Thursday, October 15, 2009

Poco Wine Room

1408 E Pine St


There’s nothing quite like being an old- school, unrepentant lush. I wish I had the balls to pull this off, and become a modern day W.C. Fields, but I’m too much of a pussy. In the modern day, daily alcohol intake is frowned upon, with all of our “zero tolerance” bullshit and “three strikes” and other “law & order” type nonsense (except for the actual show Law & Order, which rules your face, especially the episode where Zack Morris played a gay porn star). But back in the days of W.C. Fields, sobriety was a mere suggestion, much like those so- called “Stop” signs I keep seeing everywhere.

Naturally, being an aspiring drunk, I thought I’d hit the Poco Wine Room. After all, nothing says “slow descent into alcoholism” like passing out in a restaurant, slumped onto the table, empty wine bottles rolling around and clunking against your head while you snore the heavy gurgling snores of the REALLY FUCKING WASTED.

Before I reached that level of intoxication, however, I thought I’d have something to eat. We started with the sausage, apple, and crimini flatbread ($7). “Flat” bread is a bit of a misnomer here since it was clearly three- dimensional bread. After all, if it was truly “flat” bread it would disappear from view if you looked at it along its edge. But this bread had far too much thickness for that. You got four squares of puffy, chewy bread. Each square was topped with a couple slices of grilled sausage, sautéed crimini mushrooms, and crowned with a razor thin halo of Granny Smith. The flatbread rested in a shallow pool of very good, very green olive oil, with a dusting of finely minced parsley for contrast. What this really looked to me was a “deconstructed” sandwich. And if you thought I’d mention a phrase like “deconstructed” without bitching about it, then you obviously haven’t been paying attention.

As you can probably guess, I’m tired of “deconstructed” shit. Who decided that this was a good idea? Let’s take a recipe with lots of components, cook them all separately, and throw them all over the plate. What a brilliant fucking idea! Why not serve someone a pile of sugar, a mound of flour, and a couple eggs and call it “deconstructed cookies?” “Deconstructed French fries” could just be a raw potato. Or better yet, you could sell a glass of milk and some salt, which you make the customer wait around for, for several weeks, before you serve them “deconstructed cheese.”

Or even better, the ne plus ultra of deconstructed bullshit: “deconstructed entropy.” Cosmologists predict that at some point in the very distant future, all matter in the universe will eventually unwind and, through one process or another, be converted into energy, which will then all dissolve into heat. This process is called entropy. So the truly “cutting edge” chef with a real vision of the future would just serve patrons a warm, empty plate. Deconstructed entropy. The end of the universe on a plate. Eat THAT, “foodies.”

Luckily the spiced butternut squash salad ($7) wasn’t deconstructed at all. In fact, it was well constructed, though it seemed a bit pricey for what amounted to a small mound of mixed greens. Fortunately there was a ton of flavor packed into that salad. As the name suggests, there were many cubes of roasted butternut squash in this salad, but there were also dried cherries, thinly sliced pear, and goat cheese, all coated in a light vinaigrette. This was a classically constructed salad, with the tart yet chewy cherries and dry crisp pear balanced by the chevre’s creamy milky tang. Unlike your mom’s creamy milky tang, this salad was not only edible, it was quite good. The squash was surprisingly spicy: while it wasn’t “5- star Thai” fiery, the squash definitely made its presence known. With its delicate balance of flavors and secretive unruly spiciness, this salad reminded me of something I’ve eaten elsewhere. It was so cute and so precious it could be on the menu at the Tilikum Place Café.

The truffled mac & cheese was on sale so we got some. It’s normally $8 but on Sundays they drop the price to $5. It being Sunday, we decided to get it. I didn’t have very high expectations for the truffled mac & cheese. After all, I’ve been burned by so- called “truffled” items before. Many restaurants treat truffles the way hard- core drunks treat vermouth: drunks try to call a glass of straight gin a “martini” just because you held the bottle of vermouth near the cocktail shaker. Shitty restaurants try a similar self- serving ruse and use as little truffle as is legally possible without violating false advertising laws. Seriously, sometimes truffles are like homeopathic remedies: they may or may not actually contain the active ingredient. Remind me to complain about homeopathy and Bastyr University at a later date.

Luckily the truffled mac & cheese at the Poco Wine Room is exactly the opposite of the preceding paragraph. The Poco Wine Room is not fucking around with the truffles. They are so serious about truffling stuff that I should go back and write that last sentence so that every word is capitalized: The Poco Wine Room Is Not Fucking Around With The Truffles. The mac & cheese was so truffled the fuck out that I could smell it before it even got to the table: the heady garlicky aroma of white truffle oil preceded the ramekin of macaroni by at least 20 feet. This dish was topped with a crunchy breadcrumb crust. The penne pasta beneath the crust was tender without being flabby, and the cheese sauce clung on lightly without coagulating into rubbery bits. Best of all was the aforementioned truffle flavor: deep, earthy, and muscular, like a delicious roundhouse punch to your tastebuds’ nuts, delivered by some kind of monstrous earth giant summoned by a chaotic evil geomancer. Honestly I don’t know how they did it. Having sat through so many shitty potluck mac & cheeses, this was like taking a breath of fresh motherfucking air after going down on your mom.

The shallow butter poached shrimp ($14) was delicious, though I don’t know why they needed to tell you the depth at which the shrimp were poached. You got four huge prawns, succulent and supple, gently poached in butter with some kind of puree. The shrimp were very good, but the leftover butter, mingled with whatever was in that puree, was so fucking delicious I kept licking it off the plate until we finally got some bread to wipe it up with.

The Poco Wine Room is an unassuming and cozy little place to get quietly, seriously fucked up. For a place which refers to itself as a “wine room,” the wine list isn’t very extensive, especially not compared to some place like Crush, which has a Grand Grimoire of hundreds of vintages. Still, the Poco Wine Room is cute and chill and the wine is fairly priced: the most expensive bottle I saw was maybe $50, and on Sundays all bottles are $8 off. The food is good, cheap, and classy. Unlike your mom, who embodies only one of those three adjectives I just listed in the preceding sentence. Guess which?

Rating: 8 truffles out of 10

Poco Wine Room on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


332 15th Ave E

Smith is tough to find. If you’re driving along 15th Ave E on Capitol Hill, you might miss it because the sign is so goddamned, motherfucking tiny. It’s a metal sign that’s maybe 6 by 12”. I always thought that a place of business would want to be visible, but I suppose I’m wrong. If it’s a tiny sign they want, I know an electron microscopist who can construct a sign made of rhodium atoms on a carbon background. This sign would be about 0.000000154 meters long, plenty big enough to be seen from the street.

But the outside of Smith isn’t the most puzzling part of the place: the inside is plenty weird, too. I’m a bit confused about what Smith is trying to do with its interior design. It’s dark, with varnished wood and tan floral print wallpaper everywhere. Taxidermied deer heads and ducks, and a bunch of naively painted portraits (including a crude painting of JFK!) stud the walls. It’s got a Wild West vibe, which is too bad because the Wild West was obviously a fucked up place. If movies are to be believed (and of course everything in the movies is accurate to within 1/ 100,000th of one percent), then the American West circa 1880 was a place filled with horses, saloons, gunfights, card games, and of course whores, all packaged in a couple Victorian storefronts on a dusty street in the middle of Assfuckville, Arizona. If Smith is trying to approximate some mythical Western stereotype, they don’t quite nail it. They need some card tables, some dude in a vest and arm garters plunking out Scott Joplin and Stephen Foster on a badly tuned upright piano, and whores. And syphilis.

What about the food? I might have been distracted by the tiny sign and strange décor, but the food is pretty solid. Duck rillettes, a smooth paste made from pureed duck meat, was $7 and was served in a glass jar, sealed with an ivory slab of creamy duck fat. The rillettes had a rich roasted duck flavor and came with a couple grilled bread slices, some cornichons, and a tiny ramekin of grainy mustard. Salt cod fritters ($6) weren’t that great. You got 6 of these fried balls of salty fish. They tasted like fish sticks, and were served with a zucchini and dill dipping sauce. The dipping sauce was very creamy and fresh tasting, and was much better than the thing that was supposed to be dipped into it, which was a goddamned shame.

The poutine was similarly disappointing, although not because of the price: $6 gets you a half order of cheesy gravy- coated French fries, piled into a gigantic mound the size of a man’s head on a full 12” dinner plate. I would sincerely hate to see a FULL order, although I suspect a full order of poutine is what killed John Candy. The fries themselves were okay, glistening richly with beef demiglace, but the coagulated rubbery cheese, which you could easily use to seal a bathtub, left something to be desired. Poutine is one of those things about Canada I just don’t understand. Just like the way I don’t understand how that socialist wonderland of the North, where health care is free and hookers, pot, and codeine are legal, can produce such shitty music (especially Nickelback, AKA the Auschwitz of Good Taste).
But enough about Nickelback and its boring artificial angst, since everyone knows Canadians have no angst; it’s one of many products they must import from the good ole’ USA.

On to the marrow bones: $9 gets you 3 huge chunks of beef bone the size of a brontosaurus femur, scathingly hot, the melted marrow bubbling up over the top of the bones like lava from a volcano. Spread onto the accompanying grilled bread, this luxurious beef marrow tasted like butter made of meat. The small side salad of mixed greens that comes with the bones has a light, tart dressing that cuts cleanly through the greasy beefiness of the marrow.

Just as delicious as the marrow bones was the chickpea, tuna, chorizo and arugula salad ($8). The aforementioned ingredients peeked out from a huge pile of baby arugula, dressed in a little olive oil. The chickpeas were obviously canned, and the batons of Spanish chorizo were a bit superfluous, but I won’t hold a grudge because the tender, oily, flaky tuna was the best canned tuna I’ve eaten in the USA. This is a solid fucking salad, and this dish could have only been more Iberian if they served it on a weirdly shaped, wavy plate, or put squid ink in it, or topped it with a cloud of some sort of flavored foam.

I was less impressed with the golden beet salad ($8). The name is deceptive because there weren’t that many golden beets in this salad: it was mostly chicory, with bleu cheese crumbles and hazelnuts. The chunks of the eponymous beets, when they made a rare guest appearance, were underdone, and the bitter chicory really knocked the flavor out of whack. When you could get a bite of the beets, cheese, chicory, and hazelnuts together, the flavors balanced nicely, but getting all of that shit together into one forkful was like herding cats.

The Cuban pork and ham sandwich ($8) featured a thin filling of black forest ham and pulled pork shoulder with caramelized onion and sliced pickles grilled and pressed on panini-style bread. The meat was good enough, and the pickle slices were an interesting twist, but the bread was a bit leathery. What really made this sandwich awesome were the chips that came with it: they were razor thin, lightly salted, and shatteringly crisp. These fucking chips were so thin they were TRANSLUCENT. The chef must have cut them with one of those infernally sharp microscopic glass knives that geneticists use to dissect cells. If I had such a blade I could vanquish my enemies with ease, slicing them into thin prosciutto slices and layering their flesh onto a sandwich of PURE REVENGE. But this isn’t about my enemies, or the delicious sandwich their deaths would make (the revenge sandwich also comes with chips, but they unfortunately aren’t as good as Smith’s chips); this is about Smith’s spectacular potato chips. Apparently you can get them by themselves for $3. Forget the Cuban sandwich; GET THESE FUCKING CHIPS.

We finished with the steak ($14). For this price you get a few grilled sirloin medallions atop discs of fried potato, with a side salad of mixed greens and chicory. The steak had a nicely seasoned grilled crust, and the salad was okay, if a bit aggravating with all the chicory in there, but what really got my attention were the potatoes: like the house made chips, they knocked it out of the park. The potatoes were sliced into ½” rounds and fried. The outside was super crispy, while the inside remained as steamily gauzy as the best baked potato you’ve ever eaten. Whoever’s cooking the potatoes at Smith knows exactly what the fuck they’re doing.

Smith is a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, with a side of awesome potato chips. I don’t quite get the western theme, especially since the food isn’t as “western” as you’d expect: I kept looking for venison, or rabbit, or some kind of stew on the menu but of course none of those things were available. Still, the food is delicious, and although it seems that Smith is primarily a bar, they obviously didn’t treat the food as an afterthought. With its weird décor, generous and competent bartenders, reasonable prices, and potato chips so delicious I wish I could puke them up right now and eat them again, Smith has earned the unlikely distinction of being my FAVORITE BAR (on 15th Ave E). Not since the Jack in the Box commercial about midget cattlemen has someone so perfectly captured the VERY ESSEENCE of the American frontier. Yippee ki- yay, motherfuckers.

Rating: 8 “Die Hard” quotes out of 10

Smith on Urbanspoon