort of frothy gravy that soon covered the plate but once you got past the visual fun the combination of small but crispy veal sweetbreads, butternut squash puree and sous-vide butternut squash, and cider poached Granny Smith apples with sautéed greens was mostly an average dish with the offal itself cut almost too small to provide much flavor on its own instead relying on the sweetness of the squash and apples juxtaposed against the savory gravy to create a sort of stew-like flavor that could have been accomplished with a whole lot less work and manipulation otherwise.
For my mother’s main course she selected something I’d not expected – perhaps in retaliation for subjecting her to so much Asian ethnic eating in Vancouver or perhaps because the server sold it as “amazing” – the Grass Fed Beef Burger cooked Medium well with Red Onion Jam, Cheddar, Thyme, and Salty Fries. As I don’t enjoy burgers I did not taste it but I have to say the thyme tinted fries were exemplary with a nice crispy outside and nearly pommes puree interior. With regard to the burger, everyone else enjoyed it and considering the cost of gourmet burgers these days at restaurants it was a veritable deal given the size.
For my aunt’s dinner selection she chose a dish I’d have certainly had on my tasting if she had not and while my foie gras may have been good, “Smoked Parmesan Gnocchi with Caramelized Parsnip Puree, Brussels Leaves, Crispy Parmesan, and Smoked Almond” would prove to be my second favorite savory of the night. Featuring piped gnocchis seemingly made only of cheese and just a touch of flour as a base these little pastas were shockingly light and literally melted in the mouth leaving behind a creamy trail of woodsy flavor. Adding texture and more intrigue, the use of curly of parmesan cheese that had been texture modified, tender individual leaves of Brussels sprouts cooked in butter, and sweet yet earthy dollops of parsnip puree provided an all around flavor that was at once familiar but entirely distinctive and one of the best gnocchi dishes I’ve had in a very long time.
For my sister’s main course, stating she was in the mood for something light, she selected the Albacore Tuna sous-vided and served alongside carrot and coriander puree, parsley pudding, olive, and heirloom carrot. Generally not one to gush about tuna or fishes prepared sous vide that are not served with crispy skin or scales I will note that overall this was actually a very good piece of fish with a sashimi-like taste and texture that melded nicely with the various vegetables and spices, all of which had pronounced flavor and unique texture to help balance the large portion of tuna.
For my final savory, the best of the evening in my opinion, “Duck Pastrami, King Oyster Mushrooms” would be presented as my family continued to work on their main courses. Described as being house smoked with rosemary and sage and plated with Belgian endive, sous vide quince, and creamy chestnut pudding the four slices of rosy red margaret were perfectly prepared with a thin layer of fat beneath crispy skin and great flavor while the accoutrements all added something to the mix – the vegetal crunch of the endive, the intense sweetness of the quince, but most of all the smooth smoky notes of the pudding that if served in larger amount might have overwhelmed but plated in small dollops was superb.
Having seen some of the edible works of art emerge from the pastry kitchen to the table at our right dessert was an obvious choice and with four selections plus a trio of ice creams available we ended up settling on three choices total. Beginning first with perhaps the most attractive of the trio but overall the least successful in execution “Almond Crème Brulee with Pear Meringue and Rose Snow” would arrive as a long cylinder with a crunchy shell overlying a custard interior of great flavor but moving past the brulee itself the plate was marred by the addition of both the rose snow and rose ice cream, a pairing that simply made the dish cloying despite otherwise pleasant flavors from the pear meringue and gelato as well as the butter crumble.
Moving next to another savory tinged sweet, “Spruce Scented Goat Cheese Cake with Spruce Soda Foam,” honestly did not sound nearly as good as it looked or tasted. With ingredients heavily manipulated and texture altered but largely focused around a lovely shortbread base beneath tangy cheesecake with mere hints of pine this dish succeeded where the crème brulee failed mainly by balancing out the herbal essences with a number of flavors and textures including sous vide pumpkin and cranberries, maple syrup, and pumpkin cranberry gel. At times sour, at times sweet, but at all times creamy and smooth this was cheesecake that strayed from convention but never lost sight of its roots.
For the final dessert of the evening, the consensus favorite of the table, “Chocolate Cake” would be presented as a tall tempered dark chocolate cylinder filled with a complex parfait of buttermilk soil, chocolate pudding, almond meringue, buttermilk spongecake, and beet mousse topped with an impressively earthy beet sorbet with just a touch of sweetness. Bold, aromatic, complex, and most of all flavorful this was precisely the sort of dessert I expected when we walked into Spur and although I’ve seen the whole chocolate shell gimmick done before I’ve honestly never seen it work quite so well in dividing out the flavors while still adding something to the mix outside of the visual; If it is on the menu I would say that this is the one absolute “must” order at Spur.
With another table now full but the restaurant otherwise cleared out and 3-Amigos restarted on the wall our server stopped by to ask if we’d like coffee or anything else and on deferring we were presented with the check – a rather good deal given the quality and portions of the food, particularly with regard to my tasting. While certainly not the best food or service on a trip that included some very fine dining and perhaps not even as impressive “overall” as McCracken and Tough’s Coterie Room I will say that I was glad to have visited Spur and I hope that the fact that we found both restaurants to be empty during our visits was merely a coincidence because whether it be something as traditional as fried chicken or as fancy as the Foie apple these fellows can certainly turn out some top notch cuisine.