Downtown's Asian-fusion institution, Wild Ginger (1401 Third Ave, 623-4450), has provoked wildly varying reactions among Stranger reader reviewers, ranging from the relatively effusive ("good for pretty much anyone and anything, anytime... everyone'll be happy") to the gravely disappointed/physically ill ("Kept hearing great things about this place, not sure why... waiters acted like they were doing us a favor... food poisoning... absolutely abysmal"). In the middle (or perhaps entirely free) of this range: the reader reviewer whose sole reaction was "Wild Ginger has PURPLE-headed matches. Pick up a box if you can, they're so cute!" On the evening of the Reader Review Revue investigation, Wild Ginger was out of matches, setting the tone for an experience that, while short of absolutely abysmal, was far, far from bright.
A reservation made under a nom du dining yielded a balcony perch featuring proximity to scabby spots of paint on the ceiling and a fluorescent tube illuminating the art above the host stand (hidden from below, rather glaring from a few feet away). On the plus side: an entertaining aerial view of the businessmen with expense accounts, misguided tourists, and risk-averse yuppies who fill (and refill) the place's 450 seats nightly. Many people are, in fact, perfectly happy here; Wild Ginger doubtless makes mad money. However, the waitress, while pleasant in a preprogrammed manner, proved incapable of sensibly answering the most basic questions about the food. The food proved to be just-passable training-wheels pan-Asian. The sole bright spot: lamb satay skewers ($6.25 each). Outstandingly lackluster: grainy peanut sauce, lemongrass-dependent mussels ($8.95/$13.95), briny duck ($10.50/$17.75).
Wild Ginger was once capable of transcendence, its cuisine revolutionary. Some would argue that it's been in decline since moving to a larger location at the turn of the century, that its work is easily bested elsewhere. Reader reviewer Chowbert speaks the truth: "No surprises or soul." Yet Chowbert also gave Wild Ginger four out of five stars—a review and a restaurant proving the tandem power of reputation and mediocrity.
What the hell is going on at 1200 Bistro (1200 E Pike St, 320-1200)? Long beloved by the citizens of Capitol Hill (particularly the gay ones), this neighborhood restaurant and bar has been celebrated by critics for its noteworthy Northwest/New American cuisine for years. Over the last two months, some Stranger reader reviewers have celebrated it, too: "Thoughtful, flavorful dishes"; "The food was wonderful." Everyone agrees the service is excellent. But more than half of our reader reviewers were disenchanted: "This place has gone downhill.... just mediocre and overpriced"; "...took a turn for the seriously bad not long ago...." Is 1200 Bistro bipolar? Are Stranger reader reviewers excessively subjective (or deranged)? Unlikely. A new chef took over a few months ago (Bo Maisano, a native of New Orleans). 1200 Bistro has also just been sold; the staff reportedly will remain the same. What we have here is an establishment in flux—a chef establishing himself, regulars' expectations getting ruffled, and now a bit more uncertainty added to the mix.
An investigatory dinner, in context, was shockingly good. Crab cakes ($14) surpassed their genre with spicy heat and lumps of meat, served on summer-fresh corn (some kernels still conjoined) with andouille sausage. (Ordering anything vaguely Cajun here seems like a great bet.) Sweet heirloom tomatoes ($12) were prettily stacked with basil leaves and house-made mozzarella, the requisite balsamic used with restraint. A small boulder of coriander-dusted beef tenderloin ($39): cooked medium, perfectly pink, warm all the way through, the cause of overeating. A pasta dish ($17) combined the novelty of sea beans, lemony broth, and big shrimp (ever-so-slightly overcooked) into an unusually light, interesting whole. Cayenne-chocolate torte ($8) made simply sweet desserts seem moronic. Service: knowledgeable, caring, unannoying—indeed, excellent. Surroundings: comfortable, spacious, unloud (if possessed of, as a reader notes, a "bad late-'80s look").
Now it's all about getting consistent (and, ideally, getting new light fixtures and art). Can 1200 Bistro do it? Stranger investigators will be back.
Four out of five Stranger reader reviewers love Brad's Swingside Cafe (4212 Fremont Ave N, 633-4057), a Fremont favorite for Italian food for approximately the past 1,000 years. The Swingside is the antithesis of fancy, a tiny cabin/roadhouse with some of the letters above the door missing ("WIN SIDE"). Inside, a hodgepodge: crooked paintings, kids' drawings, a poster of Thelonius Monk, a wooden statue of an actual monk, strings of lights, lace curtains, sports memorabilia. (The sole hater of the reader reviewers remarked, "The décor was bad," which, in a sense, it is. It's also genuine, possessed of a certain kind of charm, and not nearly as obtrusive as it sounds.) Chef/owner Brad Inserra keeps it real, emerging from the kitchen with a well-used apron and the aspect of a narrow, benevolent bird to sit down with a table of friends for a spell. (That he's wearing tube socks and brown shoes lends endearing context to the place's overall aesthetic.) Servers are obliging, supportive, familial (unless you dislike your family, in which case you may want to move in here).
Brad's food is still rock solid, and the love that goes into the preparation is still apparent. He's probably made the signature linguine with aglio e olio ($19.50 with crab) more than one million times, but it's still surprising, handled with care, and pretty wonderful; he goes above and beyond the nominal garlic and oil to create a multi-flavor pesto with capers, anchovies, herbs, Marsala, hazelnuts, and Mama Lil's peppers. Specials can be terrific, like a ceviche ($14) with giant pieces of fresh Alaskan halibut, chunks of tomato, and more Mama Lil's peppers. Brad likes Mama Lil's peppers; they're from the Yakima Valley and also known as Hungarian hot wax or goathorn peppers, the server reports back from the kitchen. Brad's also prone to sneaking ginger into dishes with almost undetectable but happy effects. Portions are inhumanly large, but then you've got, say, bowties with wild boar ($18) for lunch the next day. If desserts, made off-site, aren't particularly special, everything else about the Swingside is.